Penelope Fitzgerald: The core of her mystery

P4_Wilson_404167kA. N. Wilson at The Times Literary Supplement:

Whereas some writers alternate between writing fiction and non-fiction, and there is little connection between the two activities, in Fitzgerald’s case, the three biographies are all in their different ways templates for reading her fiction. Hermione Lee makes the striking observation that it was not a novel, but the biography of an all but forgotten poet, Charlotte Mew, which marks the pivotal moment of Fitzgerald’s career as a writer: “[Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, 1984] is the crucial turning-point, the hinged door, between what, in another writer, you might call ‘early’ and ‘late’ work”. When, in Camden Town in 1928, Mew took her own life by drinking a bottle of Lysol, she was the age Fitzgerald was when she published her first book. A local paper, reporting the suicide, spoke of her as “Charlotte New, said to be a writer”. Characteristically, Fitzgerald, who had come to cherish the tragic poet, did not end her book on this grotesque note, but with a gentle diminuendo. “For a short while, she recovered consciousness, and said, ‘Don’t keep me, let me go’. This was her last attempt to speak to anyone, this side of silence.” Known only for a few poems (one of which, “The Farmer’s Bride”, was a great favourite of Thomas Hardy), Mew spent years of her life not writing at all, subsumed instead in her family’s various madnesses, and in domestic trivia – the difficulty of paying the rent for increasingly unpleasant lodgings shared with a demanding mother and a dippy artistic sister. Life was punctuated by the drama of falling painfully and unrequitedly in love with women. Mew clearly stood for something in Fitzgerald’s self-image. “She was struggling with the three great miseries of her life, the kitchen range (which kept going out), the boiler (which threatened to blow up) and ’flu.” Years and years would go by without Mew doing any writing, so obsessed was she by her mother’s illnesses or the boiler going wrong. Hard to know, then, in what sense she was a writer at all – except that she thought of herself as one.

more here.