Updated: 6 hours ago
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