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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 

Related posts

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2022)

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)

Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018) 

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Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is being rediscovered yet again. She was acknowledged in her own time when this novel won the Booker Prize in 1979. Now her reputation is being revived by Hermione Lee’s biography, and enthusiastic articles by Julian Barnes. 4th Estate is reissuing her backlist. Great! But it’s a puzzle why Penelope Fitzgerald ever loses popularity. Successful novels by women seem to be forgettable. Something similar happened to Barbara Pym’s novels and to Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Even the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor is not widely regarded as an accomplished novelist.

Two years before she published Offshore Penelope Fitzgerald’s publisher informed her she was ‘only an amateur writer’. People refer to hobby writers with the same sneer. Her response was, ‘I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before your lose amateur status?’

Thankfully she was not put off and Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979. Everyone had assumed VS Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River would win. According to Jenny Turner in the LRB the BBC’s Book Programme suggested the judges had selected the wrong book. Sexism and ageism were at work, especially as Penelope Fitzgerald did not dress in the expected way.

A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.

74 PF

(Who else remembers what the Times said about Eleanor Catton when she won the Man Booker Prize in October last year? ‘She’s a chick, a slight pale (unassisted) blonde, … an unashamed nerd … but with pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness.’ Plus ca …)

74 OffshoreOffshore is a quirky tale about quirky people, who live on the shoreline of the Thames at Battersea Reach.

Between the Lord Jim, moored almost in the shadow of Battersea Bridge, and the old wooden Thames barges, two hundred yards upriver and close to the rubbish disposal wharfs and the brewery, there was a great gulf fixed. The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like othe people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be ‘successful’. They were not easily dislodged. But to sell your craft, to leave the Reach, was felt to be a desperate step, like those of the amphibians when, in earlier stages of the world’s history, they took ground. Many of these species perished in the attempt. (p2-3)

This gentle, generous humour and insight is typical of Offshore. The characters are all in one way or another losers in conventional terms. And yet they all have spirit and resourcefulness and an enviable sense of community. A charming aspect of this short novel is that the characters are revealed through the state of disrepair of their boats.

Nenna lives on Grace with her two children and is estranged from her husband. Much of the novels tension and drive arises from her feeble efforts to resolve her relationship with him. As a resident of a certain area of NE London for nearly 30 years I was amused by Nenna’s reaction to hearing his address in Stoke Newington:

 ‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’ (p40)

The other characters also live in something of a nether world. Richard, an ex-navy man, whose converted minesweeper Lord Jim is the smartest and most well maintained of the boats, cannot see that he may lose his wife who does not share his pleasure at living aboard. Maurice carriers on his trade as a male prostitute aboard his boat and is always about to make a better life for himself. His kindness extends to permitting Harry to store stolen goods on his boat. Willis is an old painter who lives on Dreadnought, a boat so poorly maintained it sinks even while he celebrates her sale. Hopeless. And Woodie lives separately from his wife during the summer, and then amicably in Purley in the winter, and is generous to all the inhabitants of the Reach.

Although they are quirky, the characters in Offshore are also comfortable because they are so flawed and so like all the people I know. We all occupy a shoreline between conventional mores and our own aspirations, expectations, obligations and ambitions. Re-reading this novel also reminded me of when I worked with troubled adolescents. The unexpected was always happening, events were always dramatic, rarely final.

The River Thames suffuses this novel, is almost another character with its moods, tides, mud and swells. Penelope Fitzgerald was drawing on her own experience of living on the river. And she knew a thing or two about sinking boats.

The only awkwardness was the daily life of the Nenna’s two children. Martha and Tilda seem as precocious as the kids in the tv comedy series Outnumbered. In 1961 these children were allowed to miss school and wander with little supervision – unbelievable in our times of compulsory schooling and testing and fears of paedophilia, let alone drowning.

74 PF noveld

If you have never read this novel, I hope I have kindled your interest. And if you have, I hope you may want to re-read it. Her other works are also enjoyable: The Bookshop, The Blue Flower, Innocence (recommended in Julian Barnes’s piece in the Guardian which you can read here).

 

Hermione Lee’s biography was enthusiastically reviewed by Philip Hensher in November 2013: here.

I note that Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel aged 61.

Next Readalong will be Stoner by John Williams, enthusiastically described as the novel of 2013 on Radio 4 and a must-read novel of 2013 by Julian Barnes. Time for me to catch up. Join me in March.

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