A couple of days ago I read an article about one of my favourite writers, Penelope Fitzgerald: brilliant, and an inspiration because she didn’t publish her first book until she was sixty. (Writing Magazine, July 2018.) Some of her novels are set in the past, but, Tony Rossiter writes, “as Julian Barnes has pointed out, they do not really feel like traditional historical novels…..the reader almost feels as if he is reading them in the time they are set. That’s an unusual experience and one that’s difficult to explain.”
Difficult indeed, though Rossiter comes close here: “She was somehow able to combine a microscopic focus on specific detail with a panoramic perspective which leaves the reader to make connections and draw conclusions.” But that analysis is necessarily abstract; you can only appreciate her by seeing how the details work as you read, so you feel the lived life.
I found myself drawn into Gate of Angels again, her novel set in the Cambridge of 1912. Here’s an example of her delicate skill, though it may not be the same teased out of its context within the deceptively tight-knit work: “In the field next to the station fence an old horse, once grey, now white, moved a few sedate steps away. This was a token retreat only, it was many years since the train’s approach had given warning that it might be required to pull the station fly. The fly mouldered away now, its shafts pointing upwards, in the corner shed. On the horse’s hollow back, as it came to a standstill, the elder flowers fell gently.”
There’s so much here: the tiny elder flower florets falling from their large umbel onto the horse’s back, white on white; the moment of stasis; horses yielding to the motor car; time moving and time standing still…..