Distinctive writer who brought rare economy to her studies of time, place and life's moral dilemmas
Penelope Mary Fitzgerald, writer, born December 17 1916; died April 28 2000
The novelist and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald, who has died aged 83, was one of the most distinctive and elegant voices in contemporary British fiction. Her novels, spare, immaculate masterpieces (few of them exceed 200 pages), divide into two sections; an earlier group loosely based on her own experiences, and a later group, in which she moves to other countries and periods. In 1979, she won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore.
"Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel," observed Sebastian Faulks, "is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality - the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window."
Fitzgerald was the second child of Edmund George Valpy "Evoe" Knox and his wife, Christina Hicks, and was educated at Wycombe Abbey and Somerville College, Oxford, to which she won a scholarship. Her father was the eldest son of the Bishop of Manchester, her mother the daughter of Edward Hicks, Bishop of Lincoln.
Neither side of the family was well-off, and the atmosphere of hard living and high thinking was inherited by their daughter, who recalled her father's study as the only warm room in the house. It may also explain the profoundly moral, indeed religious, exploration of the human predicament and the relationship between body and soul apparent in her writing.
Fitzgerald also inherited a habit of literature from her parents. Her father, who had wanted to write from his undergraduate days, was editor of Punch from 1932. Her mother, one of the first Somerville students, also wrote. "Everyone in the house in Well Walk was writing," she remembered.
Fitzgerald delayed her own literary career until the age of 60, when she published a life of Edward Burne-Jones (1975). She wrote two other biographies, a life of the poet Charlotte Mew (1984) and the Knox Brothers (1977), a composite study of her father and his three remarkable brothers, Dillwyn (classicist and cryptographer), Wilfred (Anglican priest) and Ronald (the famous Roman Catholic convert and apologist).
All of them, she said, in explanation of her elliptical style, were given to understatement. This last book is not so much a biography as a portrait of an age and a milieu, both now disappeared; it is told with a dispassionate affection familiar to all readers of Fitzgerald's fiction. Characteristically, she contrived to suppress all mention of herself, any unavoidable reference being made obliquely and without name.
Fitzgerald's first novel, The Golden Child (1977), which was written to divert her husband during his last illness, took the form of the classic detective story. It was inspired by the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum, as Human Voices (1980) was based on her war years in the BBC, and At Freddie's (1982) on her experiences at the Italia Conti stage school, where she taught in the l960s. The Bookshop (1978) recalls her years of living in Southwold, where she herself worked in a bookshop, and Offshore was based on her family's life on a rat-ridden barge at Battersea - which sank twice.
After that, she felt that she "had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about: then you must look and find other experiences, you must launch out." In Innocence (1986), she launched out to 16th and 20th-century Italy, then to Moscow in 1913, in The Beginnings Of Spring (1988), to Cambridge in 1912, in The Gate Of Angels (1990), and to late 18th-century Germany in her story of the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, in The Blue Flower (1995). This was probably her masterpiece; it won the American National Book Critics fiction prize in 1998, and helped introduce her to a wider American readership.
Any division of this kind, however, tends to obscure the essential homogeneity of Fitzgerald's work. The qualities which make her writing unique are present in all of it, and her style is unmistakable. There is no sentence which could have been written by anyone else, just as no one has ever been able to repeat her peculiar blend of deadpan, slightly surreal, comedy, moral sensitivity and sober dubiety.
What is striking is the accuracy of her observation, the aesthetically satisfying precision with which, stylistically, the arrow goes straight into the centre of the gold. The economy with which she achieved her effects - "I always feel the reader is very insulted by being told too much," she said - and her ability to combine a microscopic with a panoramic perspective, made most other contemporary novels appear flatulent and over-written.
Fitzgerald has been compared in her qualities of social comedy and irony to Jane Austen. The comparison is just in many ways, but ultimately unsatisfactory, for she had a metaphysical quality which is less apparent in Jane Austen - and Jane Austen was not the only novelist of that period by whom she was influenced. She spoke with enthusiasm of the way in which Sir Walter Scott mixed up fictional and real characters, and this is reflected in the appearance of the dying Gramsci, in Innocence, and of Fichte, Goethe and Schlegel in The Blue Flower.
Throughout Fitzgerald's novels, there are certain recurring themes, the most striking of which is the single-minded and blinkered innocent (usually male), whose tunnel vision causes disaster to those around. There is an example in almost every book, the most satisfying perhaps being Fritz von Hardenberg, Novalis in The Blue Flower.
There can be few better examples of her skill than the way in which the focus gradually transfers in the second half of the book from Fritz to his 14-year-old fiancée Sophie, a brash, uninteresting teenager, who is dying of TB. This is a shift in perception, which is not just a fictional device but also a subtle moral judgment. Her work was very much in the tradition of European story-telling, Italo Calvino being a particularly close analogy.
She married Desmond Fitzgerald, an Irish soldier who she met at a wartime party, in 1941; he died in 1976. They had a son and two daughters. In 1996, she was awarded the Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.