I’ve been riding the subway and reading Penelope Fitzgerald and crying lately. I’ve been doing other things, too, but mostly I’ve been doing that. When friends ask me how I’m doing, I give some version of that description. I don’t always describe the crying. I don’t always mention the train.
After having a hard time finding a book that kept me awake on my commute, because I’ve not been sleeping lately, I sort of dove into Fitzgerald’s books a couple of months ago. I read the Hermione Lee biography and clutched it to my chest when it wasn’t open, walking to my train transfer, trudging from the subway to our house when it was dark and late and I’d just gotten free from my second, night time job. I’ve been pulling colleagues into rooms after class and before faculty meetings to whisper to them about her, to convince them to order her books on their phones while we wait on the subway platform after work.
I don’t know why other people read books. More and more I wonder about this. But I read books for months like this, in which everything feels too much, in which kids are getting shot at school and in their backyards; the globe is warming; Twitter exists. We keep accidentally overdrafting our checking account and I keep taking weekend work and night time work and there’s no time to do the thing I wish that I could do. I miss my kids and they’re maybe growing up without me while I try to find a way to support them. I read books because life piles up and is hard, and books take me somewhere else and I am reminded that life is also sort of magic; life is charming; life is messy, mixed-up, funny, sharp. I read books because the magic of a brain contained in language, put to paper, given to me in this small perfect container, is one of the great joys of my life.
Penelope Fitzgerald via wikimedia / Source: www.guardian.co.uk/books/books
The repeated phrase when people discuss Penelope Fitzgerald’s work, not by laymen or by students, but by critics and intellectuals—A. S. Byatt, Julian Barnes—is how does she do it? The touch is so light, yet so confident. The books are short and breezy, so much open space, with scenes that fall off before other novelists might feel they’ve begun. And yet, you feel certain after sometimes less than 50,000 words that you have seen the specificity of multiple lives and layers of experience; you have felt the force of them.
My favorite of the novels is The Bookshop— and this is perhaps a controversial opinion; Fitzgerald would write her Big Important Historical Novels later in her career, but I am partial to her earlier books, which seem to mine the same obsessions as the later ones, but domestically, instead of grafted-on historical tropes. In the Bookshop, nothing happens and it’s very sad. A woman, Florence Green, moves to a small town, acquires property, acquires books, opens a shop, hires an employee; her employee’s parents force her to quit; the bookshop closes; Florence leaves the town by train. I have left out some details, but it gives you nothing really, to get these bits of plot. It is, instead, as it is perhaps in all great novels, in the specificity and daily textures of the book in which its power lives. It is, in this book’s case, in the specific way in which it’s sad.
The plot of the novel serves almost as a parable indictment of the intransigent class structures of England in that time, though it might also serve as an indictment of the intransigence of class structures of any time. Florence cannot and does not overcome the systems that precede her: Mrs. Gamart, the wife of a Retired General, and the Lady of the town, wants the Old House where Florence has set up her shop for an arts center of unknown purpose. Mrs. Gamart is the purveyor of The Arts in Hardborough and is connected, through a nephew, to Parliament. And so a law is enacted that forces Florence out.
Florence is forced out not only at the loss of her shop, but at the loss of her investment. The Old House is handed back to the town without any retribution offered to Florence. She has also lost her friend, the second hero of the novel, in ten-year-old Christine Gipping. Christine is fierce and unrelenting (Fitzgerald’s children are famously formed and multi-dimensional throughout her books), telling Florence, who has no children and no husband and is middle-aged, “Life has passed you by.” Christine runs the heart of the bookshop, the lending library, and, in an extraordinary scene in which nothing more happens than a quiet moment after work in which she drinks tea with Florence, enacts the fiercest intimacy of the book. But she is also not meant for triumph in the end. She fails her eleven plus exam—it is intimated that Florence is implicated in this failure—and is set forward on a life in which she will “always be hanging her own wash.”
Fitzgerald believed, and enacts throughout her novels, that the world was split into exterminators and exterminatees. She seems, mostly, interested in the exterminatees. She said she sought to write about “people who seem to have been born defeated or even profoundly lost . . . They are ready to assume the conditions the world imposes on them, but they don’t manage to submit to them, despite their courage and their best efforts . . . When I write it is to give these people a voice.”
And yet, in each her novels, she seems as wary of the strength and status of triumph as she is certain of defeat and loss. In the opener to The Bookshop, Florence remembers,
She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.
The heron doesn’t eat the eel because it wants to; it is its indecision, in fact, that is most pitiable. The eel is pitiably indecisive, too. The heron eats the eel because that is what herons do to eels; because that is its role. Mrs. Gamart, similarly, seems to be pitiably indecisive—she can’t quite make her way to the bookshop for the first few months it’s opened; she sends her husband, and one briefly thinks she might be generous just this once—but her role is set and must be followed. She has power, more than Florence. She has a want that overlaps with Florence’s, and so, as has been predetermined, she must win. She does not feel any less tragic in her triumph. She feels not just tragic, but in opposition both to Florence and to Christine; she feels hollowed out.
It feels so gendered to go to biography. It feels so gendered to look at a (female) writer’s life in order to shed light on her books. But my interest in Fitzgerald’s life does not have to do with how her biography may or may not match up with the specific incarnations of her stories, so much as the book’s concerns and arguments, the how of what she does inside of them, match up with what life had taught her up until then. “Everything that you learn is useful,” says the eleven-year-old Martha in Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore. “Didn’t you know that everything you learn, and everything you suffer, will come in useful at some point in your life?”
Fitzgerald was fifty-eight when her first book was published. Her whole life, she was just as smart, just as capable of greatness as she was when her books finally came out. But she was also, much like Florence, the exterminated. She was a broke mother with a drunk husband. They lived for a period of time on a barge on the Thames River until it sunk. Fitzgerald and her children then spent months moving from temporary governmental housing all over London. Penelope was by herself, because men were not allowed at these shelters. Each morning, she dressed the children smartly, and carted them the twenty minutes or two hours of buses and trains it took, depending on the location of their most recent shelter, to get them to school.
She taught at high schools and cram schools and a school for child actors. She wrote plays and children’s stories and essays, whatever she could to feed her kids. She was ground down, I imagine, in that specific way of being wholly consumed by how next one might find a way to take care of one’s family. This didn’t make her any less the thinker, writer, reader, that she was.
How does she do it?
It’s a question people also ask about working mothers, as if there were magic in our tired used-up bones, instead of often that we simply have no choice but to do whatever next our lives decree that we must do.
Recently, in a period of two weeks, I got an email saying that the editor who had been interested in publishing my new novel was unable to convince the other editors and marketers at her publishing house that my book was worth the risk of buying any fiction book; a few days later, I got another email telling me there would not be room on the schedule for me to adjunct at the place where I have been an adjunct the past two years. I was at work when I got both of these emails. I was at work at a job that 80 percent of the time is demoralizing and feels like it is slowly and methodically sawing out my soul. None of this is to ask you to feel sorry for me. I am old enough, have lived long enough, to know that this is simply what it is to live. This is not suffering as many people experience suffering. It is the wear and tear of being a person, most people, the wear and tear of wanting within systems and structures that have an almost unrelenting level of power and control over all that you might get.
This is nearly every life that has preceded mine: It’s disappointment and frustration; it is the opposite of triumph. It does not make me less of who I was when I was teaching at the place where I was teaching. I am not full-time faculty. They cannot give me a job every semester because that is not what an adjunct is. I cannot sell my book, but I don’t doubt its quality. I doubt that there is space for it within the current marketplace. I have very little control and very little power in both of these instances. I am a good teacher. I wrote a good book. I shouldn’t write those things because it sounds like hubris, but I need to write those things, because writing them, believing them, even in the absence of any external affirmation, is all that I have left.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the worth of books. For me. For anybody. Because we’re all exhausted; we’re all anxious and wrung out. There is something in both Fitzgerald’s books and her biography that reminds me of books’ ability to comfort and to galvanize; to sustain.
James Wood says Fitzgerald “proceeds with utmost confidence that she will be heard and that we will listen, even to her reticence. Her fictions sit on the page with the well-rubbed assurance of fact, as if their details were calmly agreed upon, and long established.” I think maybe the how of what she does springs from the sort of certainty that comes from just surviving—the knowledge that sometimes, just doing, just being, is all that’s left.
In The Bookshop, when Florence Green leaves Hardborough, she has two books, a Ruskin and a Bunyan. She is homeless and alone. She has a bookmark that reads: “Everyman, I will be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.” This moment has been described by other reviewers as heartbreaking and ironic, and it is. She has no job and no community. She has attempted to make clear she exists, and she has failed. But the mark is also a reminder of the fact that books hold within them a power that lives outside the systems and the structures; that, read or not, heard or seen, Florence leaves with books.
Lynn Steger Strong will teach a Novel Generator workshop for Catapult this spring. Learn more here.