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Grandmother’s Footsteps

Penelope Fitzgerald, 9 April 1992

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China 
by Jung Chang.
HarperCollins, 524 pp., £17.50, March 1992, 0 00 215357 2
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... Jung Chang’s grandmother, Yu Fang, walked ‘like a tender young willow in a spring breeze’, meaning that she could only totter because her feet had been bound and the arches crushed with a stone. If this was not done, a girl would be exposed to the contempt of her husband’s family and she would blame her mother for weakness. Fifty years later, Jung Chang herself was 14 when the Red Guards were organised in her school ...

Holy Terrors

Penelope Fitzgerald, 4 December 1986

‘Elizabeth’: The Author of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ 
by Karen Usborne.
Bodley Head, 341 pp., £15, October 1986, 0 370 30887 5
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Alison Uttley: The Life of a Country Child 
by Denis Judd.
Joseph, 264 pp., £15.95, October 1986, 0 7181 2449 9
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Richmal Crompton: The Woman behind William 
by Mary Cadogan.
Allen and Unwin, 169 pp., £12.95, October 1986, 0 04 928054 6
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... These three women writers were mythmakers. Alison Uttley created Little Grey Rabbit (1929-1973), Richmal Crompton thought of Just William and kept him going for 48 years, May Annette Beauchamp invented herself as Elizabeth. All three of them were, and had to be, resilient women, gallant survivors, Elizabeth in particular. As May Beauchamp, she had, after all, a doubtful start ...

Finest People

Penelope Fitzgerald, 3 December 1992

Letters from Margaret: Correspondence between Bernard Shaw and Margaret Wheeler 1944-50 
edited by Rebecca Swift.
Chatto, 279 pp., £13.99, November 1992, 0 7011 4783 0
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... In 1944 GBS was a widower of 89, dying, as we like celebrities to do, in public, and still in receipt of hundreds of letters every month from admirers, enquirers, beggars and cranks. They were in search, sometimes of money, more often of sympathetic magic. To many of them Shaw sent printed reply cards which he had ready on a wide range of subjects. In 1944 Margaret Wheeler, a Workington housewife of 35 with four small children, set herself to attract Shaw’s serious attention ...

Farewell Hong Kong

Penelope Fitzgerald, 24 February 1994

The Mountain of Immoderate Desires 
by Leslie Wilson.
Weidenfeld, 374 pp., £15.99, February 1994, 0 297 81371 4
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... Samuel Pink is brought up in an English country rectory in the 1880s. He knows that the Pinks are not his real father and mother. He believes that he is the illegitimate son of Queen Victoria by her servant John Brown, who must have ‘lifted his kilt’ on some unrecorded occasion. Everywhere, on tea-caddies and biscuit-tins, he looks proudly at images of his mother’s face ...

Seeing and Being Seen

Penelope Fitzgerald: Humbert Wolfe, 19 March 1998

Harlequin in Whitehall: A Life of Humbert Wolfe 
by Philip Bagguley.
Nyala, 439 pp., £24.50, May 1997, 0 9529376 0 3
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... An obituary,’ Virginia Woolf wrote on Saturday, 6 January 1940. Humbert Wolfe. Once I shared a packet of choc creams with him at Eileen Power’s. An admirer sent them. This was a fitting tribute. A theatrical-looking glib man. Told me he was often asked if I were his wife. Volunteered that he was happily married, though his wife lived – Geneva? I forget ...

Renewing the Struggle

Penelope Fitzgerald: Edward White Benson, 18 June 1998

Father of the Bensons: The Life of Edward White Benson, Sometime Archbiship of Canterbury 
by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd.
Lennard, 226 pp., £16.99, May 1998, 1 85291 138 7
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... It’s more of a difficulty than a help that so much has been written about the Bensons (Palmer and Lloyd have already done a biography of Fred Benson) and that the family should have written so much about themselves. The Archbishop kept diaries, and his wife Minnie wrote two – one a dutiful sightseer’s journal, kept at her husband’s suggestion on her honeymoon, another one 20 years later which told some, at least, of the story of her heart ...

Distant Sheep

Penelope Fitzgerald, 21 July 1994

Alice 
by John Bayley.
Duckworth, 192 pp., £14.99, May 1994, 0 7156 2618 3
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... John Bayley’s new novel is largely about those who are had on, or taken in, and this may well include his readers, who need to keep their wits about them. To begin with, he conjures up a couple of innocents. There was an innocent, too, as hero in his last novel, In Another Country, published in 1955. But Oliver, a young officer with the British army of occupation, was a worrier and a sensitive, risking trouble for the sake of his German girlfriend, and contrasted with his hideously successful rival ...

Little Nips

Penelope Fitzgerald, 26 May 1994

The Moment between the Past and the Future 
by Grigorij Baklanov, translated by Catherine Porter.
Faber, 217 pp., £14.99, March 1994, 0 571 16444 7
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The Soul of a Patriot 
by Evgeny Popov, translated by Robert Porter.
Harvill, 194 pp., £8.99, April 1994, 0 00 271124 9
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... The moment between the past and the future is brought home to Zhenya Usvatov, the prosperous First Deputy of the Theatre Workers’ Union, when he wakes in his well-appointed dacha and turns on his Japanese radio. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth at this time in the morning! On TV he sees a black-suited orchestra sawing away – but the first violinist has been dead for six months: he remembers signing the widow’s pension form ...

Bringers of Ill Luck and Bad Weather

Penelope Fitzgerald: Anne Enright, 2 March 2000

What Are You Like 
by Anne Enright.
Cape, 257 pp., £10, March 2000, 0 224 06063 5
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... In Anne Enright’s collection The Portable Virgin (published in 1991) the first story is about Cathy, who works in the handbag department of a large Dublin store. Cathy classifies the customers by the bags she induces them to buy, bags which ‘take them one step beyond who they thought they might be.’. Cathy marries late, but only falls violently in love when a ‘loose, rangy woman’ comes into the store and fingers the most beautiful of imports, ‘an Argentinian calf-skin shoulder bag in tobacco brown ...

Sunny side up

Penelope Fitzgerald, 9 September 1993

The Stone Diaries 
by Carol Shields.
Fourth Estate, 361 pp., £12.99, September 1993, 1 85702 154 1
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... The Stone Diaries’ (though there are in fact no diaries, they are said to have been lost) because everyone raised in the Orphans’ Home in Stonewall Township, Manitoba is given the name of Stone, because Mercy Stone’s husband, Cuyler Goodwill, works in the limestone quarries, because her neighbour, the dour Magnus Flett, comes from the stony Orkneys, because Mrs Flett is killed when she falls against the sharp stone corner of the Bank, because for all of us the living cells will be replaced in death by ‘the insentience of mineral deposition ...

Large and Rolling

Penelope Fitzgerald, 31 July 1997

The Scholar Gypsy: The Quest for a Family Secret 
by Anthony Sampson.
Murray, 229 pp., £16, May 1997, 0 7195 5708 9
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... Anthony Sampson begins and ends his book with an account of his grandfather’s funeral, held, as requested in his will, at the top of a Welsh mountain, Foel Goch. Among the mourners were Gypsy harpers and fiddlers, scholars, civic officials and ‘the painter Mr Augustus John’. ‘Hundreds of spectators,’ it was reported, ‘waited for the coming of the mortal remains of Dr John Sampson, the well-known philologist and librarian of Liverpool University ...

Cold Smoke, Wet Rubble

Penelope Fitzgerald, 20 July 1995

The Silent Angel 
by Heinrich Böll, translated by Breon Mitchell.
Deutsch, 173 pp., £14.99, October 1994, 0 233 98907 2
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... This is Heinrich Böll’s apprentice novel, written between 1949 and 1951. Since Friedrich Middelhauve, who published his stories, was unwilling to bring out the novel, Böll put it by and with professional economy used passages from it in later books. For that reason it wasn’t published in his lifetime but has come out now, to mark what would have been his 75th birthday ...

Following the plot

Penelope Fitzgerald, 21 February 1980

... Suppose I were to try to write a story which began with a journey I made to the North of Mexico 27 years ago, taking with me my son, then aged five. We were going to pay a winter visit to two old ladies called Delaney who lived comfortably, in spite of recent economic reforms, on the proceeds of the family silver mine. They had lived in Fonseca ever since they were girls – one was sister-in-law to the other ...

Family Life

Penelope Fitzgerald, 25 March 1993

Poet and Dancer 
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Murray, 199 pp., £14.99, April 1993, 0 7195 5189 7
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Peerless Flats 
by Esther Freud.
Hamish Hamilton, 218 pp., £14.99, February 1993, 0 241 13385 8
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... of Poet and Dancer is the Manhattan of the recent past, still almost as pastoral as Scott Fitzgerald makes it in The Great Gatsby. Angel gets her early vision of the city from the attic of her grandparents’ brownstone, ‘looking down into the little paved garden with the brilliant new towers rising above and round her’. All through the first part ...

Jerusalem

Penelope Fitzgerald, 3 December 1981

Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith 
edited by Jack Barbera and William McBrien.
Virago, 359 pp., £9.95, October 1981, 9780860682172
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... Stevie Smith said that she was straightforward, but not simple, which is a version of not waving but drowning. She presented to the world the face which is invented when reticence goes over to the attack, and becomes mystification. If you visited Blake and were told not to sit on a certain chair because it was for the spirit of Michelangelo, or if Emily Dickinson handed you a single flower, you needed time to find out how far the mystification was meant to keep you at a distance, and to give you something to talk about when you got home ...

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