…some harmless jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world
These words are from the British writer, Julian Barnes, a great admirer of Penelope Fitzgerald's work. In 1997 the two writers were on a panel at York University (U.K.), where she talked about The Blue Flower. The following is Julian's account of their journey together, from York back to London. Barnes had been offered a first-class ticket in lieu of a speaking fee. But Fitzgerald (ever concerned about money) agreed to a fee and a standard-class ticket. "Of course, he (Julian) traveled with her," Hermione Lee states on page 405 of her biography on Fitzgerald.
"At King's Cross (train station) I suggested that we share a cab, since we both lived in the same part of north London. Oh, no, she replied, she would take the Underground --after all, she had been given this splendid free-travel pass by the Mayor of London (she made it sound like a personal gift, rather than something every pensioner got). Assuming she must be feeling the day even longer than I did, I pressed again for the taxi option, but she was quietly obstinate, and came up with the clinching argument: she had to pick up a pint of milk on the way from the Underground station, and if she went home by cab it would mean having to go out again later. I ploddingly speculated that we could very easily stop the taxi outside the shop and have it wait while she bought her milk. "I hadn't thought of that," she said. But, no, I still hadn't convinced her; she had decided to take the Underground and that was that. So I waited beside her on the concourse while she looked for her free pass in the tumult of her carrier bag. It must be there, surely, but no, after much dredging, it didn't seem to be findable. I was by this point feeling, and perhaps exhibiting, a certain impatience, so I marched us to the ticket machine, bought our tickets, and squired her down the escalator to the Northern Line. As we waited for the train, she turned to me with an expression of gentle concern. "Oh, dear," she said, "I do seem to have involved you in some low forms of transport."
Two years ago in October, pre-pandemic days, I taught a course on Julian Barnes, a writer I greatly admire. The above excerpt is from an essay he wrote, "The Deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald." I hope Barnes' use of the D word helps explain the humor in the impression he gives of Fitzgerald, which I used above as my title. The truth is writers don't come much more observing and perceptive than both Penelope Fitzgerald and Julian Barnes.
Next week: A Fitzgerald novel I can't put down, set in 1913 Russia: The Beginning of Spring.