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Not to Penelope Fitzgerald! Waugh's words were addressed to her at Uncle Ronald Knox's 60th birthday party. Penelope was leaving early to attend to Valpy, her one-year-old baby; and this brought Waugh's scorn. This famous British writer would go on to write a biography of Ronnie Knox, yet not be known for creating memorable child characters like Fitzgerald in her novels.


When Penelope and husband Desmond were editors of the World Review (WR), their scoop was discovering J.D. Salinger before The Catcher in the Rye was published. Earlier they had included his story, "For Esme with Love and Squalor," in the WR's first issue, and later would print another Salinger short story. I mention this because Fitzgerald's fictional depictions of children have the brilliance of Salinger's characters, such as Catcher's Phoebe and the memorable Esme. Fitzgerald's creations include child actors, Mattie & Jonathan (At Freddie's), Christine (The Bookshop), Dolly & Ben & Annushka (The Beginnings of Spring), Martha & Tilda in Offshore, and others.


My focus will be Tilda. (I think of her as Penelope Fitzgerald before she turned eight and sadly went off to boarding school.)


In chapter two of Offshore, a reader sees six-year-old Tilda, perched on an old mast on the barge Grace. She's a curious kid in a crow's nest, no concern for the future, perfectly happy despite dismal circumstances, studying the Thames and its tides. She knows the river's dangers and can recognize a perverted criminal on the barge Maurice next to Grace and seek refuge in Rochester. If not overlooking the Thames, Tilda is exploring the Battersea waterfront and nearby streets. Beside her twelve-year-old sister Martha, already burdened with adult concerns, one of which is their indecisive mother Nenna, and their absent father Edward, Tilda is a laughing mimic, a free spirit. And her heart does "not rule her memory, as was the case with Martha and Nenna. She was spared that inconvenience," the narrator tells us.


This brilliant child has "lucid grey eyes, showing clarity beneath clarity." She's in disfavor with the nuns at school for irreverence and giving "our" Lord Jesus Christ a purple or green beard. Her education takes place wherever she is, on the shore or in the streets. Playful and inquisitive, she makes acute observations at six. Her mother Nenna, bereft on Kingland Road at night without her purse or bus fare, thinks of Tilda," who would certainly have got on a late-night bus and ridden without paying the fare, or even have borrowed money from the conductor." A born survivor, Tilda charms Heinrich, the visiting lad from Austria, outsmarts the criminal and lecherous Harry, delights in posing as Richard's child at the hospital ("Martha lingering doubtfully behind"), and then is helping nurses take lids from trays. This child is fearless and open to everything. And at novel's end, "Tilda's mind was made up in favour of the New World." (Halifax and Canada). "Let's get on with it," Fitzgerald would say. And she and Tilda did.


In Hermione Lee's biography, Lee notes that Penelope's three children (Valpy, Tina, Maria) choose to inter their mother's ashes with her father, Evoe Knox, in the graveyard of St. John's Church in Hampstead. Penelope had gone there often to look after Evoe's grave. And next door was a primary school, where she could hear the noise of children at play. On the grey slate at Penelope Fitzgerald's grave are words chosen by her three adult children: Writer and dearly loved mother.



Next week: A novel unlike any other: The Blue Flower






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If you have read past the early chapters of Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, you'll meet Mr. Brundish, the resident 'aristocrat' in Hardborough, circa 1959. You will read a note he sends to Florence Green, who opens a bookshop in this rural English village. She has asked Mr. Brundish his opinion of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. He writes in his note that, "understanding makes the mind lazy." He calls Lolita a good novel and says it ought to be available in the bookshop, even though the villagers won't understand it!

In Lolita, a somewhat related line appears: "Lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud."

I mention this because you wrote in your letter that you bailed out early in the Booker prize-winning novel, Offshore. You read some of the first chapter and decided the book was not for you. But you wrote that you have begun reading The Bookshop.

A student in class last Thursday told me that when she read this Fitzgerald novel months ago, she did not think much of it. Then after Hermione Lee's biography and another read of The Bookshop, she saw the novel as worthy of a slow, word by word, careful read. I would say the same for Offshore and the six Fitzgerald novels that follow it. All are short literary works and should be read several times, so the reader does not have the experience and miss the meaning! All I can say in response to your unwillingness to read Offshore is:

Penelope Fitzgerald is not a fraudulent writer.

For many years you took my RILL courses and steadfastly remained a 'happy ender'. You seek literature that offers comfort and makes you feel better. I have not and will not… teach courses on writers who offer false representations of life. "Lazy minds unaware of the fraud" describes the reader who believes that Stalin would not have killed the 'gentleman in Moscow' or sent him to the gulag.

I will go so far as to use 'fraud', the way Milton (think Paradise Lost) used it, as a word for a state of delusion. "So gliter'd the dire Snake, and into fraud led Eve." (Substitute L for E and think of the Russian Nabokov).


Not all can discern the fraud beneath the specious lure of most popular fiction.

In the current 'happy ender' (HE) genre, the heroine cannot be Florence because she is defeated and loses her bookshop. And what about Fitzgerald's indecisive Nenna, who lives on Grace, a beaten, old barge on the Thames, with her two young daughters? Not the heroine that the New York corporate book world wants today for their readership: women in book clubs and the multitudes of solitary HE's across the USA.

Ominous, isn't it? That lazy minds are no longer serene but violently unaware of the fraudulent.

I need to read Offshore for the third time and experience once again the river Thames, "as a powerful god, bearded with the white foam of detergents." -😊


Next week: Penelope's genius with children in her fiction


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This phrase comes from Penelope Fitzgerald's fifth novel, At Freddie's, about child actors who attend the Temple School in London. I read the words above and thought of young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. Has there ever been a more beautiful girl's face than the one in that movie? My bias, perhaps. Yet over this image of Elizabeth, I see her as Martha in Mike Nickols' film adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. For the role Taylor put on forty pounds to look old and dumpy, her face and body depicting 'betrayal of the flesh'. Richard Burton played George to Elizabeth's Martha. I think this famous, married couple created their own Days of Wine and Roses, substituting cheese and chocolates for flowers, to achieve the needed 'look'. I will say that my esteem for Taylor as an actor increased after I saw this movie. I already admired the 'old' Burton before his debauchery set in.
















But until I read At Freddie's, I'd not given much thought to the schooling of child actors, stage & screen. How did Penelope Fitzgerald know about this facet of life? During her lean and hungry years in London after Southwold, she taught in several schools, including the Italia Conti for young actors. In this novel, Fitzgerald creates a remarkable character, the comic and compelling Freddie. "There is no one she cannot charm or browbeat," biographer Hermione Lee says about the protagonist of At Freddie's.




The Temple School under Freddie's long rule suffers severe financial difficulties. One morning her accountant (her brother) "brought along the balance sheet, having tidied up as much as he decently could."

"Put it away," said Freddie, in the tone she used for the local flasher. "Surely a discussion should have a basis of substantial fact."

"Not if it's with me, dear."


Besides the larger-than-life Freddie, Fitzgerald creates two memorable teachers, and young & adult actors. In a blurb for At Freddie's, Penelope wrote: "The novel is not only for theatre-lovers, but for people who care about children, or hate them, or were children once themselves." Did she miss anyone? This book is a beguiling read and, depending on how you want an ending to be (or not to be), Fitzgerald leaves this one open to interpretation of the last word.

I suggest the USA Mariner 2014 edition, with a fine introduction by Simon Callow, who wrote a screenplay for the novel. Interesting to read why the film was not made and about his meeting with Penelope.


Next week: Florence Green in The Bookshop, in contrast to Fitzgerald's character Freddie








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