Penelope Fitzgerald: Saved By A Sinking Houseboat

Penelope Fitzgerald: Saved By A Sinking Houseboat

A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

The Guardian UK has called Penelope Fitzgerald “one of the greatest English novelists of recent years” and “one of the finest British novelists of the last century.”

She published her first novel, The Golden Child, at age 61.

The Booker Prize committee shortlisted her second one, The Bookshop, published at age 62.

A year later, her third novel, Offshore, won The Booker, Britain’s most prestigious writing award.

You’ve not heard of her?

Neither had I, until I stumbled upon this thoughtful article last summer, ten years after her death.

Penelope Knox Fitzgerald (1916-2000) was born into a bookish family in Lincoln, England. Her father, E.V. Knox, edited Punch magazine from 1932-1949. (Punch is a British satire weekly started in 1841. It coined the term “cartoon” in the modern sense.)

Her uncle wrote detective fiction. Her aunt was also a prolific and popular novelist. Penelope’s mother Christina studied English at Somerville College, Oxford, not long after it opened for women.

Penelope went to Somerville herself in 1935 and did brilliantly. She co-edited the student newspaper and graduated with a first. After graduation, she worked for the BBC and wrote film reviews for Punch.

Her biographer, Hermione Lee, says Penelope had “all the makings of someone who was going to start publishing books in her 30s.”

But she didn’t.

At 25, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, a former officer with the Irish Guards. She had three children and settled into domestic life. But as Hermione Lee points out, it would be too simplistic to conclude “marriage stopped her writing.”

Instead, she incubated every facet of her life and transmuted it into fiction decades later.

Life Into Fiction

In the 1950s, Penelope and Desmond ran The World View, a literary and cultural magazine, which gave her plenty of writing practice.

In the 1960s, the magazine folded and times got tough. She clerked in a haunted bookstore and wrote about it in The Bookshop (1978), her Booker shortlist novel.

Penelope and her family lived on Thames River houseboat, which sunk with all their possessions on board. They went to a homeless shelter until the government found lodging for them. She turned that experience into Offshore (1979) and won the prestigious Booker Prize.

Throughout her 40s and 50s, Penelope taught English literature, first at an exclusive girls’ school, then at Westminster Tutors, where she prepared young women for their college entrance exams. She wrote her first books “during my free periods as a teacher in a small, noisy staff room, full of undercurrents of exhaustion, worry and reproach.”

Penelope produced two biographies, then Desmond contracted cancer. When he become bedridden, she entertained him with tales of 1977’s King Tut craze. They became the basis for her first novel, The Golden Child (no relation to the Eddie Murphy movie), published when she was 61.

Golden Child coverI’ve read The Golden Child and found it witty and cutting. It’s the literary equivalent of Steve Martin’s brilliant King Tut sketch.

Penelope published her last novel, The Blue Flower, at 79 and became the first non-American to win the National Book Critics Circle award for it. It’s considered her masterpiece.

She died in April 2000 at age 83. Her short story collection, The Means of Escape, was published posthumously, as were two volumes of collected essays.

Penelope Fitzgerald maintained a sense of humor no matter what life dished out. And in her last two decades, she turned her joys and tragedies into stories that captured British readers and prize committees alike.

Seedlings for Bloomers

  •  Are you incubating an experience that you can transmute into later blooming? It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a haunted bookstore or sinking houseboat!


9 Responses

  1. Lindsay
    | Reply

    I hadn’t heard of Penelope Fitzgerald either, so I am grateful to you for this very interesting article on her life and work.

    My “To Read” list just got longer.

    • Elle B.

      Thanks so much, Lindsay. I was just floored I hadn’t heard of her. Even AS Byatt (one of my favorite authors) sings her praises. My to-read list is ridiculous since I’ve started researching late-blooming writers. I’m moving on to another subject next month!

  2. florence fois
    | Reply

    Hello Later Bloomer 🙂 This was a great find and a new link for someone whose work I am sure to love.

    I’ll give you a challenge … I bet you know … who is the oldest person to publish their first book?

    • Elle B.

      Isn’t Penelope Fitzgerald amazing? I’m ashamed I don’t know the answer to your challenge question, Florence! I’m aware of a few who could qualify: The WWI vet (forget his name) who just died and wrote his memoir past age 100, but I think he privately published it. I actually worked for a friend of Millard Kaufman, who published Bowl of Cherries at age 90. Is it either of them?

  3. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi Elle B,
    A very interesting read, well researched. Look forward to more late bloomer stories.
    Be good to yourself

    • Elle B.

      Thanks for stopping by, David. Glad you enjoyed Penelope!

  4. Mary Jo Gibson
    | Reply

    Hi Elle B!

    Love your late bloomer stories. There would be more women like this in the world if they realized didn’t end after children leave the nest, it begins again. Am experiencing that bittersweet joy myself, and your articles keep me inspired to persevere. Thank you for the light.

    • Elle B.

      So true, Mary Jo. This series has been heavy on male writers, but I’ve got plenty of women lined up for later. I’m so happy these stories have inspired your new stage of life!

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