cover image Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Hermione Lee. Knopf, $35 (544p) ISBN 978-0-385-35234-5

Booker Prize–winning novelist Fitzgerald (who died in 2000) once observed, “I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.” In this illuminating biography, critic and scholar Lee (The Novels of Virginia Woolf) shows how Fitzgerald’s characters were drawn not just from real life but from her own life. Fitzgerald was born into a remarkably accomplished and well-connected family of clerics and writers: her father was the editor of the humor magazine Punch; an aunt (Winifred Peck) and uncle (Ronald Knox) were well-known authors; and their circle of acquaintances included Evelyn Waugh, Lytton Strachey, A.A. Milne, and other literary celebrities. “Mops” studied at Oxford and wrote radio plays for the BBC during WWII, but lived mostly in the shadow of her accomplished relatives. She got her chance to shine co-editing the cultural magazine World Review with her husband in 1950, but when the magazine folded in 1953, their lives fell apart and the couple and their three children spent years living in poverty aboard decrepit houseboats in London. Fitzgerald began publishing novels in 1977, at age 61, and Lee does an exceptional job of drawing lines of association between the author’s life and fiction. She mines details from Fitzgerald’s journals and notes to fill in the blanks of her famously self-effacing subject. Her observations have the vitality of Fitzgerald’s own reflective prose, and she writes with sympathy and clarity. Agent: Zoë Pagnamenta, Zoë Pagnamenta Agency. (Nov.)