Penelope Fitzgerald and the Claims of Faith

“Discovering the church is apt to be a slow procedure but it can take place if you have a free mind and no vested interest in disbelief.” —Flannery O’Connor

Early in 1941 at Bletchley Park, the school of cryptography that Churchill set up outside London to outfox Hitler, Penelope Fitzgerald’s uncle Dillwyn Knox was doggedly at work trying to decipher the Enigma machine that the Poles had captured from the Germans in 1939. After a year’s guesswork, he hit on the idea that the alphabet of the Enigma keyboard might be in the same order as the alphabet on a typewriter: QWERTYUIOP. When his hunch proved right, he had his way in to the code’s variations.

Readers looking for a “way in” to Fitzgerald’s enigmatic fiction will not get much help from Fitzgerald herself. In The Bookshop, the heroine asks a trusted customer whether he thinks Nabokov’s Lolita “a good book,” and he replies: “It is a good book…you should try to sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” In Innocence, set outside the “ancient money-making city of Florence,” the heroine’s girlfriend observes, “The Harringtons seem pretty decent people…. But they’ve got a serious weakness…they want to get to know people.” In Offshore, Edward, the feckless husband, speaking of the wife he can neither support nor desert, remarks: “She’s not easy to understand. You could spend a very long time trying to understand that woman.”

For Fitzgerald, getting to know anything is a dubious business. Knowledge itself is suspect. Yet if there is one thing Fitzgerald’s novels are prepared to attest to it is that the enigmatic, the mysterious, the undecipherable are part and parcel of what Fritz, the hero of The Blue Flower, calls “a certain inexpressible sense of immortality.” Faith, then, is her theme—the claims of faith in a world riddled with mystery. Her novels may not be Catholic novels but they have the Catholic hunger for faith.

Born in 1916, Fitzgerald grew up in a now-vanished Hampstead where, as she recalled, sheep grazed on Hampstead Heath; “poets, conspicuous in their broad-brimmed hats, roamed the streets”; and “lamplighters walked at dusk from gas lamp to gas lamp.” Her father was Edmund Knox, the editor of Punch, about whom Malcolm Muggeridge observed: “He was a hard man to get to know, an enigmatic person altogether.” As a girl of seven, Fitzgerald was sent into “exile and imprisonment” at a preparatory boarding school in Eastbourne before entering Somerville College, where she studied with J. R. R. Tolkien and won a first in English literature. After university, and throughout the war, she worked at the BBC, where she met her husband, a soldier in the Irish Guards. In 1941, the couple set up house in Hampstead and had three children, one of whom became a research physiologist enquiring into the nature of pain—an apt profession considering the mother’s interest in spiritual pain.

In 1957, the family moved to Southwold, on the east coast of England—”a flat, sandy, Holland-like coast,” as she remembered it, “with wide skies and bright clouds, beloved of painters and a temptation to those who think they can paint but can’t.” There Fitzgerald worked in a haunted bookshop not unlike the one she describes in her second novel, where “the Unseen…could no more mind its business than the Seen.” In the early 1960s, the family moved back to London where, because rents in town were too high, they lived on a barge on Chelsea Reach—a “battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk,” as she later described it, “heaving up with difficulty on every rising tide.” Irresistibly for this novelist of faith, the name of the old wooden barge was Grace. To help keep the family financially afloat, Fitzgerald taught at the Italia Conti, a school for child actors. In 1975 her first book was published, a biography of the pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones, followed in 1977 by The Knox Brothers, a delightful family biography of her father and uncles. That same year, at the age of 61, to divert her dying husband, she wrote her first novel, The Golden Child. In 1984 she wrote a biography of the poet Charlotte Mew. From 1978 to 1995, she wrote eight more novels: The Bookshop (1977); Offshore (1979), based on her life on Chelsea Reach; Human Voices (1980), based on her BBC experiences; At Freddy’s (1982), one of the few good theater novels in English; and then, in a last efflorescence of invention and design, Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower (1995), all of which ingeniously renovate the historical novel. A book of short stories, The Means of Escape (2000)—which includes “At Hiruharama,” a wonderful pro-life story—and a posthumous collection of her literary journalism, The Afterlife (2003), rounded off a remarkably prolific career.

Though influenced by aspects of the work of others—the concision of Muriel Spark, the moral intelligence of Mrs. Oliphant and George Eliot, the impassioned didacticism of John Ruskin and William Morris—Fitzgerald learned most from her extraordinary family. Her mother, Christina Hicks, was “a gentle, spirited, scholarly, hazel-eyed girl, a lover of poetry and music, a determined, though not a militant, suffragette.”

Months before her clever daughter entered Somerville—her own college—she died. The loss that haunts Fitzgerald’s fiction, even the funniest, originated from this first irreplaceable loss. Fortunately there was a tradition of faith in the family. Her mother’s father, Edward Hicks, fell under the influence of Ruskin at Oxford, became an authority on Greek inscriptions, and worked for years as a rector in grim industrial Salford before being appointed Bishop of Lincoln. Throughout his life, his granddaughter recalled, his religion remained “the beauty of holiness, quiet worship, and the steady discharge of common duties.”

Her paternal grandfather, Bishop Edmund Knox, was equally devout. Apropos his adolescent religious doubts, he recalled: “When the testing came, and when I heard the question put to my soul, ‘Wilt thou also go away?’ I was able to see that unfaith could not satisfy my deepest needs.” Nevertheless, he was baffled by the faith of his two younger sons, confiding in his daughter: “Between ourselves, Winnie, I cannot understand what it is that the dear boys see in the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The “dear boys” were Fitzgerald’s uncle Wilfrid, an Anglo-Catholic priest, who was an authority on the apostle Paul, and her uncle Ronnie, the great Catholic convert. Her father, in his retirement, after decades of indifference, returned to the Anglican Church. Her uncle Dilly was the family’s sole atheist. With this background, it is not surprising that Fitzgerald should have made faith the core of her books.

Her interest in faith is all the more compelling for her acknowledgment of the predominant absence of faith in most modern life. In perhaps her best novel, The Gate of Angels, which tells the story of a young Cambridge don who falls in love with a nurse from South London, a “tall, strong, juicy, courageous, not quite confident young woman,” the heroine encounters a Fleet Street editor, who is shocked to discover that she means to enter a church.

“You can’t go in there, that’s a church,” he exclaims.

“What’s wrong with going into a church?” asked Daisy.

“You can’t believe in all that,” Kelly shouted in real distress. “All that’s made up to keep you quiet, and they collect your money on top of it. A smart girl like you, a nurse, that knows what’s what, you can’t believe there’s a God up there keeping a list of everything you do. You can’t believe there was a Jesus who went about turning loaves into fishes…. Nothing they do in here is of any perishing use….”

In his introduction to the Everyman edition of the novel, Frank Kermode refers to Kelly as a “low-life seducer,” perhaps because he is described as wearing a billycock hat and checked suit and tries to get Daisy to laugh and lie down. But surely the point about Kelly is not that he dresses flamboyantly or has a defective sense of honor but that he personifies the spiritual poverty that is a major preoccupation of Fitzgerald’s novels.

The Gate of Angels is often referred to as a “novel of ideas.” This is true to the extent that it explores the relation between science and faith, reason and mystery, learning and love. But in celebrating what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “all things counter, original, spare, strange,” it subverts the bildungsroman. Fitzgerald’s own reservations about the “novel of ideas” are evident in her introduction to L. H. Myers’s novel The Root and the Flower, in which she agrees with Myers that a “philosophical novel” “would mean neither good philosophy, nor a good novel, nor, before long, any readers.” The characters of The Root and the Flower, like the characters in her own books, “are not representatives of ideas, they are an invitation to think about them, which is a different matter.” Quite so. And this is why Kelly is such a good character: He invites the reader to think of infidelity in the same way that Daisy invites the reader to think of faith. In this regard, what T. S. Eliot once said of Henry James can be said of Fitzgerald: “James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from Ideas…. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”

A good example of Fitzgerald’s mastery over ideas is her treatment of atheism, which, in The Gate of Angels, becomes a character in its own right. When Skippey, the chairman of the college’s Disobligers Society, explains that the society will be meeting to discuss the motion “that the soul doesn’t exist, has never existed, and that it isn’t desirable that it should exist,” the member he chooses to argue the motion is Charles Reding, which is the name of the hero of Cardinal Newman’s novel Loss and Gain (1848). This was inspired borrowing on Fitzgerald’s part. Newman, more than any other 19th-century thinker, saw in atheism “the all-corroding, all dissolving skepticism of the intellect,” but he also saw a certain mysteriousness. For Newman, as one commentator put it, “God’s ways were easier to understand than man’s, and…the mystery of man’s darkness was greater than the mystery of God’s light.” Atheism, in other words, was more mysterious than theism—which is a recurring theme in Fitzgerald’s books as well. Reding also evokes how much Newman personally lost—Oxford, family, friends—to gain faith. So in appropriating the name, Fitzgerald reminds her readers of the necessary sacrifices of faith.

Reding also provides a nice comic touch. As Skippey explains, “The point is that he’s a theologian, and a pious fellow…and so of course he’ll have to say that there’s nothing we can be sure of except the body, and that thought is blood, and so on….” Reding gets up to make the case for atheism but can’t manage it. “Cruelly embarrassed at the prospect of treating immortality as a joke, he had spoken in a voice so low that it could scarcely be heard.” Afterward, Skippey promises him that next week he’ll let him speak “for the motion that we’d be far better off without trees.” Then Skippey introduces Fred:

Fellow Disobligers…the next speaker, Fred Fairly, opposes the motion. He was once a Christian, he tells me, but he is one no longer. He might say, with Sir Leslie Stephen, that “I now believe in nothing, but I do not the less believe in morality etcetera, etcetera, and I mean to live and die a gentleman if possible.”

Then Fred speaks.

Fellow members…I’m here, as our Chairman has repeatedly pointed out, to defend the soul. To do this, I have in the first place to show that everything in life can’t be referred back to physical causes. Lord Nelson, like a number of people who have undergone the amputation of a limb, continued to feel pain in his lost arm. There was no arm there, but there was a pain in the arm. This he took to be a clear indication that there are things which are beyond the explanation of the physical.

Fred’s audience doesn’t quite see the point. Fred gamely proceeds.

There may be some here, in fact quite a number, who will tell me that every hope, every feeling, even what we think of as imagination—all of these are conditioned by organic processes. When your memory begins to slip, the cells of the cortical layers will be visibly atrophied. If you go mad, the cortical layer under the frontal bones will be darkened…. Thought is blood, you’ll say to me…. Still, which of you here hasn’t been through some confrontation, some danger, or…extreme personal and emotional crisis…when you have been driven to argue with yourself, to say, “go on, there’s nothing for a rational human being to fear”? And your body will reply, “Yes, there is.”… The voice, fellow members, of your adrenal gland. The body, then, has a mind of its own. It must follow, then, that the Mind has a body of its own, even if it’s like nothing that we can see around us, or have ever seen.

Reasoning thus proves an ordeal for the young physicist. “Putting forward opinions which he regarded as absolute nonsense was having a curious effect on Fred. It was like hanging upside down or breathing the wrong element, water instead of air and pipe-smoke. There was a gasping, a craving for his own habitat.” In such deliciously comic vignettes, Fitzgerald encourages her readers to venture outside their own habitats, to feel the pain of their spiritual deprivation. She recognizes, of course, that persuading the English of that pain is no easy undertaking, aware as she is of what she refers to in The Knox Brothers as “the English genius for irreligion—the comfortable feeling that there is a good deal of truth in all religions, but not enough to affect practical conduct.”

Examples of this attitude abound in her novels. Of one of her English characters, she says: “Lukewarm, but not quite cold, unbelieving but not quite disbelieving, he had fallen into the habit of not asking himself what he thought.” Still, she persevered. She clearly meant her books to encourage readers to reconsider the claims of faith. On this score, she would have agreed with her uncle Ronnie. “Shallowness?” he asks in a sermon called “Stony Ground,” “You despise it in everyone else; in everything else, except your religion. You would admit, in any other connection, that if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing thoroughly. How mysterious that over the one thing which, if it matters at all, matters supremely, you should be content to take chances, to acquiesce in a low level!” The English are not alone in requiring that reminder.

Fitzgerald knew the shallowness of the irreligious firsthand. To her uncle Dilly, the spiritual agonies of his younger brother Ronnie were simply “unrealities.” Dilly was convinced that “we pray, no one answers, the Churches dispute to the death over how to go on speaking to someone who is not there.” Yet Fitzgerald understood the agonies her uncle Ronnie suffered and what he needed to resolve them. On retreat at Farnborough Abbey, on September 22, 1917, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. From that point on, Fitzgerald says, “the romantic in him, the inconvenient love of mystery and beauty—inconvenient, that is, to one who thought he mistrusted enthusiasm and only valued a reasonable faith—began to spread its wings.” About the articles Ronnie wrote as a Catholic, Fitzgerald says: “Quite casually and straightforwardly, they introduced an exceedingly brilliant person whose reasoning mind was able to accept the contradictions of Christianity. At the same time they showed that a normal, pipe-smoking, income-taxed Englishman, not a Jesuit, not a mystic, no black cloaks, no sweeping gestures, could become a Roman Catholic priest….”

His sermons, recently collected by Ignatius Press, are in much the same incisive, colloquial style. And his understanding of what he called “the hidden stream,” the Catholic stream running beneath Protestant England, is very much Fitzgerald’s understanding—though for her the stream is more broadly Christian than Catholic and runs beneath an England that is more infidel than Protestant. In this regard, it is interesting to speculate what she would have made of G. K. Chesterton’s point “that the modern world is living on its Catholic capital…. It is not starting fresh things that it can…carry on far into the future. On the contrary, it is picking up old things that it cannot carry at all.” One has the sense that, for all her receptiveness to the claims of faith, Fitzgerald was unimpressed by the historical appeal of Catholicism—the Evangelical strand in her background was perhaps too strong—though she did have the good sense to have her children educated in the Faith.

Not all of Fitzgerald’s unbelieving characters share Dilly’s blunt, no-nonsense atheism. In The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow in 1913, about an Anglo-Russian printer whose wife deserts him, the narrator describes an Eastern Orthodox blessing on the feast of St. Modestus, which inspires uncomfortable soul-searching in the hero:

The priest offered a prayer for the God-protected Tsar and his family, for the Imperial Army… for the city of Moscow… for those at sea, for travelers, for the sick, for the suffering, for prisoners, for the founders of the Press and the workers there, for mercy, for life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, pardon and remission of sins. Because I don’t believe in this, Frank thought, that doesn’t mean that it is not true. He tried to call himself to order. Thomas Huxley had written that if only there was some proof of the truth of religion, humanity would clutch at it as a drowning man clutches at a hen-coop. But as long as mankind doesn’t pretend to believe in something they see no reason to believe, because there might be an advantage in pretending—as long as they don’t do that, they won’t have sunk to the lowest depth. He himself could be said to be pretending now, still more so when he had attended the Anglican chapel…. Why he had felt alarmed when Dolly [his daughter] told him that her teacher said there was no God, he didn’t know. The alarm suggested that as a rational being he was unsuccessful….

Here, Fitzgerald captures not the bravado of atheism but the sad uncertainty of unbelief. As Newman once wrote to a correspondent, “The great argument against…infidelity is that it does not, cannot believe in itself…. In the majority of unbelievers there is a deep misgiving.” It is for these that Fitzgerald wrote her novels. Yes, she probably wrote with A. S. Byatt in mind: It would have been difficult not to try to please someone who thought her Jane Austen reincarnate. But it is to unbelievers “with deep misgiving” that she particularly appeals. In The Blue Flower one character says of another’s willful atheism: “To decide that she does not believe in the life to come. What insolence, what enormity!” Fritz makes the case for faith even more insistently: “I love Sophie”—the love of his life, who is sweetness itself, half his age and dying—”because she is ill. Illness, helplessness is in itself a claim on love. We could not feel love for God Himself if He did not need our help—But those who are well and do nothing also need help, perhaps even more than the sick.” At the end of the book, Fritz has become an inspector in the salt mines and discovers: “As things are, we are the enemies of the world, and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of elimination. Through estrangement itself I earn my living from day to day. I say this is animate, this is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector.” Under these circumstances, “Miracles don’t make people believe. It’s the belief that is the miracle.”

Fitzgerald’s novels concern themselves more with questions than with answers. “If a story begins with finding,” the narrator of The Blue Flower observes, “it must end with searching.” Yet the answers against which they warn are not the answers of belief but those of disbelief, the axiomatic answers of a modern society that prides itself on its spirit of inquiry yet rejects out of hand the claims of faith. In her portrait of her uncle Dilly, she recalls his undergraduate years at King’s College, Cambridge. “The college finances were depressed, the food uneatable, and Hall so crowded that waiters and diners were in constant collision, but the prevailing air was one of humanism and free intellect, and many felt, as Lowes Dickinson had described it, that ‘the realization of a vast world extending outside Christianity was like a door that had once or twice swung ajar, and now opened and let me out.'” To which Fitzgerald adds the one withering sentence: “But across the way their magnificent chapel stood in all its beauty, a perpetual reproach to them.”

In the years to come, we will be hearing a good deal about Penelope Fitzgerald. There will be films, a biography, scores of critical essays, even perhaps walking tours along Chelsea Reach pointing out where Grace went down. This might not be all bad. Fitzgerald’s books will find what good books occasionally find—a popular audience—and continue to make their own reproach against what Newman called the “great apostasia.”


  • Edward Short

    Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Culture and Abortion published by Gracewing (2013).

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