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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

"Septuagenarian Fitzgerald's fourth go. Soon they'll have to give her a season ticket."

A saucy journalist named John Walsh wrote these words, referring to the annual Booker prize. Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker for Offshore; and three others of her novels were shortlisted: The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels.

I think to appreciate Fitzgerald's novels, it must be accepted that this writer will not work out "things" for the reader. She distrusts over-explanation, avoids it, and apparently had paid attention to D.H. Lawrence's advice. He, unlike academics (this said with my bias) wrote about literature with comic brio! D.H. warned that to nail down anything in a novel would kill it, "or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail."


To begin writing a novel, Fitzgerald claimed she required a 'trinity': the title, the last line, and the first paragraph. Her titles weren't always accepted, which is true for The Gate of Angels. This novel begins with something Fitzgerald remembered from a visit to Cambridge on a day of fierce winds. From the window of a bus, she had seen cows moving wildly beneath willow trees. In a notebook she wrote: "It struck me that in the orderly University city, the headquarters of rational and scientific thinking, things had suddenly turned upside down, reason had given way to imagination."

Here is Gate's opening, which has meaning for a reader after the novel is read (then read again). The time frame is 1912, that explosive period in Physics!


"How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university devoted to logic and reason."


Fairly was making the best pace he could. (He's one of the cyclists on a bicycle.)


This sentence in the novel's second paragraph introduces Fred, a lecturer in Physics at St. Angelicus College, where no female has set foot for centuries, and on whose gate is written: "I have not changed my mind." Who comes into Fred's orderly life to untidy it? Fitzgerald's captivating female character, Daisy. Ah, a love story from Penelope Fitzgerald! Yes, and a ghost story, too. But The Gate of Angels is also a philosophical inquiry from a brilliant woman whose "first" was from Oxford University, not Cambridge!


Next week: To be continued…







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