At the back of Penelope Fitzgerald’s only short-story collection, The Means of Escape (2000), there is a charming black-and-white photograph of the author. It shows her buttoned into a high-collared shirt under a garment that appears to be an academic robe but could simply be a very large cardigan. Not quite smiling, she looks gentle yet distinguished, exactly as I remember her; and, as I looked at the photograph, there she was again and so was I, back in the old public library at the top of Highgate Hill in north London.
It was the Nineties. I was a librarian then and she was a reader, passing her books over the counter for me to discharge and stack on a trolley. As I did so, she flicked through the contents of another trolley, that week’s new purchases waiting to be stamped and issued, and quietly talked about the books she’d just read. It was always other people’s books, never her own. She lived close by with one of her daughters and was our most famous regular but also the most inconspicuous, usually in comfortable shoes and an old grey mac, always without a handbag, just a string bag for her books.
Much of her childhood in the Twenties was spent further up the hill, in Hampstead Village at 34 Well Walk, in a rented Queen Anne house on a street favoured by writers. John Keats once lived at
No. 46 and D. H. Lawrence at No. 32. She told me she learnt to read when she was 4 and remembered sheep grazing on Hampstead Heath. In 1941, after leaving Oxford with first-class honours in English Literature, she was working as a script editor at the BBC when mutual friends introduced her to Desmond Fitzgerald. They fell in love and got married but, all too soon, Desmond had to go away to fight in North Africa.
He returned with a Military Cross for gallantry but, over the ensuing years, it gradually became clear that he was an alcoholic. My father served in the same war and suffered from the same addiction, so I find it easy to imagine the te
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