The Old Consciousness

The Old Consciousness

Hilary Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald have saved historical fiction from a middlebrow wasteland.


Longtime readers of Hilary Mantel’s savvy comedies about English prejudice and superstition might well have been surprised when, in 2009, Mantel published Wolf Hall, a large novel about the 16th-century statesman Thomas Cromwell. But after the arrival of another Cromwell book, Bring Up the Bodies, which repeated its predecessor’s Booker Prize victory, there seemed little doubt that her next would be a third Cromwell novel, apparently called The Mirror and the Light (though Bring Up the Bodies had also possessed that working title). Instead, it was announced that Mantel would be bringing out what The Bookseller called a “collection of contemporary short stories.” A statement from her publisher—“Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become”—promised a themed collection. It also exacerbated the imbalance at the heart of Mantel’s reputation, suggesting that a powerful historical investigator was turning her gaze on the present. But the new collection of stories is in reality more typical of Mantel’s writing over three decades—sly and sinister, eager to amuse and unnerve—than the pair of books that have won her global fame.

If the collection provides a stage, albeit crabbed and over-lit, for the “other Mantel,” it is also a backward-looking, stock-taking enterprise, with allusions to earlier moments in her career: Mantel before Cromwell. “Sorry to Disturb,” originally published as a work of memoir, recalls her beginnings as a writer—not her first writing project, the vast novel about the French Revolution that initially earned her nothing except rejection letters, but the first time she got a letter saying, basically, “Yes, please.”

It is 1983, and the narrator—Mantel, but unnamed—is living in Jeddah with her husband, a geologist on assignment to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Mineral Resources. One day, a distraught-looking man in his 30s, Asian but not from Saudi Arabia, and named Ijaz, knocks on the door, asking to use the phone. She lets him in. They talk. He leaves. Then he comes again. Things become awkward, strained. During a trip back to London, she leaves a manuscript with an agent. On her return, she mentions the book to Ijaz, telling him, “An agent has taken it on.” He suggests that her husband will pay to have it published. She mentions the agent again. He asks where the agent is based. “I pressed on, trying to make my case; though why did I think that an office in William IV Street was a guarantee of moral worth?” Later, she receives a letter from William IV Street, “to tell me my novel had been sold.”

Living in Saudi Arabia, where education for women “was regarded as a luxury, an ornament, a way for a husband to boast of his broadmindedness,” Mantel saw William IV Street as a reminder of another world, at the very least a promise of moral worth, because it held out hope of a career. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is dedicated “To Bill Hamilton, the man in William IV Street: thirty years on, with gratitude,” and there are stories here that replay Mantel’s struggles toward success. In “How Shall I Know You?” a writer—not quite Mantel, the writer’s back catalog tells us—visits an obscure literary society, and finds the organizer and the society’s members difficult to like. Mantel is utterly unafraid of seeming tart when writing from what the reader might believe is her own perspective. In “Sorry to Disturb,” where the perspective is unquestionably her own, she writes: “An older woman confided that her two were adopted; I looked at them and thought Jesus, where from, the zoo?” Besides providing these glimpses of Mantel—some direct, others oblique—the book is primarily concerned with rounding up scattered bits of earlier work. One story, “Harley Street,” dates from 1993.

Mantel is often compared to Muriel Spark, with reference to their shared Catholicism and to Mantel’s novel of university friendships, An Experiment in Love, on account of its striking similarities to The Girls of Slender Means. But Mantel claims that she wrote that novel as a way of having “some fun” with a comparison she insists is coincidental: “Even to this day I haven’t read many of her books.” That’s easy enough to believe; notwithstanding a certain imperiousness, and a taste for a deadpan tone, the resemblance is rarely very strong. Spark is an altogether chillier and more conscious writer, remote from social detail, which she deploys only for its symbolic associations; Spark’s fiction tends toward the diagrammatic—nouveau roman abstractions, Pinter-ish power struggles—whereas Mantel, for all her love of the sinister, is contentedly a realist, wedded to particulars.

* * *

But there is one writer of Spark’s generation with whom Mantel has a strong relationship. It doesn’t qualify as a case of straightforward influence, because Penelope Fitzgerald, though born in 1916, didn’t start publishing until she was in her late 50s, after Mantel had started writing fiction. But Fitzgerald quickly became an admirer of Mantel as well as a kindred spirit. In 1997, she wrote to congratulate Mantel on “Terminus,” which is the penultimate story in the new collection. She noted “how moving” the story is, “all the more so from the distance, or strangeness, that you’ve put between the narrator and the reader, although we feel brought together by the very last sentence,” in which, after a setback, the narrator reasserts her faith in ghosts and the possibility of communing with them.

The Fitzgerald comparison has become increasingly hard to avoid. In Terry Castle’s judgment, “Mantel has assumed an esteemed place in what might be called a great tradition of modern British female storytelling” that also includes Fitzgerald (though she does mention 20 other writers, including Spark). Their shared interests and strengths are numerous—the supernatural, mind-body problems, the 1950s, an English certitude in tone—but they are most likely to be invoked together as authors of historical fiction, with Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower, about the German philosopher Novalis, being described by Wendy Lesser as a gateway drug to Wolf Hall.

Just as often, though, Mantel and Fitzgerald have had the strange critical fortune of being exonerated of a heroic achievement, the sustaining of historical fiction as a viable literary genre. Lesser, in the course of praising Mantel, argued that to give Wolf Hall or A Place of Greater Safety, the French Revolution novel that Mantel eventually published in 1992, the “hackneyed label” of historical novel would be “a bit like” giving it to The Blue Flower: “technically accurate” but “completely misleading in tone.” Historical fiction has become a byword for middlebrow wasteland, and Lesser is by no means the only admirer keen to save Mantel from the taint. The New Yorker’s James Wood, having called the historical novel “a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness”—a phrase that makes his feelings very clear—asks us to engage with his only half-joking claim that in composing her books, Mantel wrote “a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.”

It’s a peculiar compliment to give a writer so open about her own immersion in the Tudor period—and who dedicated Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies to Mary Robertson, the former curator of English historical manuscripts at the Huntington Library. Robertson’s doctoral thesis on Cromwell’s ministerial household enabled Mantel to turn her belief that Cromwell was not just a villain but also a politician of genius into the basis for a fully realized picture of his life and times. According to the Huntington’s magazine, “After Robertson sent Mantel a copy of her dissertation, the novelist mined it for information and followed up with questions about Cromwell: Who were his secretaries, accountants, stewards, and advisers? Where did he live in 1533? Where might he have travelled in 1537? Did Cromwell have any reason to be in the north of England in the 1520s?” But Wood would prefer to see the novels as incidentally historical. After quoting a long paragraph in which Cromwell thinks lovingly about his son, Wood asserts: “The historical details in that passage…are not central to its liveliness…it is girded by a cunning universalism, whereby Thomas Cromwell becomes any parent competitively comparing his son with someone else’s; the list of a boy’s possible failings…seems similarly timeless.”

Universalism, timelessness: There’s no attempt to conceal a fear of the particular, and similarly no attempt to account for why, when the themes explored are apparently so unaffected by their manifestation, Mantel would go to the trouble of writing about figures so remote in time. Thinking about his son Gregory, Cromwell reflects: “He knows how to bow to foreign diplomats in the manner of their own countries, sits at table without fidgeting or feeding spaniels, can neatly carve and joint any fowl if requested to serve his elders.” Wood would like us to believe that the details might as well be contemporary, and that all we are supposed to glean from a sentence such as this is the message “The man was pleased that his son was well behaved.”

To this end, Wood argues that Mantel “proceeds as if the past five hundred years were a relatively trivial interval in the annals of human motivation,” just as, rescuing War and Peace from the blemish of historical fiction in another essay, he says that Tolstoy “was so sure that nothing essential had changed that he could proceed to write what was, in effect, a contemporary novel.” If by “human motivation” Wood means that people in the 1530s sought love, craved approval, and so on, then he is only saying that Mantel can take the reader’s understanding of human conduct for granted, that she doesn’t have to interrupt her narrative for anthropological explanations along the lines of “This was because Tudor people treated hugs as a form of violence.”

* * *

But it does not follow that Mantel, by virtue of believing in human continuity, accords a secondary role to historical specificity, or thinks that the mores of a given time stand for nothing but our species’ inclination toward codes of conduct—that, essentially, any old codes will do. In Mantel’s statements about her method, human continuity and historical specificity are presented as mutually beneficial, to an extent inseparable: “to get inside a character’s head you have to know as much as you can about the context in which they live.” And when she says that “a historian’s job” is “to work out what happened, and a novelist’s job to try to imagine what it felt like while it was happening,” the “it”—the stuff that happened—is not dissolved by the imagined feelings. The world through which her characters move is not an aspect of their psychology.

Asked about topical resonances, Mantel told a reader: “When I am writing about the 16th century, I actually am writing about it.” Timelessness doesn’t enter the equation with a writer who believes, as she puts it in Wolf Hall, “Beneath every history, another history”—a writer who, in Fludd (1989), ridicules a church architect who shows “a Shakespearean sense of history, with a grand contempt of the pitfalls of anachronism”:

From the Romans to the Hanoverians, it was all the same to him; they wore, no doubt, leather jerkins and iron crowns; they burned witches; their buildings were stone and quaint and cold, their windows were not as our windows; they slapped their thighs and said prithee. Only such a vision could have commanded into being the music-hall medievalism of St. Thomas Aquinas [church].

In responding to a historical novel at once literary and genuinely historical, some of Mantel’s admirers have preferred to fiddle with reality than try to square it with their view of things. It’s an aesthetic variant of a political dilemma that an Oxford classicist identified in critic John Carey’s strained attempt to reconcile his love of Paradise Lost with his distaste for its epic form: “His attitude is to make a model—a really rather exaggerated model—of epic, and then say, epic is actually what I don’t like…so if I like a long narrative poem with a lot of speeches in it, then I am not going to call it epic.”

* * *

An immediate problem with invoking the timelessness of motivation is that it denies Mantel’s diligence. A larger, more troubling one is that it also flatly contradicts what has been for James Wood and many other enemies of historical fiction a most reliable weapon: Henry James’s argument against historical fiction. Responding to Sarah Orne Jewett’s novel The Tory Lover, James wrote that the “‘historic novel’” is condemned to “a fatal cheapness”: You might be able to “multiply the little facts,” but the “real thing is almost impossible to do…I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness—the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose mind half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent.” If there was no old consciousness—if consciousness is consciousness is consciousness—then the basis for much reflexive hatred of historical fiction simply slips away.

Penelope Fitzgerald shared James’s views on the old consciousness, including the part about it being “almost impossible to do”—or, in other words, possible to do. Reviewing a novel about 12th-century French barons, she wrote: “Not only did I get to know the least details of what they ate and what they wore and so on, but I began to understand how they thought.” To Fitzgerald, understanding how the barons thought is a higher aim than putting in the little facts, the least details, but the facts and details still count for something. What people wore and what they thought might even go together; you might even be able to deduce one from the other. The depth of Fitzgerald’s own novels is at least partly a product of their texture. There’s a moment in Innocence, a romantic comedy set in 1950s Italy, in which she seems to be hinting at her own views on historical fiction, when she describes “the old consciousness” rising from the dead “in the form of a hollow nonentity in a book-keeper’s jacket, reinforced at the cuffs.”

Mantel and Fitzgerald are similarly candid and unabashed about writing psychological novels that have at their center documents, records, and correspondence. Historical questions are of interest beyond what they reflect about human nature, though historical events might be used to tell us about a character’s priorities. When two of the male characters in Innocence refer to the “tragedy of 1932,” they are not thinking of the 11 Italian professors who refused to take the Fascist oath, but rather of the authorities’ decision to declare their vineyard “just outside the boundary line of the Chianti area.” Broadly, Mantel writes about leaders and wars, Fitzgerald about landowners and intellectuals. If the world-historical is invoked in the latter’s work, it tends to be in a personal connection—for instance, as a useful index of what is possible in private life. “I was at first amazed,” one character writes to another in The Blue Flower, “but since they have done away with Robespierre in Paris I have become so used to extraordinary happenings.”

An area of overlap in their work reveals an essential difference in approaches. Early in The Blue Flower, while Robespierre is still around, Fritz von Hardenberg, later to become the poet and philosopher Novalis, hands his father a copy, “many times folded,” of the Jenaer Allgemeine Zeitung. At first, the Freiherr doesn’t understand what he is reading; then Fritz explains that the National Convention has served a writ of execution on Louis XVI. In A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel shows the same developments from the perspective of the revolutionaries: “The king’s trial is over. The city gates have been closed. One cannot reign innocently, the Convention has decided. Merely to have been born condemns Louis to die? ‘That is the logic of the situation,’ Saint-Just says calmly.”

Another pair of moments, not so obviously overlapping, reveals shared strengths applied to opposite ends. Earlier in A Place of Greater Safety, the members of the National Assembly swear an oath not to separate until they have given France a constitution: “Overcome by emotion, the scientist assumes an antique pose. It is, altogether, a Roman moment.” A few days later, the king turns up and says he alone will give them a program of reform. “In silence before him, black coats, bleached cravats, faces of stone: men sitting for their own monuments.” By contrast, Fitzgerald’s Freiherr, reflecting on news of the revolution, sits “for a moment, in monumental stillness, among the coffee-cups.” Mantel’s characters, agents in the drama, are self-consciously historical; Fitzgerald’s are melodramatic small-timers. But both writers are able to inhabit the past so that it seems fleeting and momentary—or what James called the “palpable present-intimate.”

* * *

Denials about the status of Fitzgerald’s novels have been conducted on different grounds. Perhaps the strangest, most unconvincing one came from the critic Jenny Turner, who wrote that “the tag of ‘historical novel,’ often attached to the final books, is inadequate” because they “aren’t ‘set’ in ‘periods’ so much as inhabited or even haunted by other works”—as if the one precludes the other. More common is the idea set down by Julian Barnes, in an essay collected in Through the Window, that Fitzgerald’s works “do not feel anything like ‘historical novels,’ if historical novels are books in which we as modern readers are transported back in time thanks to a writer instructing us in the necessary background and foreground.” That’s a big if. Barnes revisits the subject in his introduction to a new edition of Innocence: “the term ‘historical novel’ seems misleading, diminishing.”

But Barnes, Fitzgerald’s most vocal and public admirer, also claims that the initial reaction to her novels by many readers is to ask: How does she know that? “How does she know (The Beginning of Spring) about methods of bribing the police in pre-revolutionary Moscow, and about techniques of printing, and that all packs of playing cards were confiscated at the Russian border? How does she know (Innocence) about neurology and dressmaking and dwarfism and Gramsci? How does she know (The Gate of Angels) about atomic physics and probationary nursing and the opening of Selfridges?” Suddenly it doesn’t sound as if the books feel nothing at all like historical novels. Fitzgerald is a writer whom readers love without being able to say why; that she is praised both for insouciance and omniscience reveals the challenge that her work poses to intelligent or even coherent appraisal.

What distinguishes Fitzgerald in her admirers’ eyes from the majority of historical novelists is her lightness of touch. She never writes sentences like this one from Hermione Lee’s riveting yet graceful new biography of the novelist: “The generation of students who went to Oxford in October 1935 coincided with Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, George Lansbury’s defeat as leader of the Labour Party over the issue of rearmament, a general election fought over foreign policy and unemployment, and, soon after…Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland.” Attacking A.S. Byatt’s approach to historical fiction, James Wood quotes this line: “All sorts of institutions were coming to life. The Tate Gallery opened on Millbank in 1896.” Fitzgerald is at times even a parodist of this kind of historical scene-setting, as in the opening sentence of the newly reissued novel At Freddie’s, in which all the grounding details are at once small-scale and approximately remembered:

It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandria, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooding with something sticky and glutinous.

But Fitzgerald, for all the knowing caution displayed in this passage, was at other times happy to write a straight version of the same thing. Her work doesn’t avoid every pitfall of historical fiction; it often turns what is thought of as a pitfall into a source of amusement or interest, or just something serviceable. Take the opening sentence of The Beginning of Spring, published in 1988 and included on the short list for that year’s Booker Prize: “In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days.” Is this an example of what Hermione Lee, claiming it typical of the four last masterpieces (the others being The Gate of Angels, Innocence, and The Blue Flower), calls “research cunningly kept down”—or what Barnes calls “considerable research worn as lightly as possible”? As Lee happily explains, Fitzgerald took the information straight out of Baedeker’s Russia, and many readers would guess as much.

Lee writes well about Fitzgerald’s hardscrabble life, which was fairly relentless between the time she left Oxford just before the war and her husband’s death in 1976. Of one period, Lee says: “She was always tired.” But Lee is also oddly insistent on showing Fitzgerald as a writer who checked boxes—who fulfilled more or less all the criteria of 1980s British book reviewing—rather than one who redeemed vices and broke molds. Lee says that “Fitzgerald spreads Novalis’s beliefs and ideas lightly” through The Blue Flower, but the evidence quoted surely displays something rarer: the comfort and directness with which Fitzgerald presents ideas. “He insists that the body is not flesh, but the same stuff as the soul.” Or: “He told me that the golden age would return, and that there was nothing evil in the world.”

Lee’s refusal to acknowledge that Fitzgerald lets us see her research or the lineaments of Novalis’s ideas is related to the contention that Fitzgerald’s art “lay in reticence, quietness and self-obliteration” (phrasing carried over from her introduction to Fitzgerald’s collected criticism, variously known as The Afterlife and A House of Air). It’s another set of accepted good qualities. Yet Fitzgerald’s style of narration thrives on obtrusiveness—alerting us to her presence with phrases like “in fact” and “of course” and “it was true” and “not for the first time.” She enjoys executing a sudden swerve into indirect speech, a very visible exercise of authorial control over the reader’s access to a scene. In a 1939 piece for The Times Literary Supplement, she called Goebbels’s edict against wit “another blow to the minor arts already on their deathbed—epigram and repartee,” and her work pays continual tribute to these arts, in particular the former: “Nature always pleases”; “Possibly our times are always chosen for us”; “Ingratitude to those who have given us life is a luxury”; “What means something to us, that we can name.” Fitzgerald likes to observe things that her characters don’t, and to tell us she is doing so. In The Blue Flower, we learn that the “German diligence was the slowest in Europe.” At another point, we read: “‘Triumph!’ exclaimed Fritz in his icy room (but he had never in his life—nor had anyone he knew—worked or slept in a room that was not exceedingly cold).” A character in Innocence “parked in the front courtyard, where it was always supposed to be warmer (but this was a fiction).”

When Fitzgerald’s admirers aren’t saving her from her strengths, they praise her for things that she never intended. There’s a strange moment in Barnes’s introduction to Innocence, when he says about the 17-year-old heroine, Chiara Ridolfi: “One comic example of the impact such innocence makes on the outside world is in her driving, described as ‘alert and reckless.’” Fitzgerald is here being congratulated on distilling her chosen theme into a short and pungent phrase. But it’s a compliment that she would have felt obliged to reject. In the phrase that Barnes quotes, Fitzgerald is trying to evoke Chiara’s small degree of worldliness. All drivers in Florence, even the innocent Chiara, are alert and reckless; what distinguishes Chiara is that she also suffers from “attacks of conscience”—lapses in recklessness—“of no use at all in the streets of Florence.” Later in his introduction, Barnes makes this misunderstanding the basis for evoking the book’s central relationship, Chiara’s bumpy courtship with the anxious doctor Salvatore: “‘Alert and reckless’ meets ‘self-determined, forewarned and unclassifiable.’”

* * *

Perhaps the most obscuring eccentricity in discussions of Fitzgerald’s work is the division between her first four novels, the autobiographical ones, and the other four, the historical ones. Barnes is convinced of the division and, once again, tries to turn it into a rare and special virtue: “Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite.” Is there a reader anywhere who wouldn’t do a double take upon meeting that assertion? A list of writers who started from “familiar sources” would be endless and would include Barnes himself. Fitzgerald herself said: “I think that happens a great deal with novelists: they finally have to leave their own experience.” Barnes’s claim is consistent with a wider tendency, baffling and pathetically unconvincing, to present Fitzgerald as not just remarkable but exceptional.

Even Hermione Lee, generally shrewd in her portrayal of Fitzgerald’s unfolding career and in her handling of the sources of writers’ work, says that after Fitzgerald finished the novels taken from her own life—“one started as soon as the other was finished, as if they had been waiting to be written”—she changed direction “radically.” On one occasion, Lee recognizes that neither term—“autobiographical” or “historical”—“quite fits,” but before long, she is talking again about the point at which “fictions of history replaced autobiographical fictions.”

One reason why neither term quite fits—though Lee doesn’t specify herself—is that Innocence is no more “historical” than the novels modeled on experiences that Fitzgerald endured: Indeed, Human Voices, in which she drew on her work for the BBC, is set earlier than Innocence and works just as hard at evoking the wartime London through which Fitzgerald moved as Innocence does at evoking Florence a decade later. Another reason is that it is literal-minded, not to say belittling to their status as art, to treat the earlier novels as essentially works of autobiography just because the record testifies to the fact that Fitzgerald lived in similar conditions to those of the characters portrayed; if, as most agree, the later books display an increase in sympathy and deftness, it is surely for other reasons.

But it’s the division itself that seems suspect. About 20 years before his warning to Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry James wrote that if he were to advise a novice to “Write from experience and experience only,” he would be sure to add: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”—one of the people capable of exploiting the fact that “impressions are experience.” This is the gift that Fitzgerald displays from her first novel to her last, and it bridges the supposed crack in her oeuvre.

The equation of the autobiographical in subject matter with the personal in nature, and the exotic in subject matter with the more fully imaginative, is one that commands wide assent. David Hare, touching on the subject in a slightly different connection, has complained that audiences of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, recognizing “a matchless portrait” of Eugene O’Neill’s own family, therefore believe that it “cuts right down, deep into the bone of human deceit,” whereas watching Brecht’s Galileo and Mother Courage, audiences imagine that these plays were “not created at equal personal expense by someone who…knew a little bit about betrayal.” A version of this logic is deployed to opposite ends in assessments of Fitzgerald’s work. The early novels become sketches based on aging diary entries, while the later ones are both exhaustively researched and entirely imagined.

This equation needs to be abolished not because it radically affects our estimation of the work’s quality, but because it misleads us about its character. Reading Lee’s biography, it becomes clear, for instance, that The Blue Flower was written just as much out of Fitzgerald’s experience—not even very broadly defined—as the novels that describe living in a houseboat, helping in a bookshop, working for the BBC, and teaching in stage school. When Lee writes of Fitzgerald’s childhood—“the mother exists as a silence or an absence”—you can see how Fitzgerald was able to create Fritz’s mother, “poor Auguste,” who seems “of less substance even than the shadows.” Fritz’s mischievous younger brother, the Bernhard, might have been drawn with help from Fitzgerald’s uncle, Ronnie Knox, a prodigy who, Lee writes, “needed protection and keeping in order.” Fitzgerald’s book The Knox Brothers, about her father and uncles, has the same remarkable family atmosphere as The Blue Flower, to a great extent a book about siblings. In all these novels, regardless of their proximity to Fitzgerald’s personal history, what matters is a human sensibility that is able to turn incidents into insights, events into scenes—a capacity that makes the word “autobiographical” seem unhelpful, even meaningless.

It is impossible to imagine that Fitzgerald could have written novels like The Blue Flower and Innocence unless she was proceeding autobiographically in the broadest sense. Lee hints as much when she says that the things that most mattered to Fitzgerald “shaped” the later novels no less than the early ones. It doesn’t therefore follow that the later novels were parables or fables, transmuted autobiography, and only incidentally historical: Fitzgerald chose the periods carefully. But this applies to all of her fiction. Barnes, again pegging Fitzgerald as a writer who loved nothing more than swimming against the current, praises her for setting Innocence in “the overlooked Fifties rather than the flashier Sixties,” even though two of the earlier novels are set then. And surely her reasons for setting Innocence in the late ’50s, and Offshore and At Freddie’s in the early ’60s, have nothing to do with obscurity or flash, grayness or gaudiness, the overlooked and the overexposed. Instead, she rightly identified the early ’60s as “the last period when anyone was stopped from doing anything for moral considerations.” In his introduction to Offshore, Alan Hollinghurst, a thoughtful critic of her work, refers to “that tension of latent change which always fascinated Fitzgerald.”

Seen this way, as always historical and always based in some sense on her own experience, Fitzgerald’s novels expand in both directions, and quickly elude the firm grasp of admirers whose sense of her achievement is doctrinal and limiting. The novels that happen to draw on incidents from her own life and on periods that she knew firsthand assume the significance, as works of historical analysis, that was previously reserved for the novels that took place elsewhere and back then. And, flipping the formula, the historical novels—the ones that are too good to be historical novels—can be seen as emerging just as much from her peripatetic, draining, impression-rich life as the ones we are asked to view as memoirs in which she changed the odd detail (to guard against libel threats, perhaps).

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