The Afterlife

by Penelope Fitzgerald
ISBN: 1582433208

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A Review of: The Afterlife: Essays and Criticism
by Eric Miller

Among the pieces posthumously collected in The Afterlife is Penelope Fitzgerald's review of Peter Ackroyd's Blake. Fitzgerald remarks parenthetically of the poet's marriage, "(He had fallen in love with [Catherine] because she pitied him, which seems to surprise Mr. Ackroyd, but pity was the great eighteenth-century virtue that Blake most earnestly tells us to cherish.)" This observation is at once comic, profound, and touching-and all the more so for being couched in the sotto voce of a bracketed aside. Fitzgerald provides no quotation to substantiate her claim about the primacy of pity in the universe of William Blake. But proof is easy to find in his poem "The Divine Image", from Songs of Innocence:

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Of course, Blake complements this picture of clemency with "A Divine Image", a poem that appears in some editions of Songs of Experience:

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face,
Terror, the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy, the Human Dress.

Like William Blake, Penelope Fitzgerald shows in her fiction a heartbreaking feel for the place of pity and cruelty in the lives of men, women and children. Perhaps Blake meant to make a distinction between our gift of mercy and our capacity to inflict harm. His first poem is entitled "The Divine Image". The title's definite article suggests that love is primary. Whereas "A Divine Image", introduced by an indefinite article, may imply that-though cruelty, jealousy, terror and secrecy are real, and must be acknowledged in any reckoning of the human spirit-they nevertheless comprise only a single strain, and not the dominant part of being human. The subtle labour that Fitzgerald's writing may perform is to educate the better side of our natures, which-with Blake-she would not shy from calling divine. She abhors cruelty and terror, especially when they are visited on the innocent. But she recognizes how thoroughly we can forgive one another. Reviewing Barbara Pym, Fitzgerald says that this writer understands her characters so well "that the least she can do is to forgive them." Forgiveness and silence go together. It is unseemly to speak of what we have forgiven, no matter what the magnitude of the transgression. The pitiless themselves properly awaken compassion.
Fitzgerald's fiction, such as The Blue Flower (1995), about the early manhood of Blake's contemporary, the German poet Novalis, is infused at times with laconic pity of great force. In The Blue Flower, Novalis-known in his youth by the homely name of Fritz-sometimes reads aloud from his fragmentary novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Like any novice writer, he is particularly eager to have his story interpreted. To his childlike fiance Sophie von Khn, Fritz says, "I shall read my introduction aloud, and you must tell me what it means." Sophie justifiably rejoins, "Do you not know yourself?" Fritz responds, "Sometimes I think I do." Fitzgerald's fiction is often as enigmatic as her character Fritz's. The reader of Fitzgerald's novels is gratified to discover the reticent author placed in the more voluble position of critic. From Fitzgerald's occasional prose, we can revive and augment our pleasure in her company, and infer some principles that governed the movements of her heart, her mind and her pen.
Each piece in The Afterlife contains at least one apercu that enhances the reader's grasp of Fitzgerald's world-view. Her introduction to Jane Austen's Emma emphasizes a topic not ordinarily much discussed: Austen's religious beliefs. Fitzgerald sensitively fixes on the phrase "sin of thought," which she notes is "a phrase familiar from the Evangelical examination of the conscience, and the book here is at its most serious." Fitzgerald continues: "Emma's love for her father has been, from the first, the way of showing the true deep worth of her character." In the Blake review to which I have already referred, Fitzgerald sums up the poet's character: "awkward to deal with, sometimes nervous, often contradictory, but incorruptible." That contradiction and incorruptibility may coexist in the same person is a verdict typical of Fitzgerald. Considering Richard Holmes's biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fitzgerald highlights Byron's-and many other people's-opinion that Coleridge "was worth saving at all costs." Here pity and admiration operate in concert to rescue a man known to be difficult, but recognized as miraculous. Fitzgerald shows an affinity for the Maine depicted in Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs: "We are in a world where silence is understood." Pondering Middlemarch, Fitzgerald remarks that George Eliot believed "there was no use in fighting against the future"; Fitzgerald adds, however, that Eliot "was always true to her own past." Fitzgerald's William Morris, like the later Goethe, values and practises "renunciation." Love and work, not enjoyment, are what we ought to ask of life. Yet (Fitzgerald quotes Morris's Novel on Blue Paper) we often find ourselves "as though we were on the threshold of a new world, one step over which (if we could only make it) would put life within our grasp. What is it?"
One answer Fitzgerald surprisingly gives to this question is that another world, not necessarily pleasant, does sometimes impinge on ours-that of poltergeists. A poltergeist, Fitzgerald recounts, occupied the Southwold bookstore in which she once worked: "I recognized that afternoon something I had never met with before-malignancy." Malignancy, then, exists. For example, Fitzgerald disesteems anyone who hurts children. In an otherwise compassionate consideration of Louis McNeice's life, she observes that, when the poet's wife ran off with another man, his son "was looked after by relations and hired help, and before long his father saw him only at intervals. There is no evidence that Louis compared Dan's childhood with his own." Surprisingly, a figure as reputedly cold as Evelyn Waugh is praised for his paternal scruple: "although he affected to think little of his children he in fact got to know them, as individuals, very well." Fitzgerald says that the Waugh "family, as so often happens in large country households, formed a conspiracy against the outside world, not feeling the necessity to explain itself."
This observation elucidates Fitzgerald's treatment of the Hardenbergs and the Rockenthiens in The Blue Flower. Fritz's family, the Hardenbergs, are brilliant but tyrannized by paternal dourness. Sophie von Khn, Fritz's childlike beloved, lives among the boisterous, tolerant Rockenthiens. Each family constitutes a vivid culture. In fact, Fitzgerald's Afterlife sometimes touchingly illuminates the fabric of her fiction. In The Blue Flower, a duel occurs at dawn. Swords, not guns, decide the outcome. Fritz is summoned to the field where the contest is underway; the loser's right hand has been mutilated. Fritz "picked up the fingers, red and wet as if skinned [he] was not likely to forget the sensation of the one and a half fingers and the heavy ring, smooth and hard where they were yielding, in his mouth." This episode recalls something that actually happened to Fitzgerald as a girl:

"In my first winter term, when, as a treat, we were taken to the skating rink, a small boy, also from one of Eastbourne's myriad prep schools, said to me confidentially, "Will you help me find it?" A skate had passed over his finger as he lay on the ice and if we could only find it, some grown-up would put it together again. But so many people flashed by, and so confusingly. A little later, I saw him being led away."

Fitzgerald's actual memory is of unappeasable loss. Contrarily, her character Fritz may have succeeded in saving the duellist's severed fingers, by preserving them warm in his mouth. So fiction performs an act of imaginative restitution, or-as Seamus Heaney once put it-an act of redress. This fact lends another meaning to the epigraph Fitzgerald chose for The Blue Flower: "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history." Fitzgerald's criticism is not as fine as her novels, but its shortcomings are very few.

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