THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald

reviewed by Fin Keegan

PENELOPE FITZGERALD experienced a dream denied to all but a lucky few: her debut novel was accepted by the first editor to read it. Within a year the book was published, to be swiftly followed by further and better books: a year later she had won the Booker Prize and captured a loyal, readership which was to grow steadily over the following years. Her final novel sold 100,00 copies in the United States alone. Until her recent death at 83, Penelope Fitzgerald was one of the most widely admired writers in the English language.
The difference of course–when is there not a difference–was that Penelope Fitzgerald was in her sixty-fourth year when this career began. Though resolutely English–daughter of a Punch editor, granddaughter on both sides of Anglican bishops–this debut novelist was as far from the Beatlish perception of sexagenarian dotage as was the late Quentin Crisp: Penelope Fitzgerald was, and remained to the day of her death, one of the world’s sharper tacks.

Penelope Fitzgerald


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     Also contrary to most writers, with every passing book Fitzgerald’s work has grown stronger and indeed a little stranger, though early work such as Human Voices(1980), an account of the Second World War as fought in the BBC, and The Bookshop (1978), a dark, funny tale of small-town ignorance, were of a high order and intensity to start with.
Born in December 1916, in Lincoln, England, Penelope was the daughter of Edmund Valpy and Christina Knox. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she took a First in English Literature just before Britain declared war on Germany. From there it was up to London, to posts at the Ministry of Food and the BBC until marriage to Desmond Fitzgerald in 1953, a rocky union which lasted until his death twenty-three years later and produced three children. She has also worked in a bookshop and as a teacher for Westminster Tutors. It was her husband’s final illness that ostensibly prompted her to write her first book–she read it aloud to him–but one wonders if her father’s death five years before was mere coincidence.

Fitzgerald’s stylistic arsenal is formidable, produced by a mind of great intellectual and artistic reach: she uses anonymous interlocutors with ease, tends to cut as late or later into the action as few writers since Chekhov, stylishly switches from direct to indirect speech, deploys metonymy and anecdote artfully, and is unfailingly familiar with the arcane vocabularies of her locales. One is always aware of a writer restless to develop her stories in unexpected ways. When she is clever she is very clever and when she is funny she is very funny, but Penelope Fitzgerald’s abiding interest lies outside the cerebral, in the realm of impulse and impulsiveness. She depicts unconventional loves with an understanding and comprehension which bespeak a great heart, matched by the resolve to lay bare the mixture of altruistic and self-serving motives that, good or bad, we are all prey to. There is also a refreshing variation among her books which recalls Greene or Mann. Read the blurbs of her other titles and you feel like reading them all. Her books sound interesting. And most intriging among them is The Blue Flower, a short novel of fifty-five chapters which tells the story of an eighteenth century poet-nobleman who falls in love with a fourteen year old girl.

Baron Friedrich Leopold Von Hardenberg, Novalis, was born in Prussian Saxony in 1772. Like all good German Romantics, he was as gifted an intellectual as he was poet. He studied law at the University of Jena. In his early twenties, having fallen deeply in love–and at first sight no less–he became engaged to Sophie von Kühn. Within three years she was dead of tuberculosis, precipitating a grief transmuted and passed down to us in his Hymns to the Night (Hymnen an die Nacht). It is this crazy love (Novalis, engaged again in 1801, was himself to die of TB before the wedding day) that forms the heart of The Blue Flower.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s elliptical style, propensity to withhold information, and her fondness for brief, brilliantly lit episodes told from shifting perspectives–the whole thankfully governed by great storytelling and rapid, memorable characterization–suits well her Romantic subject matter.  And the subject in turn is entirely suited to Fitzgerald’s preferred method of anonymous interlocutors, obscure correspondences, and inklings of one sort or another. But Fitzgerald also possesses the thoroughly modern conviction that the heart of the historical is domestic life and the individual experience. Thus the student Novalis has to empty the ailing Schiller’s chamberpot. The poet himself noted in Goethe a predilection for connecting “small, insignificant incidents with important events”. Just so with his later chronicler: Fitzgerald introduces us to the young Baron Von Hardenburg in the midst of household laundry. (Not that she shrinks from the rich personalities of the time–the Schlegels, Schiller, Fichte, and Goethe himself all make memorable appearances).
Fitzgerald’s Sophie von Kühn is plain and giggly, though honest and remarkably courteous given the attentions of her unexpected suitor. The best anyone else seems able to say for her is that she has pretty hair. Nonetheless, for the poet she represents moral grace and human perfection, the being to whom, unbidden, his heart has opened (in its way Novalis’ love is a Romantic equivalent of another literary nobleman’s, Don Quixote’s, love for Dulcinea, and, of course, the dapper spectre of Humbert Humbert cannot but peep over the pages as we read).
But perhaps, for all his theoretical massaging of reality, it is the family as much as the girl he is in love with: the spontaneous and joyful Von Kühns are reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Rostov clan. The Von Hardenburgs, by contrast, are a large and bustling family with spirited, precocious children, sensitive spirits that suffer under the yoke of a father in thrall to the harsh doctrines of a local Protestant sect. It is striking how the well-being of these households flow so directly from the temperamental disposition of their Heads.
Striking too is the fact that Fitzgerald’s characters, at least the ones she is interested in, hard-working men and harder-working women, speak their mind without reservation–and without being talkative. (Novalis, we are told, does speak a mile a minute, but we rarely see him do so and, besides, unlike rattling vessels, he is merely driving away at problems, so to speak, ex camera).

A final note: Penelope Fitzgerald employed the delightful habit, now unfashionable, of naming her chapters. Titles run from “A Quarter of an Hour” to “How to Run a Salt Mine”. And there is no shortage of chapters to name: in 226 pages there are 55 chapters and an Afterword. It ought not to succeed, a narrative so broken up it risks amounting to a manual of stylistics. But succeed it does; and magnificently, out of a steady depiction of Novalis’ philosophical and spiritual growth for one, but also because the prose, often so jumpy and elliptical as to be disconcerting, flows from a poetic intensity rare in the generations succeeding this singular writer.

Fin Keegan

A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Fiction