'Penelope Fitzgerald'

PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A Life. By Hermione Lee. Knopf. 488 pages. $35.

Hermione Lee, champion biographer of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, opens her book on Penelope Fitzgerald with an epigraph from "The Blue Flower," Fitzgerald's last novel: "If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching."

How appropriate! Lee has on her hands with Fitzgerald a writer who was philosophically and practically devoted to unanswered questions. She valued endurance and evasion in her life, and omission became a hallmark of her style as a novelist. For Lee, the story of Fitzgerald's life is "partly a story about lateness - patience and waiting, a late start and a late style."

When she went down from Oxford, Fitzgerald, who was named a "woman of the year" by the student newspaper, wrote that she had been reading for 17 years: "When I go down I want to start writing." Yet, she didn't publish her first book until age 60. What happened? Lee does a beautiful job of finding some answers and leaving us searching for others.

Let's begin with Penelope Fitzgerald's own statement of her allegiances: "I can only say that however close I've come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions - I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise, how can we manage to bear it?"

Fitzgerald learned early that order and mayhem often rub shoulders. Her novels bear out her convictions: witty, compressed, vivid, they have a real bite and can erupt suddenly into wildness. A Fitzgerald book is like no one else's.

She began life with a strong sense of her own distinction. Her father was one of the very interesting Knox brothers - she published a biography of them in 1977 - the sons of an Anglican bishop. The Knoxes were an extraordinary crew: Her father Edmund was the editor of Punch; Dilly was a classical scholar and cryptographer who helped to decode the Enigma cipher; Wilfred was a High Anglican priest who lived in almost penitential poverty and never told a lie in his life; Ronnie was a Roman Catholic monsignor and a writer of detective fiction (Evelyn Waugh wrote his biography).

Fitzgerald, with her parents and older brother Rawle, lived in Hampstead in London, at the time a shabby genteel neighborhood with lamplighters, muffin men and strolling poets. After her star turn at Oxford, she took a job at the BBC, mostly writing educational scripts.

At this point, her life swerves. Fitzgerald met and married the man she called "my Irish soldier," Desmond Fitzgerald, a war hero and trained barrister. No letters, reminiscences, or journal entries survive to tell us what was on her mind. Friends say she knew he wouldn't be easy.

Fitzgerald continued to do work for the BBC and had a Sunday afternoon book show. Together, she and Desmond edited the "World Review," a journal that published first-rate international writing. At their high point, the Fitzgerald family (including three children) lived a swanky bohemian life, again in Hampstead. Early on, there were signs of strain. The family was overstretched financially, and Desmond was a problem drinker.

Lee tells a moving story of the Fitzgerald family's downward trajectory. Fitzgerald's bottomless compassion for all the provisional arrangements her characters make must trace in part back to her own upended life, with its moves in the night (from Hampstead); auctioneers disposing of property to pay off debts (Suffolk); damp, perilous living on a Thames barge; months with her children in a homeless shelter; and years on a council estate.

In the early 1960s, Desmond began intercepting checks meant for other lawyers in his chambers and cashing them at a public house. He pled guilty to 26 counts of forgery and was disbarred. Fitzgerald never spoke of it.

The world of makeshift lives with their small gains and huge deficits is the milieu of Fitzgerald's early, autobiographical novels. In one of them, "The Bookshop," she divides people into "exterminators and exterminatees." Fitzgerald could never be an exterminator, but she was also determined not to be exterminated.

From 1960 on, she taught school (among her students was Edward St. Aubyn). Lee writes, "A profile of Penelope Fitzgerald in these years might describe her as a middle-aged teacher, recovering from a traumatic period of homelessness and deprivation, living in a dreary council estate in south London with a disgraced alcoholic husband ... her early ambitions to be a writer catastrophically thwarted, her life obscure." In 1977, Fitzgerald published her first novel, to entertain Desmond, who was dying of cancer.

The question is: What took her so long? In 1989, Fitzgerald wrote a short piece, "Why I Write," listing her reasons for starting. They are: 1) "Because something compels me to tell stories. ... Unlike history, fiction can proceed with confidence"; 2) "I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated. ... The are not envious, simply compassless"; and 3) "I write to make money."

By then, she had won the Booker Prize for "Offshore," a novel based closely on her years of barge living. Each of her novels is a treat; the last four are compact masterpieces.

Hermione Lee's extraordinary book gives Penelope Fitzgerald her due. She delves as deeply as she can, but she also accepts Fitzgerald's silences, realizing that "she wrote about her own life but kept herself concealed."

Lee is an artist in the craft of life writing, as well as a supple reader and a sympathetic literary critic. Each of Fitzgerald's books shines in her telling. Bravo to Hermione Lee for leading hordes of recruits to Fitzgerald's work. Let the search continue.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.