When Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker for Offshore in 1979, she spent the prize money on a trip to New York for herself, her daughter Tina, and Tina’s husband Terence Dooley (Fitzgerald’s future literary executor). It wasn’t the no-expense-spared jaunt of a lifetime one might assume an unexpected, sixty-three-year-old recipient of the world’s foremost literary prize would take, but rather a package holiday, flights and hotel included.
Fitzgerald, you see, was a keen consumer of the package holiday. Her late husband Desmond, who passed away in 1976, had worked as a travel agent’s clerk – he was employed by Lunn Poly in 1964, and worked there, and then at Cook’s, until the end of his life – providing their family with over a decade of discounted, often free, package tours abroad, of which Fitzgerald always made the most despite the family’s otherwise impoverished circumstances.
There were trips to Spain – a country with which Fitzgerald was obsessed in the 50s and 60s, she and her then fourteen-year-old son Valpy enrolling together on a Spanish language course in Córdoba in 1961 – and other destinations across Europe: Italy, Turkey, Greece, Austria, Crete, Paris and Sicily, to name a few. She and her other daughter Maria took a two-week package tour to Russia in 1975 (from which Fitzgerald drew inspiration for the Moscow-set sections of her first novel, The Golden Child, in which a junior employee at a London museum finds himself sent on a ‘Suntreader Holidays’ trip to Moscow in search of an expert to authenticate ‘The Golden Child’ – the centerpiece in the museum’s current exhibition which is feared to be a fake: ‘The Doll, of course, must not be declared at the customs, either going in or out,’ the museum director explains. ‘That is an advantage of the package tours, on which, I am informed by those who know about them, the luggage is only superficially examined’ – as well as her later work, The Beginning of Spring, which is set in the city in 1913 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution).
And, in December 1977, the first holiday she took following Desmond’s death, she ventured even further afield than before, on a Thomson’s package tour to Peking and Shanghai, via Bucharest and Karachi. It was during this trip, waking in the early hours of the morning but not wanting to disturb her still sleeping roommate, Fitzgerald occupied her time by turning the notebook in which she was keeping a holiday diary upside down and began writing what would be her second novel (the first to be nominated for the Booker Prize), The Bookshop, in the back of it.
‘Probably her fellow passengers were unaware that the short, stocky, unglamorous widow-lady, always carrying a small red notebook, was a sharp observer of them and their journey,’ Hermione Lee muses in her biography of the author, before noting that Fitzgerald was equally ruthless when it came to describing herself as she was about her companions: ‘my shabby luggage. My sweaters and trousers much too hot. My fringe scanty. Am I going bald?’ She isn’t exactly the stereotype of an intrepid and seasoned traveller, but she clearly undertook each of her voyages in the spirit of adventure, though none more so than the rather incredible trip she made to Mexico a quarter of a century earlier in the autumn of 1952.
The then thirty-six-year-old Fitzgerald – ten years married, a mother of two, and three months pregnant with her third child – dropped pretty much everything to take what would be a two-month sojourn across the pond; no mean feat in the days before trans-Atlantic jaunts were commonplace. The Fitzgeralds were living in Hampstead at the time, Penelope and Desmond co-editing World Review, an ambitious and innovative periodical that published essays on art, politics, architecture, reviews, serialisations, poems and stories. Although all but forgotten today, under the Fitzgeralds’s editorship in the early 50s the magazine’s formidable list of contributors included the likes of Muriel Spark, L.P. Hartley, Stevie Smith, Cyril Connolly and Alan Brownjohn. It also featured up-and-coming Americans: World Review was where J. D. Salinger was first published in the UK, the Fitzgeralds running his now-famous short story ‘For Esmé with Love and Squalor’ in their very first issue of August 1950, a full year prior to the publication of The Catcher in the Rye.
As well as this magnificent and much acclaimed contribution to the British literary scene, Fitzgerald was also writing scripts for the BBC, something she had been doing since she’d worked at Portland Place during the war. All the same, she put her work on hold, left Desmond to take care of the magazine, parked two-year-old Tina with her grandparents, and took six-year-old Valpy with her.
Mother and son travelled first to Liverpool, where they boarded the Queen Mary and sailed for New York. After a brief break in New York State, in November they took a Greyhound bus down the length of the country to Saltillo, a small town in northern Mexico, where they stayed until making the return journey home in January.
It’s a trip that’s rendered all the more intriguing because of the veil of mystery that surrounds it. An astonishing journey for a young, pregnant and near-insolvent woman to have made by herself in the early 1950s, when a woman’s place was still very much in the home, two questions spring to mind: Why? And, how?
This is partially answered in an essay Fitzgerald published in the London Review of Books in 1980 under the title ‘Following the plot’. ‘Suppose I were to try to write a story which began with a journey I made to the north of Mexico twenty-seven years ago, taking with me my son, then aged five,’ she begins:
We were going to pay a winter visit to two old ladies called Delaney who lived comfortably, in spite of recent economic reforms, on the proceeds of the family silver mine. They had lived in Fonseca ever since they were girls – one was sister-in-law to the other. Their relations in Ireland had died, they were alone in the world, and it was hoped that because of some distant friendship they might take kindly to my son and leave him all their money. Indeed, if I had understood their letters correctly, they had suggested the idea themselves.
The old ladies lived in a shuttered mansion in the French style, surrounded with pecan trees; the house was always cool because of the double height of the rooms. In the half-darkness of these rooms, as I discovered, the very first evening I arrived, they were drinking themselves steadily to death. For two hours or so every morning there was a lucid period, and that was the time for callers. The manager of the mine came then, and so did everyone in Fonseca who was interested in the Delaney’s wealth and therefore wanted to get rid of me and my son as soon as possible.
Here, Fitzgerald stops; she has provided as much detail is necessary to illustrate the point she now goes on to make about the often ‘treacherous’ nature of reality when it comes to turning fact into fiction. Although it ‘proceeds from truth and re-creates truth’, her story, she explains, ‘gives me the impression of turning fiction into fiction. Is it the legacy, or the silver, or the Latin American background, testing ground of so many twentieth-century writers? I know that in any case I could never make it respectable (by which I mean probable) enough to be believed as a novel.’
‘I knew that I hadn’t the capacity to relate the wide-spreading complications of the Mexico legacy, however well I remembered them,’ she continues towards the close of the essay, before teasing us with more tantalizing detail:
As time went on, more pretenders had arrived, even one who claimed to be a Delaney, and moved into the house. On the other hand, the manager was eliminated. Seeking to expand his sphere of influence, he began to drink level with the old ladies, slipped on the polished French Provincial staircase, and cracked his skull. My son and I were blamed for these and other disasters, and we left on the long-distance bus without a legacy, but knowing what it was to be hated.
Reading this, I was, understandably, hugely frustrated, since it’s common knowledge that many of Fitzgerald’s novels draw with varying degrees on her first-hand experiences, and are thus of priceless value to anyone interested in her life. Offshore in particular is so heavily autobiographical that in the first draft Fitzgerald didn’t even bother disguising her own daughters in the text, simply referring to her protagonist Nenna’s offspring as Tina and Maria (they were eventually transformed, slightly, into ‘Tilda’ and ‘Martha’ in time for the book’s publication).
Sadly though, the only writing her time in Mexico obviously inspired were two pieces she published on her return in the April–May edition of World Review – ‘From the Golden Land: A Study of Mexican Art and History’, and ‘El Muralismo and the New Mexican University City’, both studies on Mexican art, culture and history, which, although fascinating, provide the reader with annoyingly little in the way of tidbits about the more intriguing aspects of the trip – and a short story titled ‘Our Lives Are Only Lent To Us’, which it’s believed she wrote twelve years after the journey, for submission to a short story competition in the now defunct Blackwood’s magazine. Although it doesn’t detail a scenario anything like the Southern Gothic ‘yarn’ – Fitzgerald’s own word – described above, the story is set in an old silver-mining town in northern Mexico, and it does feature an elderly woman, the wealthy widow of a banker who invested in the silver mines before they were nationalised, living in a grand old house. Though she’s no alcoholic; instead a kindly, benevolent soul who’s concerned about those less fortunate than herself. The story opens, for example, with her paying ‘a visit of congratulation on the birth of a new baby,’ to the wife of her chauffeur Pantaleón. ‘Mrs Sheridan knew that Pantaleón’s wages were adequate and suppressed the thought that perhaps they were too generous,’ Fitzgerald’s protagonist muses after she realises she’s paying the chauffeur enough money for him in turn to employ an assortment of his own family members to do his bidding.
What attracts me to this particular interlude in Fitzgerald’s life is both the strangeness of it and the fact it sums up the precariousness that typified her existence: an infrequently encountered amalgamation of extreme and long-endured poverty and hardship – both financial and emotional – combined with an equally relentlessly adventurous and ambitious spirit. Also, it’s even more remarkable given how minutely it features in the larger story of her life. As fascinating as it is, it remains unconverted into fiction, a rare anomaly in her early, pre-writing period.
What’s often first mentioned in any discussion of Fitzgerald is the fact that she didn’t publish her first book – a biography of the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones – until 1975, when she was about to turn sixty. Not to mention the fact that it had been a long and extremely bumpy journey between the intention she’d declared thirty-seven years earlier when, interviewed as ‘Woman of the Year’ in The Isis, the university newspaper, during her final term at Oxford – ‘I have been reading steadily for seventeen years; when I go down I want to start writing’ – and eventually following through.
Born Penelope Knox in 1916, she began life in a brilliant and highly literary family. ‘I was brought up in a journalist’s home and in a family where everyone was publishing, or about to publish, something,’ she writes in ‘Following the Plot’. Her father Edmund – known as ‘Evoe’ – a journalist and poet who was the editor of Punch, was one of four astonishing brothers whom together were the subject of Fitzgerald’s second book, the collective biography The Knox Brothers. Dillwyn was a classicist and mathematical genius who worked as a cryptographer for Naval Intelligence during the war; Wilfred was a socialist theologian and Anglo-Catholic priest; and Ronnie was a famous Roman Catholic priest who also wrote detective stories. Fitzgerald’s mother meanwhile, Christina Frances Hicks before her marriage, had been one of the very first women to study at Somerville in Oxford, her daughter thereafter proudly following in her footsteps.
On coming down from Oxford, Fitzgerald’s writing career initially looked promising when Evoe gave her a job at Punch writing film and book reviews. Then the war intervened, and although she was still writing, it was now predominantly in aid of the war effort: letters and copy for the Ministry of Food to begin with, then she joined the BBC as a producer (her experiences at which she later transformed into fiction in her 1980 novel Human Voices) for whom, in 1944, she also began writing scripts – mainly for the Schools Service, specializing in dramatized histories and the abridgement of novels – something she continued, along with her reviews, after peace had been declared.
Like many young women, she was also a war bride. Desmond Fitzgerald was a brilliant young Oxford graduate and handsome Guards officer when he and Fitzgerald fell in love and married in 1942. ‘Presumably he was about to have a heroic war, and then to become a distinguished lawyer,’ Lee observes, ‘the next-best thing to [Fitzgerald’s] idols Cary Grant and Rex Harrison’ – Fitzgerald’s adoration for these leading men is apparent in her film reviews from the time – the reality, however, was much crueler. Desmond did indeed acquit himself admirably in battle, and on his return home go on to become a barrister, but the glittering career predicted never materialized, instead, after years of scrabbling, mediocre work he was caught forging cheques from his chambers and disbarred in disgrace in 1962.
‘The name of the catastrophe was Desmond,’ writes the novelist Philip Hensher, perhaps a little myopically, blaming him for the sharp downward turn in the Fitzgeralds’ fortunes in the 1950s and 60s. Though true to an extent – Desmond was plagued by alcoholism, cashing the forged cheques in the pubs wherein he then proceeded to drink away the money – we shouldn’t overlook the fact that he was a man who’d been broken by the war. Physically he’d survived, but the psychological trauma he’d suffered was intense. What he, his wife, and his children thus bore as a consequence may read like an exceptional, perfect storm of tragedies, but in reality many of the details will most likely be familiar to other families who lived through the horrors and violence of the mid-twentieth century.
Fitzgerald’s youthful literary ambitions came to an extremely impressive head with the World Review years in the early 1950s. So much so, though, that the magazine’s subsequent failure and the low years that followed must have been all the more dispiriting for the still young and ambitious woman. As her son-in law Terence Dooley suggests, the failure and loss of the magazine surely underlies the subject matter of The Bookshop. Although it gleams with moments of comic perfection related to small-town life and the characters therein, this novel is a portrait of harsh class divides and a study in struggle and anxiety as Florence Green battles to keep her rural bookshop open. Although its eventual downfall is presented as depressingly inevitable, as David Nicholls writes in his 2013 introduction to the novel, ‘it’s hard to think of a novelist who writes more compassionately and insightfully about failure.’
World Review folded in 1953; the final issue was that carrying Fitzgerald’s essays on Mexico. ‘For a number of reasons, already familiar to most of us,’ runs a notice heading page four, ‘we have had to suspend publication.’ The main of these, of course, was lack of funds. Indeed, their increasingly dire financial situation eventually forced the Fitzgeralds not only to abandon the magazine, but also their entire existence in London. In 1957 they left town in a hurry, Lee explains, leaving their rented house in Hampstead in ‘chaos’, most likely because they were unable to pay the rent. There’s something of a dubious sense of right and wrong in this decision, but morals, I think, are a luxury the desperate can often ill afford.
The Bookshop could be described as a morality tale, but one in which Fitzgerald is cutting about the inequalities at work under the British class system, that, for example, for poor little Christine, who helps out in the bookshop, not having got into the local grammar school is little short of a ‘death sentence’. As her mother explains, ‘what chance will she have of ever meeting and marrying a white-collar chap? She won’t ever be able to look above a laboring chap or even an unemployed chap and believe me, Mrs Green, she’ll be pegging out her own washing until the day she dies.’ Fitzgerald’s fictional Hardborough is England in microcosm, a society in which social status and money – whether one has it, and whether one doesn’t – mean everything. The most truthful, although hard to swallow message of the novel comes in the form of Frances’s realisation: ‘She blinded herself […] by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminates, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’ Most of Fitzgerald’s novels, most notably those drawn from her own experiences, reinforce this idea over and over again. But it’s the lines that follow that are the most heart breaking of all: ‘Will-power is useless without a sense of direction,’ thinks poor beaten-down Florence. ‘Hers was at such a low ebb that it no longer gave her the instructions for survival.’ If anything speaks to Fitzgerald’s own state of mind during these low years, it’s surely this.
In what itself was retrospectively something of an inauspicious relocation to the middle of nowhere, having been offered a house for rent there by some friends, the family had moved to the village of Southwold on the Suffolk coast. Like Fitzgerald’s earlier trip to Mexico, and, indeed, much of her life during this broader period, the details are hazy and motivations opaque. What we know for sure is that the move was not a success. Desmond was still working in London and thus living in the city during the week, drinking away his wages during the evenings and weekend, while the only money Fitzgerald was making came from a comic strip, ‘Jassy of Juniper Farm’, which she wrote between 1956 and 1958 and was published in the children’s magazine Swift. It’s such a stark contrast, going from publishing literary heavyweights like Norman Mailer and J.D. Salinger to dreaming up stories about harvest festivals. This must have been a galling fall from grace. After a while though, she was offered part-time work in the local bookshop. Not exactly a quick fix for the family’s financial problems, but, two decades later, it did provide her with the inspiration for her second novel.
In 1960, Fitzgerald moved the family back to London, though by now their finances were in such disarray they couldn’t afford anywhere to live apart from a boat moored on the Chelsea Reach. On the one hand, she wrote, ‘we were in one of the very grandest parts of London. On the other hand, we were living on an old wooden barge which for many years had carried cargoes up and down the east coast under sail, but was now a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk, heaving up with difficulty on every rising tide.’ The boat’s name was Grace, and it’s to her that Fitzgerald dedicates Offshore, the most clearly autobiographical of all her novels. It tells the story of a cast of outsiders like Fitzgerald herself, waifs and strays who don’t fit into normal society, and whose way of life is misunderstood by all but the others in their makeshift community on the water, thus living up to her principle that novels should be written about ‘human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.’
Back in real life, the boat was in such terrible disrepair that she went down twice, the second time proving her end. ‘Poor Grace, much loved, was towed away to the Essex marshes to be broken up,’ wrote Fitzgerald nearly two decades after the fact, a distance that presumably accounts for her slightly misty-eyed recollections. The reality of life onboard Grace, however, was not at all romantic. The cupboards jammed when the tide was down, so the children had to remember to liberate their school uniforms while the tide was still up; they had to pump in water from the river to make the loo work; certain areas of the boat flooded at high tide and had to be bailed out; and meanwhile the family’s financial situation hadn’t much changed so there often wasn’t enough money for food (Fitzgerald recalls eating blackboard chalk for sustenance during this period), and they were forced to perform their ablutions in the public baths on the nearby King’s Road.
When Grace sank for a second time in June 1963, she took many of the family’s possessions with her, leaving the survivors hopelessly high and dry. Fitzgerald and her daughters (her son Valpy, at least, was away at school, relations having stepped in to cover the cost of his education, and thus never a permanent resident on Grace, hence the absence of a third child in Offshore) spent the first couple of nights in a homeless shelter on the King’s Road, but thereafter were relocated to another facility miles across the city in Hackney, where they then remained for about four months, after which time they were moved to another, this time to Bromley, across the river in south-east London. Most likely Fitzgerald couldn’t have foreseen a bleaker time for the family than those unhappy years of exile in Southwold, but as Lee writes, it was actually during these months of homelessness that they were ‘at the very bottom of their fortunes.’ It wasn’t until November that they were reunited with Desmond (local authorities then offered accommodation to homeless mothers and children, but not fathers), when the entire family was re-housed in a small flat in Earl’s Court, then the following year they were moved again, to a council flat near Clapham Common where they remained for the next eleven years. ‘A profile of Penelope Fitzgerald in these years,’ Lee writes, ‘might describe her as a middle-aged teacher, recovering from a traumatic period of homelessness and deprivation, living in a dreary council estate in south London with a disgraced alcoholic husband in a dismal low-paid job, her children coming and going from school and university, her early ambitions to be a writer catastrophically thwarted, her life obscure.’
This, of course, is one of the great attractions of Fitzgerald’s story, in which, the term ‘the lost years’ has a more concrete meaning than is often the case, referring to both this mid-life slump into poverty and homelessness, and, from an archival point of view, the actual papers lost to the murky, muddy depths of the Thames when Grace sank, never to be recovered. This included anything that might have shed light on her mental state during the toughest of times, and the correspondence the then newlyweds exchanged throughout the war, letters that would likely have offered up a counterpoint to the image of Desmond that prevailed – feckless, reckless and a drain on his wife. Echoing Lee’s description of how Fitzgerald ‘consigned to silence’ much of her activities during the 1950s as her circumstances took a steep downward turn, Dooley describes the years during which she wasn’t writing – those when she was simply too busy keeping her family’s heads above water – as ‘her long literary silence.’
Part of the family hitting rock bottom was certainly Desmond being disbarred, although fate does indeed work in mysterious ways since his subsequent employment at Lunn Poly, although strictly beneath his capabilities and intelligence, offered him a much needed opportunity to rehabilitate himself. Thereafter things began to get better for the family and a degree of stability was achieved: Desmond settled into his new work; Fitzgerald established a teaching career, first at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in Clapham (her experience at which inspired her final semi-autobiographical novel At Freddie’s), then thereafter Queen’s Gate School in Kensington, and Westminster Tutors (where she taught a host of future celebrities, from Anna Wintour to Edward St. Aubyn, Helena Bonham Carter and Tilda Swinton); the family, although living in relatively cramped conditions (Fitzgerald and Desmond hadn’t shared a bedroom in years and wouldn’t again, she slept on fold-out beds in the living rooms of their various flats), never again lost the roof over their heads, or the floor beneath their feet; and despite all the odds, each of their three children did well at school, followed in their parents’ footsteps to Oxford, and went on to pursue successful careers thereafter; not to mention, of course, Fitzgerald’s own late blossoming as an award-winning writer.
That Fitzgerald’s life proceeded not as perfectly as planned can be attributed to the caprices of fate, and is indicative, no doubt, of the universal human condition. It is what Fitzgerald made of it that’s the important thing. She forged a writing career from the memories of her least auspicious lived experiences. While winning the Booker Prize for Offshore was a clear validation and acknowledgement of her talents (despite the intense backlash she suffered from certain literary quarters for beating that year’s favourite, V.S. Naipaul), it was also an achievement that sprang from the very lowest point in her life. And, once she’d exhausted her own experiences, she didn’t stop. Instead, at the age of seventy, she published the first of her highly acclaimed historical novels, Innocence, set in 1950s Florence, and thereafter The Beginning of Spring – revolutionary Russia – The Gate of Angels – Cambridge in 1912 – and finally, her pièce de résistance, The Blue Flower, a fictionalized account of the early years of the eighteenth-century German poet and philosopher Novalis. The Blue Flower won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US in 1997, was hailed by the New York Times as a ‘masterpiece’, and listed in the Observer as one of the ten best historical novels ever written. Quite simply, it’s a novel that’s hard to rival.
Despite her many ups and downs, the story I still find myself drawn back to is of Fitzgerald’s trip to Mexico. Like so much of her life, it’s the stuff of great fiction, but it’s also the adventure she never put pen to paper to tell, and that makes it all the more poignant. ‘Everyone has a point to which the mind reverts naturally when it is left on its own,’ Fitzgerald writes in ‘Following the plot’. ‘I recalled closed situations that created their own story out of the twofold need to take refuge and escape, and which provided their own limitations.’ My mind reverts to Mexico when I think of Fitzgerald’s life – she’s given us just enough detail for it to be the story that got away.