Penelope Fitzgerald

(1916-2000) – Booker Prize-winning writer

Penelope Fitzgerald was born into a literary family where ‘everyone was publishing, or about to publish something’, and her mother was a Somervillian. In 1935, Fitzgerald came to Somerville too, to study English. She was a brilliant student, graduating with a congratulatory First and gaining the accolade ‘Woman of the Year’ in the Isis (her First was so impressive that her exam scripts were kept by her tutor, though they are now sadly lost).

After Oxford, Fitzgerald worked for the BBC and established and edited a literary magazine. Her path to literary greatness, though, was neither smooth nor straight. In 1942, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whose time serving in the Western Desert (where he was decorated for bravery) saw him return to civilian life an alcoholic. A difficult, penurious period followed, with frequent spells of precarious living, including homelessness, a houseboat that sank twice and drudge work for Fitzgerald at an Oxbridge crammer.

Fitzgerald was 58 when she published her first book, a biography of Edward Burne-Jones. She said she wrote her first novel, The Golden Child, to amuse her husband during the last years of his life. After his death, Fitzgerald experienced a late and intense flowering of creativity, publishing her first five novels between 1977 and 1982. Offshore, inspired by her life on the embattled houseboat, won the Booker Prize in 1975. 1995 saw the publication of what is often regarded as her masterpiece, The Blue Flower, about the eighteenth-century German poet and philosopher Novalis. Acclaimed as one of the best historical novels ever written, it won the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1999, Fitzgerald was awarded the Golden PEN Award from English PEN for ‘a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature’. She died the following year. In 2013, her posthumous reputation was cemented by the publication of Hermione Lee’s biography.

Did you know? Fellow Booker Prize-winner Julian Barnes says that he has reread the first scene of The Blue Flower(which begins in the middle of washday), many times, ‘always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding’.

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