Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels

Shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, including with this novel from 1990, The Gate of Angels, Fitzgerald did win the Prize in 1979 with Offshore (unlike Beryl Bainbridge). I can’t help feeling, however, that she was robbed of it in 1995, when she wasn’t even shortlisted for The Blue Flower, which many consider to be her masterpiece.

Fizgerald was remarkably prolific for someone who started publishing novels quite late in life. Her work can be divided into two distinct periods: the earlier novels are based on her real-life experiences (she had a rather sad life, which prevented her from writing earlier), while the later ones are historical fiction. The Gate of Angels is set in 1912, so it falls in the latter category.

At first I barely noticed the 1912 timeline, because there is a timeless quality to the story – the age-old tension between town and gown, between the ivory tower and real life, between heart and mind, between youthful ideals and middle-aged ‘settling’. But then the period references start creeping in: the Suffragette movement, the revolution in physics about to kick off (and being violently opposed still in many quarters), the Cambridge colleges which are still not open to married fellows or to women. Plus, there is added poignancy to this love story when you realise that very soon all the young men will head off to war.

Yet, despite its serious subtext and accurate historical references, this book wears its research and knowledge very lightly. I spent most of the time chuckling my way through it. It is a novel of ideas, but it also utterly joyous and deeply humorous. We first see things through the eyes of Fred Fairly, a physicist and junior fellow at the all-male, rather stuffy (fictional) St Angelicus College in Cambridge. He is a naive, inexperienced young man, from a comfortable but not over-privileged background as a vicar’s son. Fitzgerald delights in joking about the discomfort of draughty vicarages throughout the book: here are just two separate instances:

The college had bever been thoroughly heated or dried out since its foundation, but Fred, who had been brought up in a rectory… saw no reason to complain.

The Rectory had been built with a solid dignity which, for the last twenty years or so, had been letting in the water everywhere.

By way of contrast, we then see life through the eyes of Daisy Saunders, who grew up in real poverty in south London, ‘where Stockwell turns into Brixton’. She is kind-hearted and resourceful, fearless and unsentimental, and is training as a probationer nurse at Blackfriars Hospital. However, her desire to help others gets her into trouble, she is kicked out of the hospital and makes her way to Cambridge to try and find a position in the hospital there.

Fred and Daisy’s lives collide – literally – in a road accident. They lose consciousness and come round in a farcical manner, in the same bed, wearing very little, in the house of the Wrayburn family. Mr Wrayburn is ‘the true voice of scholarly Cambridge’ and his reaction when he finds these two unknown people in his house results in one of the funniest paragraphs I’ve read in a long time:

‘Venetia, there are two total strangers in the nursery. One is a man, who has lost his clothes. The other is a woman, who, I think, has also lost her clothes… This is my house, as it happens. You mustn’t think me unwelcoming. My name is Wrayburn.’

It was clear that he had never been allowed to worry. That was not his work, worrying was done for him.

The person who does the worrying is quite possibly my favourite character in the book, the ‘exuberant charitable Mrs Wrayburn’, who studied for four years at Newnham, was the organising secretary of the debating society, and the Treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union, but of course could not get a degree at the time and made the fatal mistake of marrying a university lecturer without a fellowship – which means luncheon at home for her husband every day of the week. That tragi-comic paragraph listing all of the household items which need to be washed and dried, and how Mrs Wrayburn cannot find any maid to help her, because they live a little too far outside Cambridge is a real tour de force.

There are Dickensian traits to several of the other secondary characters too – so sharply and wittily observed, that they seem almost like caricatures. Holcombe is an acquaintance that Fred doesn’t particularly like but whom he just can’t shake off, who gives his unsolicited opinion pretty much all the time either in person or via letter. He has no qualms gatecrashing the Disobligers’ Society meeting (although he has only paid a term’s subscription, several years ago) merely to continue what he was saying to Fred in a note.

Dr Matthews, the Provost of St James, is looked down upon by other scholars for writing ghost stories in his spare time (I later found out that Fitzgerald based him upon M.R. James). When he reads one of his stories to the Junior Dean at his college, the latter believes there is a hint of sex in it.

‘I hope there is nothing of the kind… Sex is tiresome enough in novels. In a ghost story, I should have no patience with it.’

‘Surely if one doesn’t find sex tiresome in life, it won’t be tiresome in fiction.’

‘I do find it tiresome in life. Or rather, I find other people’s concern with it tiresome. One is told about it and told and told.’

I am particularly fond of Professor Flowerdew, who seems to get all the best lines. He is Fred’s mentor and decidedly against all the new-fangled particle physics, after all ‘an atom is not a reality, it is just a provisional idea’. He then goes on to give a pretty accurate description of the way research in physics will progress throughout much of the 20th century (‘elementary particles which are too strange to have anything but curious names, and anti-matter which ought to be there, but isn’t’, even chaos theory). Although Fred was initially excited by the perspective of working with Rutherford in this new revolutionary side of physics, he finds the perspective of gaining an elusive Junior Fellowship too enticing, so he follows common-sense rather than his heart. But when he meets Daisy, he finally allows his heart to take over.

So where are the ‘angels’ of the title? Well, it’s not just a reference to the name of the college. There are two instances where the supernatural seems to intervene: a ghost story which seems to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the book (a fanciful imagining by Dr Matthews which has real-life consequences) and the ending, when a gate mysteriously opens at just the right time. This may feel out of place in a novel that has been satirical and realistic in equal measure, with a wonderful eye for detail. I wasn’t entirely sure about this aspect, but I am guessing the author’s intention was to turn the story into a parable.

I read this together with a group of Twitter friends, and we enjoyed sharing quotes and references over the past week. I would really like to read more Fitzgerald this month and have borrowed another of her historical novels from the library, The Beginning of Spring.

22 thoughts on “Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels”

  1. Thanks for reminding me about Penelope Fitzgerald. I used to read her quite a lot, and enjoyed her writing. But she’d fallen off my radar. Time to rectify this!

    1. The library might have Offshore and The Bookshop, which seem to be her two best-known titles. But this one is a good place to start, because it really is very funny.

    1. Same here. And when Reem (Paper Pills), Frances Evangelista and Kim McNeill on Twitter suggested reading this one (which I have in two copies on my shelves) starting October 1st, it seemed like the perfect thing to do.

  2. I do like the bits you’ve shared here, Marina Sofia! That sly wit is really appealing to me. So is the set of characters. I love the observations, too – I can really see why this one appealed to you.

  3. Lovely review Marina! Fitzgerald is a terrific writer and I am looking forward to reading more of her books. I read The Beginning of Spring last month and thought it was very good – wonderfully odd and atmospheric.

  4. It’s years since I read this one, and I can’t say I had remembered it very well. I seem to remember liking it, but thinking it a bit odd in places.

  5. Wonderful write-up on one of my go-to authors though I’m still reeling from the idea that The Blue Flower didn’t make it on to the Booker shortlist. The way she wrote historical fiction is so different and might be my favorites.

    1. There are three Penelopes that I initially got mixed up: Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald and Penelope Mortimer. But each one of them is well worth reading.

  6. This has reminded me that I have this book – in fact I’ve had it for 5 years! It sounds great and it’s about time I read it – I could do with some humour right now.

  7. Wonderful review Marina. I’ve only read one Fitzgerald and wasn’t overwhelmed but it may be because I was expecting something it wasn’t. However, the quotes I’ve seen and the ones you give here do sound delicious so I think I should definitely give it another go! 😀

  8. There’s a trio of her novels collected in a handsome Everyman hardback, and I’ve posted on all of them, as well as one or two more; she’s become a firm favourite of mine. She combines, as you suggest, fine historical detail with psychological insight.

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