Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

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Biography and Reputation

Penelope Fitzgerald has been getting a lot of attention lately, largely due to Hermione Lee’s newest biography. In an article for the Paris Review, Bridget Read considers the impact a better understanding of Fitzgerald’s life could have on her modern reputation, and argues that “it is not extraordinary that she became a prize-winning novelist, though you may have heard otherwise. … It is vital to emphasize that Fitzgerald’s novels were not achieved in spite of her domestic life; they were borne directly out of it. Her work is radical in that it suggests that, in fact, a feminine experience, a liminal experience, might be better equipped than a male one to address the contradictions of human existence taken up by the greatest literature.”

A Year in Reading: Michelle Huneven

This year, for research, I read a lot of bad science (a textbook on Eugenics, anyone?); for pleasure, my habits were scattershot, although I turned to many old favorites, often in audiobook form.

After seeing it in drafts over several years, I finally read my friend Mona Simpson’s brilliant, highly entertaining Casebook between covers, with charming illustrations.

A year ago, my excellent husband had Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life shipped to me from England when it was published there; that led me to reread The Blue Flower, Gate of Angels, and The Beginning of Spring.

I listen to audiobooks throughout the day, as I garden and cook, clean the kitchen and drive, and I have a contemporary child’s delight in listening to my favorites as often as I please. I keep Juliet Stevenson’s version of Persuasion on a pretty much permanent loop, but after reading Anna Keesey’s marvelous essay, “Simple Girl: the Improbable Solace of Mansfield Park” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I moved on to Stevenson’s audiobook of that Jane Austen. (I also read Keesey’s lovely historical novel set in Eastern Oregon Little Century.) I then re-listened to Amanda Root reading Jane Eyre, but am presently back to Juliet Stevenson and her stunning reading of To the Lighthouse.

I admired Carlene Bauer’s intelligent and deft Frances and Bernard, an epistolary novel based on an imagined passion between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell that dealt with so much of great interest to me: religious identity, passionate love [with the wrong person], and the ongoing struggle for women of doing one’s work.

I enjoyed Christopher Bollas’s peripatetic novel, Dark at the End of the Tunnel, a series of intense conversations a psychoanalyst has with his patients, friends, and wife. That primed me to pick up Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips, whose epigrammatic style is always invigorating and thought-provoking; in this short biography, he focuses on Freud’s Jewishness and early career, when he was formulating his great theories about children and families as he himself was having and raising kids.

Partly because so many people recommended Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree in their reading lists last year, I read it this year and found it, chapter by chapter, continuously revelatory and incredibly moving.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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From Under a Heavy Plinth

“The story that Lee’s book tells (or tries to tell, because much evidence has been obscured or lost) is not about patience on a monument but about talent buried under a heavy plinth, and discovered only just in time—the late achievement less a measured distillation than a lifesaving decoction.” James Wood reviews Hermione Lee’s new biography of novelist Penelope Fitzgerald for The New Yorker. Pair with Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin’s Millions essay on the new age of biography.

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