• Gail Wilson Kenna

P.D. James held up one of 80 notebooks she had filled for her latest mystery.

The place was Oxford University, when writer James stood before an audience of students during a three-week course at Merton College the summer of 2002. I mention this in relation to Penelope Fitzgerald. Both these writers had complicated lives, damaged husbands, and various occupations before they began writing later in life. Another similarity between these two authors was their dedicated research.

I was 59 when I heard P.D. James speak. At the time she was 82, and an inspiration to me. She fielded questions and gave swift and brilliant replies. I knew of her as a writer, though I'm not inclined to read mysteries. Back then I had not heard of Penelope Fitzgerald or her U.S. award-winning novel, The Blue Flower, or of anything else she'd written.

When I sat down to write this week's 'post', P.D. James came to mind from something a friend said to me. She is enrolled in the upcoming October class on Fitzgerald and commented on how much research Penelope did for her novels. Careful research is especially true for Fitzgerald's later novels like The Beginnings of Spring. This novel and The Gate of Angels have the same time frame, 1912 & 13. Fitzgerald researched all details, then "freely invented on the back of factual certainties." Biographer Hermione Lee further states: In the Gate of Angels, "Fitzgerald gives a convincing and informed account of the scientific arguments of the day," and that period's mind & body controversy.

I find it remarkable how Penelope Fitzgerald's researched invention makes even the strangest and most unexpected actions believable within the plot. For example, the main characters, Daisy and Fred, awaken in bed and are naked, even though they've not met before, except when their bicycles collide. And this in 1912 in a Cambridge professor's house! ('don' as they say at Cambridge and Oxford). In this novel, Fitzgerald brings to life " a world where thought and body, the solid and the unseen, the highest intellect and the basest behaviors and feelings unite in ways never envisaged before."

To anyone reading Fitzgerald, I would say this: Pay attention to her lists, as they serve this writer's need not to explain things. In the following one, we learn about Daisy's background. She grew up in London, with "smells of vinegar, gin, coal smoke, paraffin, sulphur, horse-dung from backstreet factories, and baking bread every morning." Ah, yes, give us this day our daily bread! This idea resonates in the novel, as do those topsy-turvy cows on the novel's first page. This captivating novel is a metaphysical love story about the visible in a world of the invisible: of atoms, ghosts, and spirits.

I imagine that P.D. James admired The Gate of Angels. Perhaps she asked the question, which other fine writers have asked: "How does Penelope Fitzgerald do it?"

Next week: A romp At Freddie's with child actors, misplaced teachers, improbable lovers, and a larger-than-life character, Freddie.

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