Tuesday, December 15, 2009

the last book I read

The Gate Of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald.

In an earlier review I suggested that there was a group of British female novelists of "a certain age" who share (or rather shared, since most of them are dead) certain characteristics: piercing intelligence, a sort of bone-dry wry humour and a penchant for very short novels (which I tend to think of as being novels under 200 pages). On closer examination the "of a certain age" thing turns out to be slightly bogus, as while Penelope Fitzgerald was born in 1916 (and died in 2000) and Muriel Spark in 1918, both Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge were born in 1932. I think the rest of the comparison is fairly apt, though.

One of the other things they all have in common is becoming published novelists fairly late in life: Bainbridge was 35 when her first novel was published, Spark 39 and Ellis 45. Fitzgerald wins this particular contest hands down, though, as she was 61 when her first novel The Golden Child (not, as far as I am aware, the source material for the 1986 Eddie Murphy film of the same name) was published in 1977. Just as a curious aside, Alice Thomas Ellis' pre-novel-writing occupations included a spell as fiction editor for her husband Colin Haycraft's publishing firm, during the course of which she "discovered" both Beryl Bainbridge and Penelope Fitzgerald. Spooky.

Anyway, the book: it's 1912 and we're in Cambridge. Fred Fairly is a physicist and junior lecturer at the fictional St. Angelicus' College. While cycling through the outskirts of Cambridge one evening on his way back to the college Fred is involved in a collision with two other cyclists and a horse-drawn cart. He regains consciousness to find himself sharing a bed with Daisy Saunders, one of the other cyclists, their rescuers having assumed from the ring on her finger (an heirloom of her aunt's) that they were man and wife. Daisy is an aspiring nurse who has come to Cambridge after leaving her nurse's training in London under a cloud. Having little in the way of other prospects she talks her way into a domestic job with the owners of the country house where she and Fred were taken after the accident, while Fred returns to his college. Gradually a tentative romance develops, though complications ensue when a prosecution is brought against the cart driver and some murky elements of Daisy's past catch up with her.

That's really about it for orthodox narrative, but that's just the basic framework into which all manner of other stuff is woven. The date where this is all set is significant as lots of interesting changes are afoot (as they were in The Shooting Party which is set only a year or so later): Fred's mother and sisters are heavily involved in the women's suffrage movement, and Fred himself has chosen an academic subject in some turmoil as eminent physicists like J. J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford argue over the structure of the atom. Fred and some of his contemporaries have come to the conclusion that the new understanding of the fundamental structure of things leaves no room and no need for God, to the concern of the more senior college staff and Fred's father, an Anglican rector. There's also a brief interlude for eccentric mediaeval scholar Dr. Matthews to deliver a slightly rambling M.R. James-esque ghost story.

I've read Fitzgerald's previous novels Offshore (the 1979 Booker Prize winner) and Innocence, but I think this is the best of the three (it was also nominated for the Booker in 1990, but lost to A.S. Byatt's Possession). I also think that Fitzgerald is (or rather was) the subtlest and cleverest of the group of novelists I mentioned at the start. Fitting all the stuff described above into 167 pages while keeping an unhurried, meandering style is indicative either of a very high level of literary craft and subtlety, or some weird literary TARDIS effect. Take your pick.

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