One of the projects I’m working on during my sabbatical is an essay on the English writer Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), so I’m haphazardly and happily reading and re-reading her novels.
I recently finished The Gate of Angels, which was new to me. It’s delightful, like everything by Fitzgerald I’ve read. One of my aims in the essay is to describe that delightfulness as precisely as possible.
“Angels” in the title is overdetermined. It’s the fictional Cambridge college St. Angelicus, the conventional description of nurses, and even the metaphysical, religious, spiritual entities that we might think of first. St. Angelicus is devoted to the study of science, which, in 1912, the year of the book’s setting, means primarily the study of the nature of matter, particularly atomic and sub-atomic matter. Fred Fairley holds a Junior Fellowship at Angels. Contrary to the instructions of his position, which is that like all Angels’ Fellows he must remain a bachelor, Fairly has fallen in love with a woman he has literally crashed into, Daisy Saunders, a (former) nurse trainee. There are complications to this love, even beyond the risks to his career. He does not, for example, know Daisy’s name, or indeed almost anything about her. And after a single night that he spends next to her, in half-consciousness, in a makeshift ward where the two are brought after a traffic accident he doesn’t even know where she is. The careering of these and other characters is an analogue for the movements of sub-atomic particles. But Fitzgerald’s novel is never schematic, not even in its treatment of the relation between science and faith. In so many ways the book could be tedious or heavy, but it is always light, quicksilver, and yet so careful.
But I don’t want to go into the book at length here. I want instead to share a reflection prompted by its terrific first paragraph:
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.
You want to read more, of course. And you should! The book is terrific, so subtle and smart. Several important themes are introduced already in this vivid anecdote: danger, disorder, blindness. Even more than these, though, what most strikes me, especially as a way of understanding the novel’s abrupt ending, is the suggestion of felix culpa, the good fortune that arises from bad. The trees are uprooted; but the cows are showered in delicacies. The cows are overturned; but still they munch away. Licensed by the repetition of the double l in “wallowing” and “bellies,” I transpose the words and hear “bellowing.” Fanciful, I know, especially when it’s exactly fear and rage that is absent here. The world is turned upside down in these lines, but that might not be a bad thing.
Reading from the perspective of 2014—and here I finally approach my real subject—I don’t know how much to attribute the delight and ease at the heart of this dangerous, even disastrous situation to the supposed innocence of the time of the book’s setting or the time of its writing. Of course, to speak of innocence at all here is foolhardy. Fitzgerald’s wit and irony make short work of the idea of the innocence or naivety of the past. (Gate of Angels had been preceded, two novels before, by one called, acerbically, Innocence.) But for readers today, at least this reader, it’s hard not to read apocalyptically, at least when it comes to the weather. Writing in 1990, when discussions of climate change were beginning to gain broader currency, though nothing like the sort they have today, Fitzgerald might herself have been pointing to a climactic innocence that she already suspected we can only dream of, but I think it is the reader of today who is more likely to experience the pathos I’m referring to.
What I mean is that I was struck—reading this book in the week when much of England was under water, when the Thames barrier had been shut for days—by just how little there is to worry about in the weather of this passage. Yes, the tempest is dangerous to cyclists. But the plot of the novel will show that romance might arise from that very danger. (It is central to the plot of this novel that cycling is a dangerous but exciting way to travel.) Similarly with the cows: the weather’s not fine, but the eating’s good anyway. Only the suffering of the trees seems unredeemed.
The poignancy of the passage, for me, is its suggestion that this scene of disorder is only that, a scene, an interregnum. Everything is topsy-turvy, but it won’t be forever, and besides, it’s good for things to get topsy-turvy once in a while. That’s not the feeling I have when I think about our “topsy-turvy” weather today. I think about the tip of the iceberg, about the end of all things, about the world I am leaving my daughter. I think, in other words, apocalyptic thoughts. And I just can’t find any fortune in this particular fall.
More generally, I wonder whether scenes like this—and, even more powerfully, less ironic and pointed scenes of landscape and weather in older novels, say those by Eliot or Hardy or Lawrence—won’t be the most estranging and most enticing parts of literature to future generations, assuming those brave new people will even have the means or desire to read them. Already I marvel at the safety of weather in literature of the past. Even when it’s terrible, it’s not the end of life as we know it. Again, I know there’s something both morbid and defeatist in my assumption that bad things must lead to ruin. But I also think there’s something even more perverse in denying that drastic change is happening.
Do these thoughts strike a chord with anyone else? Can others imagine that future readers will glory in the “weather porn” that is the English novel just as contemporary readers and viewers (Jane Austen, Downton) relish the nostalgia of servant labour?