All afternoon I have been curled up on the sofa reading the Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald and feeling overcome with admiration and sadness. Furious too that the Letters are so badly edited — but what can anyone expect from a fond but clueless son-in-law? Sad for the lost unproductive years treading water in that marriage to the lovable alcoholic Desmond, sad that so many letters went to the bottom of the Thames when her houseboat sank (twice), sad she had to scrabble so for money. But the asides and comments are priceless even at their most nattering and mundane, the mind of a genius given free expression. She was also an Englishwoman of a certain generation and cultivated temperament, and fond of trivia.
I don’t care, I mine those letters for the wry erudite sentences that could only come from the author of The Blue Flower. I loved her novels Innocence and At The Gate of Angels, but The Blue Flower is the elusive masterpiece.
She writes for the voiceless, not in the post-modern and political sense of those silenced by oppression or marginalised from the First World, but for those who are unable to articulate their understanding of the world, unable to make sense of their own lives. Those bullied and tormented by the knowing and sly and wilfully ignorant. The hapless innocents of the world who somehow come through despte all the odds. Just what one might expect from the niece of Ronald Knox, that great witty Catholic apologist who knew how common and garden miracles might be if you knew where to look.
So she lived in council flats and dyed her hair with teabags and was intimidated by her lunatic publishers and overlooked by the smarter literati. And just went on writing her brilliant novels. Showing all of us how little we really know about the historical novel or human motivations or, the great unmentionable, love.