I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Penelope Fitzgerald before researching my most recent book, Library Lin’s Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs. A few years ago, I watched the movie, The Bookshop, and loved it. But I was unaware the film was based on a book or who had written it.
Hermione Lee has a reputation as an excellent biographer. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life is the first of her biographies I have read. If this book indicates her skill, I will go out of my way to read others.
Once you got past the lengthy section on Fitzgerald’s illustrious family, what was so compelling about the book was the sense you get of knowing the subject. Even though Lee sometimes expresses frustration with Fitzgerald’s secretiveness, she makes you feel like you know her intimately. After all, we can live with people for years and know little about what goes on in their minds.
Fitzgerald lived an unusual life, encompassing privilege, education, poverty, and hard work. Her father’s role as editor at Punch and her esteemed uncles’ involvements with Oxford and the Enigma project during World War II opened some doors for her. As did her education at Oxford. But her husband’s difficulty dealing with the aftermath as a World War II soldier led to his heavy drinking, which drove his family to near-destitution. Penelope was forced to work hard to keep the family afloat.
The family’s poverty led to unforgettable experiences, such as living in an old barge on the River Thames, which was fodder for Fitzgerald’s future novels. The barge, for example, led to her novel, Offshore. Lee did such a masterful job explaining what may have influenced Fitzgerald and the brilliance of her works (which included biographies and novels) that I am determined to read them all at some point in my life. And that is the highest compliment I can give a biographer. Lee has inspired me to read more on her subject.