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Fitzgerald, Penelope

novels set times historical

(British, 1916–2000)

Fitzgerald started writing fiction in her sixties, and her first four novels are loosely based on experiences from her own life: of wartime journalism for the BBC; of teaching in a theatrical school; of working in a bookshop; and of living on a Thames barge. Her later novels have historical (and often foreign) settings. Her characters are depicted with a rare warmth and humour, so that although her short novels often deal with difficult subjects—love, death, loss—the reader is left with a vivid sense of human potential. Begin with The Gate of Angels (1990), set in Cambridge in 1912, about Freddy (impoverished fellow at an ancient and deeply eccentric college) and Daisy, determinedly independent sacked nurse from London, who fall in love after being knocked off their bikes together. Daisy's dirt-poor background is rendered without sentimentality. Move on to The Blue Flower (1995) set in late-eighteenth-century Germany and based on the life of the German poet and philosopher Novalis. It tells the story of the idealistic young man's love for a 13-year-old girl, who falls terribly ill. The style is elliptical and spare, but the novel covers a vast canvas—the country and times they live in, philosophy, medicine, domestic detail, and longings that go beyond words; in its concise brilliance, this is 220 pages that most writers would need 400 to cover. Booker Prize shortlisted four times, Fitzgerald won with Offshore (1979) about houseboat dwellers on the Thames in London in the 1960s; a book whose world is every bit as vivid as the historical settings, but which feels (fittingly, given the subject matter) rather more wandering in structure.

Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jolley, Beryl Bainbridge  JR

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