Portrait of the Author as a Historian: Penelope Fitzgerald

The Booker Prize-winning writer eschewed autobiographical novels for historical fiction in a bid to resolve the porous distinction between objective and subjective history, writes Alexander Lee.

Faulty facts: Fitzgerald in 1999

In 1875, Dante Gabriel Rossetti began a painting of Mnemosyne, the Greek personification of memory. It was an intriguing piece. Looking distractedly towards the viewer, Mnemosyne’s expression hovers between resignation and regret. In her right hand she holds a shining golden lamp, while in her left she grips the ‘winged chalice of the soul’ from which she has filled it. 

For Rossetti, the painting articulated the ambiguities of memory. As he asked: ‘Is remembrance the greater sorrow, or is it a pleasant room in a bitter hell?’ But the painting also had wider implications. Since Mnemosyne was the mother of the Muses and counted Clio (history), Thalia (comedy) and Melpomene (tragedy) among her daughters, it seems to suggest that the solace or suffering engendered by memory is the source of the poetic imagination on which fiction and history depend. As such, Rossetti’s Mnemosyne could be read as an illustration of Penelope Fitzgerald’s attitude towards writing the past in her historical novels. Coming to reject the positivism of the early 20th century, she embraced developments in contemporary scholarship to produce a blend of memory, history and fiction.  

It was not something to which she was instinctively drawn. When she was a student in the 1930s, history was dominated by those who regarded it as a science. By examining documentary evidence with ‘scientific’ detachment, they believed that they could attain a purely objective understanding of the past as it had actually been. Memory and literature – being ‘subjective’ – were derided as antithetical to all that history sought to achieve. 

Seduced by the promise of certainty, Fitzgerald found such ideas hard to resist. When she embarked on her literary career, a century after Rossetti had begun Mnemosyne, she was still in thrall to them. Her first works were biographies of Edmund Burne-Jones (1975) and of her father, E. V. Knox, and his brothers (1977). Coldly analytical, they were firmly in the ‘scientific’ tradition, never venturing beyond documentary sources. Even when writing about her own family, she refused to mention herself by name and avoided dwelling on her memories. Turning to fiction, she continued to view history as ‘different’. She was, admittedly, happy to use historical details and her own memories to add depth to her novels. In Human Voices (1980) she drew on her experiences as a staffer at Broadcasting House to lend credibility to her description of wartime life at the BBC. But this did nothing to challenge history’s status as a ‘science’, distinct from fiction and remembrance.  

Evidence of change

By the mid-1980s Fitzgerald wanted a change. Tired of novels and biographies, she felt the need to ‘journey outside [her]self’. Historical fiction offered exactly what she was looking for. Though entering her seventies, she wrote four books over the next decade.

Fascinated by the lives of ordinary people confronting great changes, she threw herself into research with characteristic enthusiasm. But as she did so, she queried the assumptions on which ‘scientific’ history was based. Like many recent scholars, she was troubled by the nature of evidence. No matter how much material survived from a given period, it would never be more than a fragmentary and incomplete record. It was not simply that a great deal had been lost or destroyed over time; rather, the majority of human experience – especially the ordinary, the everyday and the humdrum – had never been recorded in the first place. But where did this leave history? Although Fitzgerald had believed that history’s purpose was to apprehend the truth about the past, she was no longer sure. If it was really ‘scientific’, surely it would be better to define its purpose as comprehending only the tiny portion of the past visible in surviving documents?  

As Fitzgerald noted, a parallel could be found in debates about atomic theory in the 1910s. In The Gate of Angels (1990), a young physics don, Fred Fairly, discusses
whether sub-atomic particles were ‘real’ and, if not, whether they were a proper subject for scientific study. Fred is a ‘realist’. Even if particles were unobservable, their presence could still be inferred. And since science’s purpose was to provide a true description of the universe, they deserved to be studied. But his colleague, Prof. Flowerdew, is an ‘anti-realist’. If sub-atomic particles are unobservable, they are merely a plausible idea. Believing that science’s purpose was to describe only the observable universe, he dismisses them as unworthy of study.  

The parallel is instructive. Just as Flowerdew’s anti-realism could not explain some phenomena, documentary history could not explain why certain events happened, much less say anything about unrecorded experiences. If history was to understand the past as it was, something besides evidence was needed. 

One possibility was literature. In the mid-1970s, Hayden pointed out that documentary shortcomings undermined the distinction between objective history and subjective fiction. Although documentary sources might contain some evidence about the past, they did not provide a framework that would allow sense to be made out of the fragments. The historian needed to craft a narrative out of the limited materials at their disposal; and this was as much a matter of imagination as anything else. 

Fitzgerald went one step further. All that the historian was doing was using imagination to connect the dots between bits of evidence; why shouldn’t she use hers to fill in the gaps where everyday life had been? After all, as Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801) – better known as Novalis – had observed, ‘novels arise out of the shortcomings of history’. 

Fittingly, it was Novalis who provided her with the opportunity to put this into practice. Captivated by his Romantic philosophy, but aware that her German was not good enough to attempt a biography, she set about writing The Blue Flower (1995) as an imaginative retelling of his love for Sophie von Kühn. Festooned with quotations from Novalis’ works, it was not a fictionalised account per se, but an attempt to rescue those ordinary moments omitted from the historical record and to get inside Novalis’ head more completely than any biography. 

History from below

Another possibility was to be found in memory. Alarmed by the invisibility of ordinary people in documentary evidence, some scholars had come to believe that they should focus on how the past was constructed in the memories of living people. By examining the interplay between experience and recollection in oral testimonies or lieux de mémoire (sites of memory), historians like Jan Vansina, Pierre Nora and Luisa Passerini were able to see how ordinary people rationalised their lives and negotiated a sense of selfhood over time. On this basis, they endeavoured to write a history of memory ‘from below’. Fitzgerald recognised that she could use the theme of memory as a powerful means of exploring history’s hidden human dimension. 

Although framed as a story of love and disappointment, Innocence (1986) offered a powerful portrait of the social upheavals that took place in Italy in the mid-1950s. As Fitzgerald intimated, the economic miracle was about to begin; domestic migration and social mobility were increasing. Politics, too, was changing. The Italian Communist Party spurned the Soviet Union and the Christian Democrats gained control of the South. But it was happening too quickly. Shaped by life under Fascism and moulded by tradition, Italians struggled to reconcile past and present.  

This is explored through the relationship between Chiara Ridolfi, the daughter of an ancient, but impoverished, Florentine family, and Salvatore Rossi, a ferociously independent neurologist of southern peasant stock. Coming from such different backgrounds, their romance shows how much society had already changed and bodes well for the future. Yet they seem unable to make each other happy. They are imprisoned by their memories. Rossi is haunted by the memory of when his father – an ardent communist – took him to visit Antonio Gramsci in a prison hospital at the age of ten. It was a pitiable episode. Wracked by tuberculosis, Gramsci was not the working-class hero he had expected. Unsure how to behave, his father embarrasses himself. Repelled, Salvatore turns his back on his family, rejects communism and resolves to study medicine. Yet remembering that day, he feels guilty for abandoning his roots and for seeing Gramsci’s illness rather than his heart. As a result, he mistreats Chiara – the symbol of the privilege his father had always hated – even though he loves her.    

For Fitzgerald, it revealed how right Rossetti had been. Quoting his couplet, she, too, queried whether memory was a blessing or a curse. It could make or mar our present and future, making our history a comedy or a tragedy. Either way, it fell to literature to remind us that, in the end, ‘we have each other’, something we need to remember now more than ever.

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His book The Ugly Renaissance is published by Arrow.