Thursday, May 21, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald on The Yellow Book and the New Woman

In preparation for a trip to the Harry Ransom Center to investigate the Penelope Fitzgerald archives, I'm reading one of the two books by her that I'd not read, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984). (The other being her biography of Edward Burne-Jones.) In her biography of Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee characterizes the book as "the crucial turning point, the hinged door between what, in another writer, you might call 'early' and 'late' work," in part because of the copious research involved. All of Fitzgerald's earlier novels had been rooted in some way in her own experience; all of her later ones would be set in different places and different times, and would require substantial research to give their slim extents their hefty backbones of believability.

Mew herself was a minor poet, all but forgotten today, though Brad Leithauser, in his introduction to a 1988 American edition of the book, makes a strong case for the quality of her limited output. In Mew, Fitzgerald found a subject who brought together themes that we can trace elsewhere in her own life and work: a woman forced by circumstance to make her way on her own; a woman who determines to be a writer, and does so; and a woman playing a part in establishing new terrain for women at a time when old norms were being upended. That last comes into particular focus in the course of one short paragraph about Mew and her fellow writers on the legendary decadent-era magazine The Yellow Book:
That summer she entered the new world of the New Woman. It was an exhilarating place, which Netta Syrett describes in her autobiography The Sheltering Tree and Evelyn Sharp in Unfinished Adventure. Although the public, discreetly prompted by Lane, thought of The Yellow Book as bizarre and decadent, and though its male writers were often alcoholic, weak-willed and tired of life, its women were strong. Evelyn Sharp, who was one of them, wrote that they "felt on the crest of the wave that was sweeping away the Victorian tradition," and that everything must go. Netta, Evelyn and Ella d'Arcy, like Charlotte, had seen The Yellow Book announcement and sent in their first contributions to Lane. They were also among Lane's Keynotes--that is, they contributed to a special "advanced" series of stories, each with their own Keynote, designed by Beardsley. "Petticoat" Lane liked to be seen with women round him "and we fell in and out of love," said Evelyn, "with or without disaster, like other people." They would find time for marriage some day, but not yet, there was too much in hand. Everything was open for discussion. Netta Syrett, in particular, talked unconcernedly about sex, for her uncle, the writer Grant Allen, was a frank materialist and had brought her up to do so. But this was only one aspect of a world that had grown limitless, but still had to be put to rights. Skimming from one end of London to the other on their bicycles, without fear, without chaperones, they lodged two and two in flats, or in the newly opened Victorian Club in Sackville Street, which had small, cold, candle-lit bedrooms for professional women. If need arose they could emerge soignees and glittering, in the full evening dress of the nineties. These young women were not Bohemians, they were dandies. They complained when the down-and-out Frederick Rolfe, on his visits to Harland's flat, left lice on the furniture. Aubrey Beardsley was "a dear boy" to them. They had no intention of drifting or failing, they meant to rise with the coming twentieth century.
So much is covered in that one long paragraph. The acknowledgment for example, neither overstated nor unduly celebrated, that the women of this circle (like the women in Barbara Pym's world)  were the capable, competent ones, saddled with men who were neither. The specificity of detail that conjures up how very different London suddenly looked to a woman experiencing new freedom--Bicycles! Bedsits! And the distinction between true Bohemians and these women, who still saw value in some social conventions, wanting merely the right to choose for themselves which they would observe. There are aspects here that are familiar from the lives of Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, though their rebellion was both more pointed and more contained; you also detect echoes of Daisy Saunders, from The Gate of Angels, though Daisy starts lower in class, and (perhaps therefore) has lower ambitions. Or, if we flip genders, we can see hints of Forster's Leonard Bast, striving for something that, a few years earlier, would have been explicitly unattainable.

It's an enchanting vision, and the tragedy at the heart of Fitzgerald's bio is that, like Leonard Bast, Mew wasn't quite ever able to make it over the bar. Freedom was not as easy to seize, nor to hold, as it at first seemed, and her life would be a series of frustrations and reverses. But for that one moment--with echoing glimmers here and there throughout the rest of Mew's life--Fitzgerald brings an era, and its new possibilities, to shimmering life.

Wish me luck in my archival research. If it goes well, you'll hear much, much more about it down the line.


  1. Good luck. Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my very favourite writers (although to my shame, as it is generally regarded as a sign of lack of intellectual vigour I prefer the earlier work on the whole)

  2. Anonymous10:53 PM

    So interesting, especially the comparison to Leonard Bast. But Bast has none of the lightness or possibility envisioned here (even if it doesn't eventuate for Mew either). In fact, the biggest difference might be that Forster doesn't think Bast ought to ascend to the artistic or refined world he aspires to. Not that he thinks Bast is a parvenu or overreaching his limitations, but that he thinks England has become a place where the yeoman who Bast ought to have been no longer has any place. Hmm I'm not sure exactly what I mean to say here except that Bast's tragedy seems different than Mew's. Anyway, thanks again for these posts!

  3. Interesting point, eigermonchjungfrau (that was fun to type!). I hadn't thought of it in that way, but you're right: there's a deathly seriousness about Bast, and a definite, deliberate foreclosing of possibility by Forster. I think you're getting near it in saying that Forster thought England had moved beyond what men like Bast should have been, but hadn't figure out yet what they might become instead.

    And zmkc: My preferences in Fitzgerald novels are all over the map, chronologically. Today I would rank them

    Beginning of Spring
    Human Voices
    The Bookshop
    At Freddie's
    The Blue Flower

    That last probably isn't quite fair: I read it years ago, at a point where I didn't know Fitzgerald's work well, and had no patience for German Romanticism. I have more to draw on on both fronts now, and as part of my work with her archive, I'll be re-reading it to see what I think now.

    1. The Blue Flower is extraordinary but not necessarily entertaining. I can see it is her greatest work - and I also think that, if Mantel is being judged on her skill at evoking a past time, then Fitzgerald knocks her into a cocked hat on that score. I do find myself thinking of that washing scene quite often and it is vivid in my mind and beautiful, so perhaps I unwittingly like the book even though I didn't enjoy reading it.