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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, November 18th, 2003


 

The Afterlife: Essays and Criticism

by Penelope Fitzgerald

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, was a very English novelist — quiet, restrained, precise. She admired those who eschewed "making too much of things," and her ideals were of the sort that, as she discerned, George Eliot esteemed: "work, steadiness, harmony, peace." The editors of this unusually intelligent and sensitively selected collection of her criticism have chosen mainly those pieces that explore the authors of the "books of her heart" — mostly minor, often overlooked writers who were, as she lovingly describes E. M. Delafield, "accurate, calm, and lucid," and who composed books that could be considered "somber" if they "were less witty, and less deceptively mild." Taken as a whole, Fitzgerald's pieces on Delafield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, the Punch writers, Mrs. Oliphant (who excelled at what she called the "tragi-farce," a form Fitzgerald clearly loved), J. L. Carr, and Barbara Pym define a writerly sensibility of which Fitzgerald herself was, sadly, among the last adherents. This book is worth its price just for Fitzgerald's spot-on description of Pym's mordant vision of the distance between the sexes: "If men are less than angels, Barbara Pym's men are rather less than men, not wanting much more than constant attention and comfort. Their theses must be typed ... endless dinners cooked, remarks listened to ... and the forces of nature and society combine to ensure, even in the 1980s, that they get these things. Women see through them clearly enough, but are drawn toward them by their own need and by a compassion which is taken entirely for granted."


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