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  • Published: 7 November 2013
  • ISBN: 9781409029946
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 544

Penelope Fitzgerald

A Life

Intimate, perceptive, critically acute, funny and moving, this is the first full biography of one of the finest English novelists of the last century.

Winner of the James Tait Black Prize for Biography 2014
Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography
New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916–2000) was a great English writer, who would never have described herself in such grand terms. Her novels were short, spare masterpieces, self-concealing, oblique and subtle. She won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore in 1979, and her last work, The Blue Flower, was acclaimed as a work of genius. The early novels drew on her own experiences – a boat on the Thames in the 1960s; the BBC in war time; a failing bookshop in Suffolk; an eccentric stage-school. The later ones opened out to encompass historical worlds which, magically, she seemed to possess entirely: Russia before the Revolution; post-war Italy; Germany in the time of the Romantic writer Novalis.

Fitzgerald’s life is as various and as cryptic as her fiction. It spans most of the twentieth century, and moves from a Bishop’s Palace to a sinking barge, from a demanding intellectual family to hardship and poverty, from a life of teaching and obscurity to a blaze of renown. She was first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form of heroism.

Loved and admired, and increasingly recognised as one of the outstanding novelists of her time, she remains, also, mysterious and intriguing. She liked to mislead people with a good imitation of an absent-minded old lady, but under that scatty front were a steel-sharp brain and an imagination of wonderful reach. This brilliant account – by a biographer whom Fitzgerald herself admired – pursues her life, her writing, and her secret self, with fascinated interest.

  • Published: 7 November 2013
  • ISBN: 9781409029946
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 544

About the author

Hermione Lee

Hermione Lee is a biographer, critic, and teacher of literature. Her previous books include the internationally acclaimed biography, Virginia Woolf ('One of the most impressive biographies of the decade: moving, eloquent, powerful', Financial Times) and Edith Wharton ('A feat of exhaustive research... a glorious biography', Independent on Sunday), as well as books on Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather and Philip Roth. Her collection of essays on life-writing, Body Parts, was published in 2005, and her Biography: A Very Short Introduction in 2009. In 2013 she was made a Dame for services to literary scholarship. She lives in Oxford and Yorkshire.

Also by Hermione Lee

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Praise for Penelope Fitzgerald

Excellent... [Hermione] Lee is a perfect choice as Fitzgerald's biographer. She has done a superb job, capturing an elusive personality and a complex, sometimes rather harrowing story.

Philip Hensher, Guardian

Adroitly executed and meticulously researched... insightful... Ms Lee's shrewd examination makes this a riveting biography


Lee's absorbing biography is the story of a late starter... [She] is partisan in her project: she means to expose a truth she is certain of -- that Fitzgerald is "a great English writer". Her feat is to have woven an involving narrative out of such a skeletal life....Excellent....

Nicholas Shakespeare, Telegraph

Lee elucidates the depth of [Fitzgerald's] achievement, and ties it enthrallingly to a life and personality more complex and difficult than anyone imagined. In a perfect literary biography, Lee plumbs the creative mind beneath that persona, tracing the metamorphosis of messy experience into crystalline art.

Financial Times

This book will hold insights and treats for any admirer of [Fitzgerald's] fiction, and recruit converts to this reticent, witty, ferocious champion of the utterly downtrodden.

Emma Townshend, Independent

This elegant, richly researched biography tells a tale of misfortunes borne with dignity, humour and courage, and finally of quiet triumphs

Michèle Roberts

A luminous masterpiece of life-writing... with rigour yet extraordinary sympathy, [Hermione] Lee traces Fitzgerald's reading, her intellectual and emotional affinities, producing a cogent account of Fitzgerald's research, so compressed and so buried within the work that the worlds the books bring forth feel entire and lived and utterly truthful. Lee's magisterial work is inseperable from warmth, intimacy, humaneness, and love for the subject of her biography -- and the sui generis work that Fitzgerald left behind.

Neel Mukherjee, New Statesman

Brilliant and passionate...a haunting tale of blighted hope, personal tragedy and rare, late fulfilment. Thanks to this sympathetic biography, [Fitzgerald's] afterlife shows signs of becoming finally blessed with understanding, admiration and respect.

Robert McCrum, Observer

A worthy monument to one of the finest English novelists of the second half of the 20th century

Jonathan Derbyshire, Prospect

Admirable and perceptive... Hermione Lee non-judgmentally excavates this extraordinary life. Her biography is very good indeed

Susan Hill, The Times

Her book is in the very best tradition of critical literary biography. Phenomenally well researched and elegantly written, with a fine, dynamic fluency and lucid understanding, this is a very good biography indeed.

The Tablet

The literary biography of the year

Philip Hensher, Spectator

A perfect match of author and subject

Leo Robson, New Statesman

Lee’s book has had more influence on my reading than anything else this year

John Lanchester, Guardian

A compelling account of the life and work of Penelope Fitzgerald

Mark Lawson, Guardian

A masterly discussion of the work of that fine novelist and an illuminating account of the life of a complex and elusive person

Penelope Lively, Guardian

A big and richly satisfying literary biography, from an artist in the form. It will send you back to the subject’s own piquant and elusive novels

Hilary Mantel, Guardian

[A] fascinating biography

Helen Simpson, Guardian

The book I’d most like someone to give me for Christmas… in fact, no, I don’t think I can wait till Christmas

Ali Smith, Observer

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee is the literary biography of the year, an extraordinary portrait of an English literary life.

Robert McCrum, Observer

A wonderful labour of extraction…Fitzgerald's life overspills with untold dramas, which Lee convincingly demonstrates to be the undertow of Fitzgerald’s remarkable fiction

Nicholas Shakespeare, Telegraph

With this superb, painstaking study of Penelope Fitzgerald… Lee here combines a deft light touch of humanity with her peerless critical eye to bring this British literary treasure back into the limelight

Robert Collins, The Sunday Times

A revelation, brilliantly demonstrating the undemure existence of this widely admired novelist: a louche Irish husband, debt, a poverty-stricken life on sinking barges and council flats lie behind a façade of mild English eccentricity and powerfully original (often very un-English) work. It reads like a Fitzgerald novel

Roy Forster, Irish Times

[Fitzgerald’s] story is a gift to the literary biographer, her oeuvre is manageably compact, intensely personal

Claudia Fitzherbert, Spectator

This book is in part a period piece about literary London in the Eighties and Nineties and a justification and rebooting of the lavish praise Fitzgerald received then

Claire Harman, Evening Standard

The second half of the book is deliriously entertaining… [Lee's] intense, close-up analyses of each book would have thrilled Fitzgerald

John Walsh, Sunday Times

Lee displays all the tact and reticence for which her subject was well-known

Jonathan Derbyshire, Prospect

[A] sympathetic and perceptive biography

Mail on Sunday

A full and detailed life of the finest English writer since the Second World War

Michael Alexander, Tablet

[An] expert, elegant biography... Alongside deft and sensitive literary criticism, Lee identifies the seeds of many of Fitzgerald's novels

Gaby Wood, Daily Telegraph

In her career, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald was saved and supported by the devotion of her publishers and now, in reputation, she is rewarded by a superb biographer who is intrigued by the ambivalence of "her tragic view of life and humorous style"

Iain Finlayson, The Times

Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald delighted us

Lesley McDowell, Scotsman

This is an exhaustively researched, sympathetic insight into an enigmatic writer

Sunday Express

Penelope Fitzgerald is an admirable biography, and one which has evidently been thoroughly researched down to the last detail. Lee excels at her craft, and it is no wonder that the subject of this biography so admired her. Whilst reviewing Lee's earlier book, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald wrote: 'Lee's book is not only very good, but very necessary'. The same can surely be said here

Kirsty Hewitt, Nudge

This book is that rare thing: a biography that does not disappoint

Francis Phillips, Catholic Herald

A consummate piece of work, and a thoroughly absorbing account of a most unusual, highly gifted woman

Good Book Guide

A very readable and honest account of the incomprehensible facts

A. N. Wilson, Times Literary Supplement


William Leith, Evening Standard

Thank goodness…for Hermione Lee… This biography was a wholly necessary task

Lesley McDowell, 5 stars, Independent on Sunday

Lee has done a superb job of capturing the elusive personality behind some of the greatest novels of the late 20th century


Excellent new biography

Dwight Garner, New York Times


William Leith, 4 stars, Scotsman

A thoroughly absorbing account of a most unusual, highly gifted woman

Good Book Guide

This is a masterpiece worthy of its subject

Alan Hollinghurst, Esquire

[A] masterful biography. Simply sit back and watch an extraordinary life unfold

Rebecca Foster, Nudge