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The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

With its strange title, and its impressive author, The Blue Flower has a fine literary reputation. For some it is Penelope Fitzgerald’s best book. It’s been called a masterpiece (Candia McWilliam, Hermione Lee and AS Byatt), a jewel (Carmen Callil), was the most frequently chosen Book of the Year in 1995 and so on, and so on.  My response is that it is an odd book, compelling, funny and ultimately not your run-of-the-mill novel.

The Blue Flower

In this novel the blue flower appears in a chapter of a novel written by Fritz. He reads the opening section to his story twice, once to Karoline and then to Sophie and her sister the Mandelsloh. He asks them to tell him what they think is the meaning of the blue flower. He does not get an answer, and the reader is also left to find their own understanding. The blue flower, the motif of European romanticism, signifies desire, love and the impossibility of perfection.

Fritz is the young man who would eventually adopt the name Novalis, a German romantic poet, who died of consumption in 1801. Penelope Fitzgerald imagines his life during the years before he became famous: 1790-1797. In these years he was studying a variety of subjects at various universities and was sent to learn administration from an old friend of his father. This was the time of great upheaval in Europe as a result of the French Revolution. Scientific and philosophical ideas were spreading amongst intellectuals like Fritz and his circle. 

The most significant thing that happened to Fritz, during those years, was to come across Sophie, the daughter of an associate of his mentor. He instantly becomes obsessed with the girl. He told his friends, ‘something has happened to me.’

Fritz is Friedrich von Hardenberg is the son of minor German nobility. Sophie is the step-daughter of an opportunist of much lower rank. Neither family are well off. There are many arguments to be made against any match between Fritz and Sophie. As well as of lower social status, Sophie is only 12, and has not a great deal to recommend her. She does not return Fritz’s passion; she lacks education, beauty, poise and intellect. 

Here is her diary from 1795:

January 8
Today once again we were alone and nothing much happened.
January 9
Today we were again alone and nothing much happened.
January 10
Hardenburch came at mid-day.
January 13
Today Hardenburch went away and I had nothing amuse me. (133)

Penelope Fitzgerald is rightly praised for her detailed research. I referred to it recently when I reviewed her novel of an English family in Moscow before the First World War The Beginning of Spring. In The Blue Flower we have great details about the domestic affairs of impoverished landed nobility in Germany in the late eighteenth century, and about other matters such as an operation without anaesthetic. The opening scene is a good example. Jacob Dietmahler has come to visit Fritz but finds the courtyard full of washing. Dietmahler is a medical student and he reappears at the end of the novel.

… Dietmahler ‘s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might not mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case it didn’t, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family also. (1)

I love this scene. The ancient house, the ‘dingy snowfall’ of the laundry, already creating a contrast with the stone walls, the long list of items, the ‘no more’ added after the enormous number of shirts owned by Dietmahler, the involvement of different people and the final clause of that long rhythmic sentence they washed only once a year. So we have the domestic routine of a large house at that time, some knowledge of the family and Fritz’s friend arriving at a bad time.

I wrote in May 2008 when I first read it:

The pleasure of the novel lies in the juxtaposition of the high-minded philosophising, new ideas in medicine and the meaning of life, alongside the everyday. On the whole the women represent the everyday – especially Karoline and the Mandelsloh. They cherish Fritz. His father, brothers, friends represent the outside world and the grappling with new ideas. But in the end, one is not convinced of the love for Sophie, or the beliefs in the new ideas. The material world seems to win out in the end.

Now I think that his obsession with Sophie is not intended to convince the reader. Fritz is a man of ideas and many connections. He delights in them. His engagement to Sophie is both a reflection of the new romantic ideas and an interruption to Fritz’s life. But even after Sophie’s death they bring him little reward. In the end, we all have to deal with the material world and the finality of death.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in 1995. I used the edition published by Flamingo in 1996. 290pp 

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The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald falls periodically into the category of neglected female writer. The publisher of her first novel refused to consider any more from her arguing that she was ‘only an amateur writer’. Penelope Fitzgerald responded to his sexism-ageism with insight and wit. 

I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

Two years later in 1979 she published Offshore which won the Booker Prize. Three other novels written by her were included in Booker Prize shortlists, including The Beginning of Spring. She doesn’t sound like an amateur to me.

The focus of her novels is very varied: historical, European, a bookshop in Suffolk, a houseboat on the Thames. And with each novel she probes deeply, exploring her themes with wit and meticulous research or knowledge. The Beginning of Spring is a novel to recommend highly, which presents as being about a mystery, but widens the idea to explore the mystery of people’s reactions to the changes in their lives.

The Beginning of Spring

The setting of this novel is curious. We are in Moscow, in the period between the first stirrings of revolution in 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War which brought on the fall of the Romanovs, and the Bolshevik Revolution. 

Her main character is also a curious choice: Frank Reid owns a printshop in Moscow, inherited from his father. He lives with his wife Nellie and their three children, supported by another Englishman, Selwyn Crane, a follower of Tolstoy. He is the printworks manager and a poet. 

The events of the story take place over a few weeks, that period when Moscow begins to emerge from the lockdown of winter. Everything in this novel is about change: the weather, the marriage of Frank and Nellie, the children who are growing up, the politics of Tsarist Russia, even new technology in the print business.

It is Frank we follow in this story of change, whose wife leaves him at the beginning of the novel. As he comes to terms with her disappearance, he must decide what to do about the care of the children, rather alarmingly sent back from a railway station having begun the journey with Nellie, and treated like so much unwanted baggage. He must also keep the print works going at a time of industrial unrest and subjection to the many imperial regulations applied to foreign businesses. 

He employs a young woman whom Selwyn has found, and she becomes a kind of governess for the children. Frank falls for her. But it seems that her life is not without complications, for a student breaks into the print works one night seemingly connected to her in some way.

Frank appears to be a rational man, but he is as caught up in the mysteries and changes brought by life as any of the characters are. Selwyn is much concerned about the print run of his poems Birch Tree Thoughts. He is known as a man who tries to do good for everyone, but a more selfish side is revealed towards the end of the novel. 

While change is the dominant theme and reflected in the title, another theme of the novel is strangeness, foreignness. The small English community in Moscow is depicted as very small-minded and full of gossip. Tolstoy’s philosophies do not sit well with British conservatism nor with the radical politics of the student revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia. Selwyn Crane’s poems have to be set in English in Roman type, whereas the printworks uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The children are able to negotiate the boundaries between Russia and their English family, even if they do not understand what they see, such as the gathering in the birch trees near the dacha. The adults are all in search of some utopian life. 

There are some splendid depictions of smaller characters; Kuriatin is a neighbour, nouveau riche and keen to show off his westernised purchases. The chief craftsman at the printshop Tvyordov; Charlie, Frank’s brother who visits during Nellie’s absence. Each of these characters are individuals, with complicated lives and to a greater or lesser degree, with very little knowledge of the world outside their own concerns.

Nothing is clear, but the season turns into spring and we learn about Nellie’s departure and her plans, and as the novel ends Nellie returns. 

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000)

She published her first novel when she was 61. She had been active in the London literary world having worked as an editor and a biographer before embarking on her own fiction. She led a difficult life, not least because her husband was debarred, having passed dodgy cheques, forcing the family to live in near poverty, including for a while on a houseboat on the Thames which sank. She used her experiences in some of her novels, the houseboat being the setting of Offshore.

The Beginning of Spring was set in Moscow, a place that she had only visited once. Despite this the novel is full of details of the city. She also included information about the printing trade, and details of Russian life that indicate her depth of research. The research is not produced clunkily, to impress the reader, rather it is used to enhance her themes of change and foreignness. 

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in1988 by Collins. I used the edition by Flamingo from 2003. 246pp

Related post

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)

Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018) 

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews