From Public Housing to Published Novels: The Journey of Penelope Fitzgerald

In 1999, Penelope Fitzgerald won a prestigious Golden PEN Award, which is given for “a lifetime's distinguished service to literature.” In Fitzgerald’s case, the phrase was both incredibly apt and slightly absurd. Though she was 83 years old at the time, she had only starting publishing 23 years earlier; it was hardly a “lifetime” of work. But those previous 60 years—where, at various points, she was homeless, living on a houseboat, and working tirelessly to support her family—provided the raw material from which she would craft some of the most well-respected British novels of this century.

Fitzgerald’s incredible story drew the attention of Hermione Lee, the noted biographer whose previous subjects have included Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. According to Lee, Fitzgerald had “a remarkable late-life career” in spite of her disastrous marriage. Desmond Fitzgerald was, by all accounts, a dashing Irishman destined to be a lawyer, but after returning from war he was a dramatically different man. His alcoholism not only drained the family’s financial resources but also made it hard for him to hold a job. Along with their three kids, the Fitzgeralds bounced around England, including stints in public housing and being homeless. Eventually, they settled on a former coal barge on the Thames.

In order to make ends meet, Penelope Fitzgerald worked as a school teacher. One day she came to school late and apologized by saying, “I’m sorry, my house sank.” This wasn’t an exaggeration: the leaking barge had submerged to the point that all of their possessions were ruined. Yet, Penelope worked on, teaching and accumulating the experiences that would provide crucial to her future literary successes.

According to Lee, Fitzgerald’s talent flowed through her “like an underground river,” and when she finally started putting pen to paper at age 60, “up it comes like a great fountain.” But as with all people who are late bloomers, her story raises a question: were those very difficult years “valuable”—or even integral—to Fitzgerald as an artist?

For Lee, the answer is a resounding yes. She sees Fitzgerald's novels as being built on a kind of “mulch,” what she calls the “rich compost” of the life that Fitzgerald lived—and that mulch only grew stronger when coupled with a lifetime of waiting. But more obviously, the novels themselves are largely based around Fitzgerald’s life experiences, including a novel called *Offshore*, about living on a barge. For Lee, Fitzgerald's books and her personality are about “resilience, stoicism, courage, and endurance.”