How I love Penelope Fitzgerald!

I have Hermione Lee’s – apparently glorious – biography of her sitting here, which I look forward to undertaking, though I have to admit to being a little daunted by its immense size. Rather uselessly, whenever I reach for it, I find myself picking up one of her slim, genius novels instead. I have re-read Offshore several times now, and am forever going back to the perfect opening to The Blue Flower and the beautiful ending of The Beginning of Spring.

Innocence by Penelope FitzgeraldLast week, I picked up Innocence. The more astute readers among you might have noticed something of an Italian theme in my reading of recent weeks. Innocence, which takes place in and around Florence, comes after The Leopard and Journey by Moonlight. It hasn’t so much been an intention, as an inescapable tug, for at the end of April, Emilybooks plus husband will be moving to Lucca for two months! So how can I resist these literary inklings of what is to come? I even made the husband watch the very old film of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April – one of my favourite novels. (You see, I pointed out emphatically as the credits rolled, we will be having our very own enchanted April! This is what you’ve been making everyone read? he asked. Everyone must think you’re mad.)

Well, I’m certainly not as mad as the wittily named ‘Aunt Mad’ in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Italian novel Innocence. Her eccentricities extend to setting up the ‘Refuge for the Unwanted’ – a place where lonely old women look after homeless infants. Sweet idea, but in reality it’s a run-down hovel, where the old women have sold the brass taps to buy presents for the babies, many of whom they’ve hidden away to try to avoid handing them back to the authorities.

One of the great pleasures of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are the wealth of endearing, eccentric characters, such as Maurice in Offshore, or Selwyn in The Beginning of Spring. Innocence offers especially rich pickings. As well as Aunt Mad, there is reclusive cousin Cesare who manages the family vineyard, brilliantly forthright British boarding-school friend Barney, nobly impoverished Count Giancarlo Ridolfi, and die-hard old Communist Sannazzaro – ‘thought to have only one idea in his head, not just one idea at a time, but the same idea for many years’, and many more. At the heart of the novel are Chiara Ridolfi, an Italian aristocrat who has just left her convent school in England, and Dr Salvatore Rossi, an older neurologist from the South, son of a Gramsci-worshipping communist. They meet at a concert and fall violently in love with each other, but being rather hopeless in effectively acting on their feelings, there follows something of a rocky, if short, road to their marriage.

With this ‘marriage plot’, Fitzgerald weaves many stories which show failed love affairs. Chiara’s father, the Count, married an American heiress, who disappeared back to America, leaving him with Chiara. Aunt Mad married an Englishman, who returned to England. Barney’s English romantic ‘He’ becomes her ‘Disaster’, whom she resorts to stabbing in the leg with her fork at dinner. Then she declares her love to silent Cesare but to no avail. Even the seemingly happy marriage of Gentilini – Salvatore Rossi’s great friend – is shown to be far from perfect when his wife faints at Chiara’s wedding, revealing herself to be so ‘downtrodden’ (in Barney’s words) that she is never allowed out and so is overwhelmed by the social exertion.

Most affecting, and most subtly written, is Cesare’s unspoken love for Chiara. It brings a painful angle to his enduring silence. Our real clue to this love is when he buys four sheets of paper and an envelope from a tobacconist. Fitzgerald tells us all the things he doesn’t write, but, teasingly, not what he does. Then:

However, he went on writing with increasing speed and concentration, until all the paper was used up … When he had finished he read the letter through. Then he took the four sheets of paper, tore them into a number of pieces, and threw them away.

‘At least that’s something I haven’t done,’ he said aloud. It was irritating, though, to be left with the unused envelope.

Nothing is spelled out; we are asked to read between the lines. It would be easy to miss this torn-up love letter, and to think of Cesare as no more than a strange silent recluse, rather than a heartbroken proud man. It makes the moment at Chiara’s wedding, when Aunt Mad asks him to say a few words about the groom, almost unbearable:

‘But I don’t speak,’ said Cesare. ‘You know that, aunt.’

‘You could say something pleasant about Salvatore, a kind of introduction.’

‘I don’t know anything about him,’ said Cesare mildly.

‘I certainly don’t want to be described,’ said Salvatore. ‘That’s one thing I hope to be spared, to know exactly what kind of a man I am.’

‘Well, I should be glad to know what kind of man you are,’ said Aunt Mad.

‘The kind that loves your niece Chiara, and would give his life for her.’

In the atmosphere of wine and winter sunshine, it sounded not at all absurd, in fact it was not absurd and no-one thought it was. Aunt Mad seemed moved, others sitting nearby also seemed moved and began to clap their hands in frank admiration. Mad looked up again at Cesare, who said calmly, ‘You see how much better he speaks than I do.’

It’s only unbearable if you’ve twigged that Cesare is love with Chiara, otherwise he just seems obtuse. With this knowledge, those adverbs – ‘mildly’, ‘calmly’ – become weighted with heartbreaking, painful restraint.

In asking us to read between the lines like this, rather than laying it on thick, Fitzgerald fosters a spirit of empathy in her readers. She warns us off quickly dismissing people, asking instead for our sympathy, for our understanding that there are reasons for people’s seemingly odd behaviour that deserve respect.

Innocence begins with a disturbing story about the Ridolfi family in the sixteenth century, when they were a family of midgets. They went to great pains to ensure that their midget daughter thought she was normal-sized, so the garden steps were miniature, the statues too, and they only employed midgets and dwarfs. Catastrophe strikes when Gemma, the daughter’s midget companion, has a growth spurt. The daughter ‘was not in the least concerned about herself, only about her friend’, thinking she’ll be treated as a monster in the outside world, where she thinks everyone is midget-sized. She thoughtfully ‘took to walking a few steps ahead of Gemma, so that their shadows would be seen to be the same length’.  She prays to be shown a solution for her friend’s plight, reflects that ‘it was worth suffering to a certain extent if it led to something more appropriate or more beautiful’, and then:

Since Gemma must never know the increasing difference between herself and the rest of the world, she would be better off if she was blind – happier, that is, if her eyes were put out. And since there seemed no other way to stop her going up and down the wrong staircases, it would be better for her, surely, in the long run, if her legs were cut off at the knee.

So we see the terrible violence that can spring from innocence.

This story, almost a parable really, echoes through the rest of the narrative; we keep an eye out for examples of pain unwittingly caused. I’m not sure if it isn’t a bit too obvious for so subtle and understated an author. Could we not have seen all the unknowing violence wreaked by innocent Chiara without such an obvious pointer? Could the pointer at least have been worked into the main body of the text, rather than standing out so sharply at the beginning? As it is, this opening, powerful though it may be, somewhat undermines the deft brilliance of the rest of the novel.

This is but a quibble. Innocence is a wonderful novel, revealing much about naivete and love, and about Italy, and the English in Italy. I loved its cast of dotty characters, all rendered so perfectly that they have stepped off the page and into my life. When we go to Tuscany, I shall keep my eyes peeled for them all, and try not to be too like good old blustering Barney, or, for that matter, Aunt Mad.

Penelope Fitzgerald with her reassuringly messy bookshelves

And you – are you a Penelope Fitzgerald fan? Of course I would love to know your thoughts on any of her wonderful novels, or indeed of the biography.

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14 Responses to “Innocence”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Emily. Thank you for introducing me to Penelope Fitzgerald. I have to admit I had only heard of her before but never read anything by her until you suggested Offshore which is such a warm, big-hearted, deceptively complex book. Oh to have that skill of making the great tawdry drama of everyday life roll off the tongue so easily. I am also fascinated by this book. I love how she is concerned with the business of seeming absurd, ridiculous – a very English concern against an Italian backdrop! It reminds of me of Elizabeth Bowen who said that she wrote about ‘life with the lid on and what happens when the lid comes off’.

    • emilybooks Says:

      What a wonderful Elizabeth Bowen quotation, and very apt indeed for Penelope Fitzgerald! And I’m so delighted you enjoyed Offshore – there are many more Fitzgeraldian treats in store…

  2. Katie Says:

    Lovely post Ems! You know I’m a big fan of the PF. The way she can convey so much with so little is like some sort of magic trick! ‘Innocence’ was the first one I read, just picked it up second hand having never heard of her so it took me a few chapters to sit up and tune into the register of subtelty and nuance! I’ll have to reread…

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ah Katie, thanks! Yes, it took me a little while to get into it too – it’s been sitting by the bath for ages, and I never quite got past the beginning story until last week. Wonderful stuff though.

  3. The Northern Reader Says:

    I wonder why writers have to be dead before people get round to noticing how incandescently brilliant they are? Fitzgeraldi is a very strong contender for greatest English novelist of the 20thC. I once lived on the houseboat enclave where Offshore is set, so she has always been very special to me. Have a wonderful time in Italy – of course you must re-read A Room with a View on the plane. You will be pleased to know that the NorthernReader Walking Book Club strides out for the first time on March 14th – thank you for the inspiration

    • emilybooks Says:

      How wonderful to have lived on the set of Offshore!! Yes, EM Forster and Henry James are both in my pile of books to take to Italy – I can’t wait to re-read. And how exciting about your walking book club. What will you be discussing? Best of luck.

  4. airandangelsblog Says:

    Ashamed to admit that I haven’t read any Penelope Fitzgerald, but this sounds wonderful – definitely one to add to the list, along with The Blue Flower (especially as I studied Novalis at university!) Lucky you to be spending two whole months in Lucca – I’ve visited twice, and loved cycling round the old city walls and climbing the Torre Guinigi. Reread Where Angels Fear to Tread while I was there, which seemed fitting – although my holiday was much less dramatic the Caroline and Lilia’s!

    • emilybooks Says:

      Yes you absolutely must read The Blue Flower, given that you’ve studied Novalis! Everyone seems to think it’s her masterwork, although I’m not I don’t prefer The Beginning of Spring… it’s tough to choose between so many brilliant novels. Very pleased to hear good reports of Lucca – I’m so excited, and yes those walls look particularly enticing, and rather dramatic too. Perhaps I shall be like one of Forster’s heroines, exhilarated by the Italian landscape!

  5. Alice Says:

    Sometimes Emily, it is as if you blog when you know I am in need. Sadly I just didn’t fall for The Beginning of Spring as I did with Offshore, and I was going to ask you for another of PF’s novels to try. Now I don’t have to! Innocence sounds like like a perfect place to start again.

    Spring in Italy sounds like a dream, I hope you and Mr EmilyBooks have a marvellous sojourn there.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Alice – and I’m so sorry you didn’t click with The Beginning of Spring. Innocence takes a little while to get into, but once the main story gets going, I think you’ll enjoy it. Otherwise people say The Bookshop is wonderful too.

  6. HWgand Says:

    Dear Emily, thanks for a splendid review on Innocence, I am sure to step into this novel right away, especially because of the Bowen atmosphere.

  7. Hattie Says:

    Don’t know about Fitzgerald but – how love this blog! Not sure what I’d do without it anymore, have so come to rely on your recommendations and the ten minutes of thoughtful, curious reflection it gives me every week.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ah Hattie – hooray! So wonderful to hear that. And perhaps you will come to love Fitzgerald too.

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