As well as being a wonderful writer, Penelope Fitzgerald had quite an inspiring literary career; she was sixty years old when her first novel was published but she went on to write eight others, plus several biographies, receive great critical acclaim, and win the Booker prize. Before beginning to write, she had various jobs that later inspired some of her novels, including editing a literary journal, running a bookshop, working for the BBC, and teaching at a theatrical school. The novel I like best is The Blue Flower, but The Bookshop comes a close second. The Means of Escape is a volume of her short stories, and I found this small collection of eight stories just as interesting and beautifully written as her novels.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction covers a wide variety of subjects, and she writes elegantly and apparently effortlessly about people living in many different times and places. The characters in The Means of Escape range from a small boy who loses a locket in seventeenth-century England, to a rector’s daughter in nineteenth-century Tasmania, and a group of Victorian painters in Brittany. For some reason, I always feel her writing seems very authentic and each story is like spying down a telescope for a few moments into a completely different world. Some of the stories in the book are very brief, only little snapshots, but they all leave a strong and usually quite odd impression. Beehernz, the story of a visit to an ancient and eccentric musician on a remote Scottish island, was one of this kind, leaving me both wondering what it all means, and wishing for more about these unusual characters.
I liked the title story, about a young woman who helps an escaped convict she meets in church, and At Hiruharama, a moving story about a young couple expecting a child in New Zealand. Both of these stories reminded me of The Blue Flower, as they perform a similar trick of creating a very vivid image of the past and then returning to the present where all we have are old letters or keepsakes, admitting that there are some things, intangible things like thoughts and motivations, that we will never know, and that the reader has to imagine for him or herself. The story that has just been read is lost in the distant past, and its secrets will never be truly revealed.
The blurb on my copy points out the theme of ‘misunderstandings and missed opportunities’ in these stories. Some of the stories did leave me with a rather bittersweet feeling that the characters had missed some chance of happiness in their lives, that another person had entered their world for a moment but hadn’t been properly understood, and had disappeared before anything could really change. The Red-Haired Girl, about an artist and the servant girl who models for him, had this melancholy air about it. However, I don’t want to give the wrong impression, as the stories aren’t at all depressing; they are full of wit and absurdity, and make me laugh just as often as they make me feel a little sad! And Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing varies so much that there are many different themes and emotions in her work. The Axe, one of my favourites in this book, is a brilliantly creepy story about redundancies in an office, written in a very clever way as a report from an office worker to his manager.
I would love to know if other people enjoy Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing, and if anyone has read any of her non-fiction books.