The current number of the New York Review of Books* has an important article about the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. A major contemporary writer who started publishing her fiction at the age of sixty would be an object of interest under any circumstances, all the more so with the recent appearance of an engaging biography by a major literary scholar, Hermione Lee of Oxford. We know a little bit about this. In a recent post I mentioned some of the excellent lectures we heard at the Oxford “Meeting Minds” conference in September. One I didn’t mention was Hermione Lee’s account of the subject of her book — an account sufficiently engaging to induce Joan to buy a signed copy afterwards. Explaining the further dimensions of her interest will require digression.
One day in 1975 I was in the office of my late friend and colleague Carlos Baker. As we chatted, he was “going through his mail,” meaning setting a few things aside for later attention and throwing rather more things directly into the wastebasket after the briefest of glances. One of the pieces that fluttered unheeded toward the circular file caught my printer’s eye. It was a piece of two-color work on high quality paper, obviously letterpress. I dived for it and retrieved it.
It was an announcement by the William Morris Society of Great Britain of their intention to appoint a Resident Fellow of the Center in Kelmscott House, Morris’s old “town” residence in Hammersmith, London. The duties of the Fellow would be vaguely to “supervise work” and to give a series of several seminars on some aspect of William Morris’s life and work. The emoluments would be (1) free housing for fellow and fellow’s family in elegant Georgian mansion on the Thames, and (2) an honorarium of £1000. The deadline for receipt of applications was, as I remember, about a week away.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Any amateur printer knows somethingabout Morris. I also knew a little about the Victorian interest in the Middle Ages. So, I sat down and in about as much time as I now spend on a blog essay, wrote up a barely plausible proposal for a series of seminars on “Morris and Medievalism.” I suspect that my proposal was successful because it was the only proposal, but I don’t second-guess Providence. Thus came about one of the happiest years of our family life, and one that had a formative influence on our two older (and then only) children.
The life we knew at Kelmscott House would supply the matter for a dozen blog essays and probably a substantial comic novel. The house was indeed an elegant Georgian mansion, but it was in a semi-ruinous state. Its maintenance requirements far outstripped the resources of the underfunded William Morris Society, which may explain why its trustees not too much later sold it to Faye Dunaway! The William Morris Society itself was a barely stable compound of William Morris enthusiasts, including Communists, book arts people, fantasy literature fans, and little old ladies who loved “Willow Leaf” wallpaper. There were several other Morrisian and pseudo-Morrisian students living in various parts of the house, and an odd couple of ancient family retainers of “the Stevensons”, the previous freeholders, squatted unseen but not unsensed in the bowels of the cellar. But my subject today is Penelope Fitzgerald.
Morris has set up the Kelmscott Press in the large cellar floor of the house, and it was there that the immortal edition of Chaucer was produced. Morris’s friend, the great book-binder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, lived next door. Sir Emery Walker the typographer was right around the corner. But that was then. Now there was practically nothing left of the press except for one of the original Albions and a few banks of commercial foundry type. This was enough, however, for me to be able to offer to the public a short course in elementary techniques of letterpress — thus satisfying the “supervise work” clause of my fellowship.
A housewifely type named Penelope Fitzgerald showed up at my seminars. It was probably good that one could not tell from her timid manner that she had just published a biography of Morris’s great friend Burne-Jones and that she almost certainly knew more about my topic than I did. It was only when she appeared for the sparsely attended printing “lessons” that we got to know her a bit. I say “a bit” because we were wholly unaware of various important things happening in her life just as our paths crossed. According to Lee’s biography 1976 was the year her husband died (we never heard word of a husband) and that she began the rampage of fiction writing that would make her posthumously famous.
I think there is still extant somewhere in my vast but sadly undisciplined “archives” one copy of my handsome little brochure entitled Morris & Mediaevalism, a Bibliography, printed by me and Penelope Fitzgerald at Kelmscott House. Supposing I could ever locate this item, and supposing that people might credit my account of its origins — both probably suppositions “contrary to fact” in legal lingo — it might be worth a little money. It would be worth far more, though, as a souvenir of our brief friendship with the bright, odd, self-effacing lady who would before too long command a major literary biography by one of England’s most distinguished literary scholars.
*Alan Hollinghurst, “The Victory of Penelope Fitzgerald”