Review: ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’


Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life
By Hermione Lee

  • Date Finished: May 5, 2015
  • Genre: Biography
  • Year: 2013
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2015
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon finishing:

It was really interesting to read Penelope Fitzgerald. First of all, I broke my cardinal rule regarding what I read in that I picked this book based solely on hype. This book was on so many year-end best-of lists in 2014, my curiosity was immediately peaked. Two, it was a biography, a genre I don’t  typically read too readily (even though I want to read more).

And three, I honestly knew absolutely nothing about Penelope Fitzgerald, other than she was British and an author. That’s about it. I have never read any of her books, and despite my English degree and general Anglophilia, I had never really heard much about this woman. In fact, I want to say I hadn’t heard of her…at all? Isn’t that awful? Here’s Penelope Fitzgerald, a popular and well-known author from the 80’s and 90’s – an author who won the Booker Prize, mind you – and on this side of the Atlantic…nothing. Not much of a legacy in American pop culture, there’s not much discussion around her in college classrooms. It’s a shame really.

But that’s why reading this book was so interesting; by reading Ms. Lee’s very, very, very good biography, I was able to discover an amazing, strong, idiosyncratic and masterful author who had an important role in the evolution of modern British fiction. She also had quite the amazing life, of which Hermione Lee expertly reconstructs for us. Fitzgerald’s literary legacy aside, I think this sensitive portrayal is what made Penelope Fitzgerald so enjoyable to read. Like I said, I knew nothing about this woman (which is not typical when one sits down to read a biography of a Famous Person), and so I had no expectations other than to be entertained and learn something new. I can definitively say that happened, and I’m now so impressed with Ms. Lee, that her biography of Virginia Woolf (of whom I do know a lot about) has now jumped higher on my TBR pile.

Flaws of this book? Well, it was long. It was slow. It took me…a long time to finish (though that’s probably due to general life events rather than my interest in this book). My general lack of knowledge of the world in which Penelope Fitzgerald lived also didn’t help me in fully understanding her, though I was happy with myself when I recognized some names. If anything, this book showed me how much there is to learn in this reading world, and how many amazing books and authors there are still to discover. I can’t wait.


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