Lee (President/Wolfson Coll., Oxford; Biography: A Very Short Introduction, 2009) devotes her considerable talents for biography to Penelope Knox Fitzgerald (1916-2000), who didn’t publish her first book until the age of 58.
The author presents the story of Fitzgerald’s initially charmed life and her days at Oxford in the wildly political 1930s, where she discovered John Ruskin and William Morris, her intellectual heroes. She was preceded at Oxford by her mother, her father, the editor of Punch, and his brothers, and that earlier generation set a standard for intellectual writing that Penelope inherited. Her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, was equally talented but eventually drank away his career and life. For a time, the couple endured abject poverty, at one point living on an old barge in the Thames. Those two years were the subject of the Booker Prize–winning Offshore (1979), which depicted their perpetually damp home, which required a high tide to flush the toilet. That adventure ended when the boat sank with all her notes and papers. Fortunately for readers, Lee had access to the copious notes Fitzgerald made for each of her books. Even for works of pure fiction, she researched the smallest, seemingly insignificant facts. Lee’s biography will provide a vivid portrait for those who have not encountered Fitzgerald’s work and will prove immensely satisfying for her many fans. The author reproduces pieces of her subject’s writing at (occasionally too-) considerable length, but Fitzgerald’s mastery of phrasing and the beauty of her work should lead readers back to her books, particularly The Bookshop (1977), which was shortlisted for the Booker, or The Blue Flower, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998.
Another winning biography from Lee. Those who love Fitzgerald’s work will tuck this book right next to her volumes.