Penelope Fitzgerald [1916-2000] has become the exemplum of a writer I want to admire more than I can.
Who cares? you might say. Well, I wrote about The Blue Flower back in 1995 [see below]. I knew the novels and very little about their author except that her previous novel, The Gate of Angels, had been universally hurrahed. I liked the work and felt that probably I would like the author of such work, but also that there was something lacking in it.
The Blue Flower –about the life of romantic poet and philosopher Novalis at the difficult moment of his idealisation of 12 year old Sophie von Kuhn, his ‘true Philosophy’- was the perfect vehicle to address that lack and I responded to it accordingly. Everyone else loved and admired it greatly. Of course, they could be wrong or merely reflect an established taste that I don’t share. In any case, so what?
Well since then Fitzgerald has taken centre stage beside and in place of her work. This would not make much difference to me except that in a famous instance an earlier novel and eventual winner of the Booker in 1979, Offshore, was poo-pooed by judges and programme-makers as womanly stuff of the side-plate. Even PF’s publisher was famously condescending towards her work.
If I’d known more about her biography or been old enough to have heard the lit chat at the time, I would have critiqued The Blue Flower more cautiously. I wrote with sincere, albeit slightly sceptical, admiration and meant it when I tried to indicate that her writing was as good as post-war Anglo-Saxon writing gets. I admired her for attempting to take on the terrain of Idealist abyss, just didn’t think she’d pulled it off.
That old male literary establishment was and is repulsive with its pathetic boyish sneering. An establishment is always invisible to itself and takes a no less complacent form nowadays, cohering without much thought around a very settled idea of what a novel is. However, it no longer defines it as an exclusively male preserve. Indeed, so long as it’s a roast potato they really don’t mind at all who cooks it.