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
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)
Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018)