Penelope Fitzgerald, author of The Blue Flower & The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald, A Life

Penelope Fitzgerald (December 17, 1916 – April 28, 2000) was a novelist, essayist, and biographer  widely regarded as one of the greatest British writers of her generation.

She began her career later in life — her first successful novel (The Bookshop, 1978) was published when she was sixty-one — and went on to win the Booker Prize in 1979. It was also adapted into a 2017 feature film starring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels have been described as “strange and original masterpieces” by her biographer, Hermione Lee, and her final work, The Blue Flower, is widely regarded as one of the best historical novels ever written.


Early life and education

Penelope Fitzgerald was born Penelope Mary Knox in Lincoln, England, in 1916. Her older brother Rawle was born in 1913.

Her father, Edmund Knox, had left Oxford University without a degree but was a successful satirical journalist at the magazine Punch and later became its editor. He and his three brothers  (one a mathematical genius, one a celibate monk, and one the Catholic chaplain at Oxford University) were the subjects of a later biography by Penelope called The Knox Brothers (1977).

Penelope’s mother, Christina, the daughter of the bishop of Lincoln, was one of the first women students at Somerville College, Oxford. Her family’s religious connections had a strong influence on Penelope, who remained a dedicated churchgoer all her life.

She was sent away to Wycombe Abbey, an independent girls’ boarding school, at the age of eight. She did well academically, as her family expected of her, and was awarded a scholarship to Oxford University in the mid-1930s. She graduated with a First and was named a “Woman of the Year” in Isis, the student newspaper.

It was at Oxford that she met her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald. They married in 1942, four years after graduating. Desmond had studied law, but enlisted in the Irish Guards and was sent to North Africa, where he saw heavy fighting in Libya.

Penelope herself spent the war years working a variety of jobs — at the BBC, the Ministry of Food, and as a writer for Punch. She began to make a name for herself in journalistic and literary circles, even though she wasn’t yet writing fiction.


Post-war poverty

In the early 1950s, Penelope continued to be involved in the literary world. Alongside Desmond, she co-edited the cultural journal World Review, contributing articles on subjects as diverse as Alberto Moravia, Italian sculpture, and Spanish painting.

By 1953, she and Desmond had three children: Valpy, Tina, and Maria. But things began to quickly fall apart when the World Review failed, and Desmond began to drink heavily. Their finances were tight, and Penelope once found herself having to cut down her own clothes to make trousers for Valpy.

In 1957, they escaped the expense of London and their Hampstead home and moved to Southwold on the Suffolk coast, where Penelope worked in a bookshop. Despite being cheaper, this still proved unaffordable. In 1959 the auctioneers were called in, and the family’s belongings were confiscated.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Penelope Fitzgerald in middle age

. . . . . . . . . . .

“My house sank”: Teaching and life on a houseboat

The family returned to London and rented a houseboat on the Thames. Conditions were primitive, with frequent power cuts, little food, and permanent dampness. Penelope slept in the living room (and would continue to do so for the rest of her life, even when there was a bedroom available), and for at least a year, Tina and Maria didn’t attend school.

Penelope began teaching in 1960. Her first post was at a performing arts school, and then she moved to Westminster Tutors (a “crammer” for those in their last two years of secondary school, where her students over the years included Anna Wintour, Edward St. Aubyn, and Helena Bonham Carter). She continued to teach until the mid-1980s.

By this time, however, Desmond’s drinking had reached a critical level. He was convicted in 1962 of stealing money from his law offices for alcohol. He was given two years probation and disbarred. He eventually found work in a travel agency, where he remained until he died of a terminal illness in 1976 at the age of 59.

In 1963, further disaster struck when the houseboat started to sink into the Thames and was towed away. Penelope arrived a few hours late for her classes at Westminster Tutors. With characteristic understatement said to her students, “I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank.” It took with it what archives she possessed, including all her wartime letters to Desmond.

Instead of asking for help from her father, who was comfortably off in Hampstead, Penelope moved her family into one of the City of London’s homeless shelters in Hackney where they stayed for four months. They then received council housing near Clapham Common, where they lived for eleven years.

. . . . . . . . . . .

So I have thought of you - letters of Penelope Fitzgerald

. . . . . . . . . . .

Literary success later in life

Penelope only turned to writing seriously once all her children had left home. Initially, she wrote nonfiction and over the years published the biographies Edward Burne-Jones (1975), Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984). She also wrote a biography of her father’s family, The Knox Brothers (1977).

Her first novel, The Golden Child, (1977) was a comic murder mystery written to amuse Desmond, who was seriously ill at the time. But her breakthrough success came with The Bookshop, published in 1978 when she was sixty-one. It drew on her experiences in Southwold and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Over the next seventeen years, she published seven more novels, including Offshore, a sharp but affectionate portrait of the “houseboat people” she had met during her time living on the Thames.

They were, in Penelope’s words, drifters “who aspired towards the Chelsea shore” but were condemned by “a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people.” The novel, which focused on the rift between a husband and wife, won the Booker Prize in 1979.

While her earliest novels drew largely on her own experiences, her later historical novels often required a great deal of research, from methods of bribing the police in pre-revolutionary Moscow (The Beginning of Spring), to neurology (Innocence) to salt mining (The Blue Flower). For this latter, she “had read the records of salt mines from cover to cover in German to understand how her hero was employed.”

But like many female novelists of the time, her public recognition came with a certain amount of misogyny attached, and her literary efforts and successes were often met with dismissal.

In 1977 her nonfiction publisher Richard Garnett informed her that she was “only an amateur writer,” to which she replied, “…how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?”

She never liked to draw attention to herself and referred to The Blue Flower (which many regard as her finest) as “a novel of sorts.” It was chosen nineteen times as Book of the Year by the press, and won America’s National Book Critics Circle Award.

Penelope Fitzgerald died in London in April 2000 at the age of eighty-three.

. . . . . . . . . . .

The Bookshop movie poster

. . . . . . . . . . .

Penelope Fitzgerald’s legacy

Fellow novelist Julian Barnes wrote in a tribute after her death that she “comported herself as if she were a jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world.” Appearances, however, were deceiving.

Penelope Fitzgerald is widely regarded as one of the greatest British novelists: in 2008, The Times listed her as one of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945,” and in 2012, The Observer placed The Blue Flower among the “ten best historical novels.”

Her books are all still in print, and collections of her short stories (The Means of Escape) and essays (A House of Air) were published posthumously. A film adaptation of The Bookshop was released in 2017, directed by Isabel Coixet and starring Emily Mortimer.

Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes

Recent articles by Elodie Barnes on this site:

More about Penelope Fitzgerald

Major works: Novels

  • The Golden Child  (1977)
  • The Bookshop  (1978)
  • Offshore  (1979)
  • Human Voices  (1980)
  • At Freddie’s  (1982)
  • Innocence (1986)
  • The Beginning of Spring  (1988)
  • The Gate of Angels  (1990)
  • The Blue Flower (1995)

Short stories, letters, and other writings

  • A House of Air: Selected Writings by Penelope Fitzgerald (2003)
  • So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald by Penelope Fitzgerald and Terence Dooley (2008)
  • Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (2014)
  • The Means of Escape: Short Stories by Penelope Fitzgerald  (2000)

More information

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *