The omniscient narrator: the historical technique of Penelope Fitzgerald


Jonathan Blaney 

“Manage with as little as you can”, Fritz von Hardenberg, secretary to the Saxony Salt Mines Inspectorate, recorded in his minutes in 1795. Hardenberg – who became famous as the Romantic author Novalis – is the subject of The Blue Flower, the fourth and last of Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novels. Through extreme economy of means these slim books manage to create an uncanny sense of time and place that leave the reader puzzled  – in the words of Frank Kermode:

it cannot be the case that she lived in pre-revolutionary Moscow, or the Cambridge of Rutherford, or the Germany of Goethe. Yet she not only knows how people talked, worked and loved in these settings, but casually, and with every appearance of accuracy, mentions innumerable details that give substance to these lives.[i]

Fitzgerald showed how well it can be done, and through careful reading of her work, it should be possible to explain at least some of her methods.

The novels are Innocence (1986), set in Florence in the 1950s; The Beginning of Spring (1988), set in 1913 Moscow; The Gate of Angels (1990) gives us Cambridge in 1912; and The Blue Flower (1995), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, although Fitzgerald did not attend the ceremony, claiming she had too much ironing to do.

We cannot learn much from Fitzgerald herself. Her  mischievous claim that the research for The Beginning of Spring, which Kermode calls “a virtually miraculous vision of pre-revolutionary Moscow” [ii], came from reading the city’s entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica is not very credible.

The first thing to note is that by the time she came to write historical novels Fitzgerald had already mastered the craft of novel writing and was about to become, according to Julian Barnes, “the finest living English novelist”[iii]. She had already won the Booker Prize for Offshore and been nominated for The Bookshop.

Fitzgerald was born in 1916 and worked in an assortment of jobs before beginning to publish novels at the age of nearly 60. She really did work at the BBC during the war, but by the time she published a novel with that setting (Human Voices, 1980) she had to do the work of a historical novelist: to evoke a time many of her readers were unfamiliar with. She must have learned from the experience because from then on she wrote only historical novels proper.

Above all the novels are balanced between precise period detail and timeless human concerns. One way this is done is through aphoristic remarks, usually by the narrator but here, in Innocence, in the head of a character:

‘It’s not that Beppino is mean’, he thought, ‘but he’s indifferent to material pleasures, which has much the same effect.’

This kind of thing is so common that it must be a deliberate technique, placing us firmly in the past and then showing us that the people there are rather like us:

      Like most rescuers, Fritz felt suddenly furious with the loved and saved.

Another mainstay is comedy. This allows Fitzgerald to impart detail without ever appearing to be didactic or flaunting her research. At the very beginning of The Beginning of Spring the Moscow printer, Frank Reid, receives a letter, via a messenger, telling him that his wife has left him and taken their children to England:

‘Where is he now?’ asked Frank, taking the letter in his hand. It was in Nellie’s writing.

‘He’s gone about his business. He belongs to the Guild of Messengers, he’s not allowed to take a rest anywhere.’

Frank walked straight through to the back right hand quarter of the house and into the kitchen, where he found the messenger with his red cap on the table in front of him, drinking tea with the cook and her assistant.

This little joke tells us a lot: about Frank’s undemonstrative practicality, about his house and servants, about Moscow and the flexibility of its rules and regulations, and about Frank’s knowledge of the city and its people.

Although very short, the novels teem with detail, offered with a casual precision which seems at first merely loving, but is closely tied to the novels’ overall concerns. In The Gate of Angels Daisy Saunders, a working-class Londoner, goes to her local library:

The Library was connected with the public wash-house by the municipal fumigation rooms, where books could be disinfected after an outbreak of disease and old clothes could be boiled before redistribution to the needy.

At first reading this might seem plausible but gratuitous historical detail. But the novel is about two worlds, deprived London and privileged Cambridge, colliding, literally, on the Guestingly Road. Fred Fairly, the young academic, inhabits very different libraries from Daisy. Sure enough, back in Cambridge 60 pages later Fitzgerald slips this line in:

‘They all want libraries put up, even the parasitologists.’

The  connection beween fumigation and parasitologists is beautifully done, and illustrates the way that novelistic effect is always at the forefront of the author’s mind: the historical details seem like grace notes because they are grace notes.

Another example comes from The Blue Flower. When Fritz is a student he asks his father, a member of the nobility, for an increase in his tiny allowance. He is sent to see their steward, who is at a distant family property:

The German diligence was the slowest in Europe, since all the luggage, which was loaded onto a kind of creaking extension of the floor extending over the back axle, had to be unloaded and re-loaded every time a passenger got in and out.

This a perfect example of the use of historical detail, deftly giving us the impression that the author knows not just all about Saxony in the 1790s, but about the whole of Europe. But the novelistic aims are still met: the cumbersome phrasing is like the diligence itself, giving an idea of Fritz’s journey: “loaded…unloaded…re-loaded”.  And, as Kermode points out, the abundance of things (in this case the troublesome luggage) is part of the novel’s engagement with Fritz’s Romantic impatience with materialism. But after the creaking description, Fitzgerald gives us, when Fritz finally arrives, an immediate payoff:

‘Herr Revenue Steward, I think my father has commissioned you to give me some money.’

Steinbrecher took off his spectacles.

‘Young Freiherr, there is no money.’

‘He sent me a long way to be told that.’

‘I imagine he wanted you to remember it.’

In nearly all of her novels Fitzgerald makes great use of children. In terms of historical technique this has two advantages. It is a useful way of smuggling in historical nuggets, because children accept the situation they are living in, like Frank Reid’s son, Ben, in pre-Revolutionary Moscow:

He produced a toy revolver, made of wood and tin. ‘It’s a Webley, that’s what all the students have now.’

This is far more effective than a conversation between adults about the current political situation. The adults in Fitzgerald novels generally have more immediate concerns: love and money – especially money.

The second advantage is children say unexpected things, and unpredictability again reminds us that people living in the past were autonomous and individual, and not archetypes created by historical circumstance. So Frank offers his daughter paper, in case she wants to write to her absent mother:

‘I shan’t need the paper,’ said Dolly, ‘because I don’t think I ought to write. I can only write properly in Russian, in any case.’

‘Why not, Dolly? Surely you don’t think she did the wrong thing?’

‘I don’t know whether she did or not. The mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.’

Nevertheless the characters are constrained by historical circumstance, especially women. Hardenberg’s mother is referred to by her aristocratic title, the Freifrau (equivalent to Baroness, literally ‘free lady’). At first this seems slightly pedantic, but gradually we realize that the ‘Freifrau’ is the least free character in the novel:

Fritz had asked his mother to meet him in the garden simply so that they would not be overseen by his father, without reflecting what an extraordinary thing it would be for her to do. Auguste nowadays scarcely ever went out at all, never alone, never at night, and certainly never without the Freiherr’s considered permission.

Amid all the specificity of detail the narrator gives us, the reader barely notices what is being withheld: the larger historical context. Fitzgerald simply trusts her readers to make the connections. Fred, who falls in love with Daisy, is a physicist; a lesser novel would have him thinking or talking like a physicist constantly (think of the science journalist who narrates Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and can’t turn on a light switch without thinking of photons) but Fitzgerald is subtler than that.

For example, Ernest Rutherford does not appear in The Gate of Angels but is an important presence. Towards the end it is mentioned that his assistant, Hans Geiger, will give a lecture about the nuclear atom. Clearly we are meant to contextualize this for ourselves: Rutherford’s experiments showed mysterious collisions of particles that should have passed through the atom, according to the prevailing theory. Fitzgerald shows us Fred and Daisy mysteriously colliding not once but twice in her story.

The First World War is looming for Daisy and Fred after The Gate of Angels ends in 1912, but war is never mentioned. The reader is left with the historical work to do. Surely Fred would join up or be called up. Scientists were not exempt from the front line, as is shown by the case of Henry Moseley, the brilliant Oxford physicist who was killed at Gallipoli in 1915, aged 27. It was Rutherford who wrote Moseley’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography:

The premature death of a young man of such brilliant promise and achievement was everywhere recognized as an irreparable loss to science.[iv]

We cannot avoid thinking about what will happen to Fred Fairly and his young colleagues, or to the Reids and their Moscow circle of merchants, expatriates and disciples of Tolstoy. By trusting people to muse for themselves on the history in her historical novels, by treating them as historically aware, subtle readers, Fitzgerald shows us how to write books that stay in the mind, along with a complete sense of time and place.

[i] Frank Kermode (introduction), Penelope Fitzgerald, Three Novels: The Bookshop, The Gate of Angels, The Blue Flower (2001), ix

[ii] Ibid. xi

[iii] Julian Barnes ‘How Did She Do It?’, Guardian newspaper, 26 July 2008 (, accessed 3 October 2011).

[iv] Ernest Rutherford, ‘Moseley, Henry Gwyn Jeffreys (1887–1915), experimental physicist’, ODNB (1927) (, accessed 3 October 2011)

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About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.


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