Saturday, November 07, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald, (Pop) Cultural Critic

I'm currently reading the collected letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, and have to say they're rather charming and entertaining (oh dear, I'm beginning to sound like Fitzgerald myself). They are full of everyday gems like the following, from a letter to her older daughter Tina:

Quite exhausted emotions raised by Eurovision Song Contest: We felt sure Cliff should have won, though doubtful about his dress of nylon ruffles and dandy's velvet-effect suit. It was very odd Germany suddenly giving 6 votes for Spain, I'm sure it was a vote to promote trade. (Wollen Sie in Spanien gehen?) As usual I was quite wrong as the one I though best got no votes at all, and Sandie Shaw looked frightful in ostrich-effect feathers and was hit by a piece of stage.
Just to remind you of the target of her sartorial critique (and how astute it was):


Other passages in the letters are more wistful and melancholy, for instance when she describes a conversation with her other daugher to Tina:

Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying: "What a funny old couple you are!" and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn't really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seemed to be crumbling into dust.

The following assessment of, again, her older daughter's disappointment with her English degree at Oxford contains an insight we should pass on to our students at the beginning of each semester:

I'm sorry that the poor English school is so dull too - the truth is, though I would never dare saying it in public, that the value of studying literature only really appears as you go on living, and find how it really is like life - that it all works - and it's a pity this can't somehow be shown in the course, except I suppose in Marxist Free Universities.

I'm not so sure about the Marxist Free Universities (in fact, I don't even know what she means by that), but in the first part of the quote Fitzgerald seems to put the finger on what may be the tragedy of the humanities.

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