Penelope Fitzgerald in her later years as an author
Florence is uncertain whether she should buy “the Old House” and turn it into a bookshop: “The uncertainty probably kept her awake. She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much … She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation” (p. 1, 1st paragraph The Bookshop)
“che mena il vento, e che batte la pioggia, e che s’incontran con si aspre lingue”: tell me, those the dense marsh holds, or those/driven before the wind, or those on whom/rains falls and those who clash with such angry tongues (epigraph to Offshore, Dante’s Inferno, Canto 11, trans. Allan Mandelbaum)
Dear friends and readers,
Another year — and you may expect on this blog, more reveries, essays, reviews, poetry and art by and about women; on and by 18th century people and the “long” era, and of course occasionally on, by and related to Jane Austen. I begin tonight with yet another woman writer who it’s been claimed has an art, life, whatever the seller can think of “like” Jane Austen’s. And like for some of these writers, aspects of Penelope Fitzgerald’s life and art recall Austen’s and this inheres in more than their both writing in a tradition of l’ecriture-femme traceable back to the later 17th century in France as embodied and booked by Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette and her La Princesse de Cleves.
You see a few of us have declared our “winter read” on and for Women Writers through the Ages at Yahoo will be books by and about Penelope Fitzgerald and there appear to be four people participating. And thus far I’ve read Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Offshore, am thoroughly into Hermione Lee’s life, and have begun Fitzgerald’s literary biography, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends. I hope to finish Lee, and after Mew, Human Voices (on her years at the BBC), At Freddie’s (on the theater world and children), and at least go on to The Blue Flower. I am thinking of her biography of Burne-Jones and/or another of her later historical novels.
A fine literary biography
Some parallels with Austen: Like Austen Fitzgerald came from a heavily clerical and fringe genteel families, and her books closely reflect aspects of her life. Her second book is about her father’s family The Knox Family. They were an intelligent and unusual group of people. For the two below, Fitzgerald worked in a bookshop in a small town; during a long nadir she lived with her husband, then an alcoholic, and their children on a boat. She lived a very hard life during that and later times in council estate housing. I’ve only gotten into the middle phase of Fitzgerald’s life.
Fitzgerald can be accused of writing narrowly English books until near the end, when she turned to historical novels, and these are strongly Eurocentric. We think Austen transcends but not everyone does and there is an argument if anything her fourth and last published novels in her lifetime (so what she meant us to have) is yet narrower. She was terribly worried she was repeating herself and not exciting enough (yes she was and that was why the librarian replied the way he did) so she branched out to the navy, went back to her gothic and then madly doing a draft tried for a commercial spa. She did not think of herself as transcending and so whatever we may think yes Fitzgerald begins this way. She writes about what she knows: family, a Pre-Raphaelite, even Charlotte Mew; the BBC whom she worked for during and just after the war hired fringe upper class people who until Mrs Thatcher axed their act and made them make money and ratings a central criteria. Penelope wrote for Punch too: so scripts, all sort of reviews, short pieces for women readers often or from a woman’s point of view too. One on a librarian’s day. This was immensely formative experience: she was taught to be intense and concise at the same time.
Fitzgerald is not writing to the male pattern of the bildingsroman. The first person to write this as a recognized form is Goethe and it is a plot-line whose central purpose is the career trajectory or the success one. The character at its heart is really conceived of as moving in a line ahead, not cyclic. Fitzgerald’s heroines are seen in one phase of their existence, and they embody traditional virtues: they follow in fact The Psychology of Women as outlined by Lynn Brown and Carol Gilligan. Generosity, gift-giving (as Deborah Cherry has it) go deeply against the values of our competitive society and our heroines are taken down because they stick with these values. (Nabokov in his lectures, one of them on Mansfield Park, mocked the “traditional” heroine, her virtue was utterly hypocritical.) A too great generosity of spirit moves them and they are dismissed from their jobs. They don’t lie, honesty which doesn’t help. The surface of her books is witty, controlled and quiet, she imitates diurnal life.
The Bookshop (click for plot summary)
This storm in a teacup developed, nevertheless, in the souls [of those involved], as violent passions as those excited by the greatest concerns? — Julian Fellows, quoted in Lee’s Penelope Fitzerald
At first the book reminded me of Patricia Dunker’s Miss Webster and Cheriff, and seemed an unusually darkly suggestive descendant of the English middling milieu novel with the self-deprecatory and eminently morally sound Mrs Miniver (as described sympathetically by Alison Light in her Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars), but as I went on the book gradually became the tale of a slow relentless shattering of our heroine, Florence Green. Now that is not like Austen, but what is like her is the surface apparent cheer, the keeping to wry ironies most of the time, the prosaic reasonableness of what seems to be so ordinarily happening, under near which desperate plangent suffering is gradually induced.
Though Mrs Green refers to a dead husband, she appears to have no other family, no children and no close friends. She doesn’t even have a dog or cat. The same holds true of Dunker – the woman exists in a kind of vacuum immediately around her. I suggest this freedom (so to speak) and implicit aloneness is important to the text. She has been left a small amount of money and is determined to borrow more in order to start a business she understands, respects and thinks she can make a go of to support herself: a bookshop. The book opens with her talking to a loan agent in a bank to secure a loan. She has worked in a bookshop before. Unknown to her, there is a woman who is the center of elite town life, to whose house only the respectable of the community are invited, who can call on all sorts of middle level officials to back any obstacle she can think of to stop anyone else from erecting another cultural center: Mrs Gamart. First Mrs Gamart tries to stop Florence by inviting Florence to a party where Mrs Gamart suggests to Florence she should not try acquire a leasehold on the “Old House” and a nearby store-house garage Florence wants to use as an office (the backstore) because she, Mrs Gamart wants to turn these into an art center.
Part of the book’s strength is its accurate re-creation of the 1950s in the UK, a particular point in time when people still could open bookshops with a little amount of money, when TV was limited, when much of the old “county” society carried on. The BBC offers jobs for all sorts of people. Milo North who works for the BCC and his partner for some non-profit agency determined to do good, lives with his partner outside marriage and appeared ever so grateful to Florence for accepting this since he otherwise has to keep this relationship hidden. He will become one of Mrs Gamart’s agents. A Mr Brundish writes her to tell her that no one has tried to open a bookstore since his grandfather’s bookstore failed just after the arrival of an instalment of Dombey and Son (a novel about relentlessness and business).
But Florence is so hopeful. She loves books. She lingers over a Life of Queen Mary (comically middle-brow this allusion) and sets her books up in hierarchies which mimick the outside world:
New books came in sets of eighteen, wrapped in thin brown paper. As she sorted them out, they fell into their own social hierarchy. The heavy luxurious country-house books, the books about Suffolk churches, the memoirs of statesmen in several volumes, took the place that was theirs by right of birth in the front window. Others, indispensable, but not aristocratic, would occupy the middle shelves. That was the place for the Books of the Car — from Austin to Wolseley — technical works on pebble-polishing, sailing, pony clubs, wild flowers and birds, local maps and guide books. Among these the popular war reminiscences, in jackets of khaki and blood-red, faced each other as rivals with bristling hostility. Back in the shadows went the Stickers, largely philosophy and poetry, which she had little hope of ever seeing the last of. The Stayers — dictionaries, reference books and so forth — would go straight to the back, with the Bibles and reward books which, it was hoped, Mrs Traill of the Primary would present to successful pupils. Last of all came the crates of Miiller’s shabby remainders. A few were even second-hand. Although she had been trained never to look inside the books while at work, she opened one or two of them — old Everyman editions in faded olive boards stamped with gold. There was the elaborate endpaper which she had puzzled over when she was a little girl. A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. After some hesitation, she put it between Religion and Home Medicine.
The right-hand wall she kept for paperbacks. At 1s. 6d. each, cheerfully coloured, brightly democratic, they crowded the shelves in well-disciplined ranks. They would have a rapid turnover and she had to approve of them; yet she could remember a world where only foreigners had been content to have their books bound in paper. The Everymans, in their shabby dignity, seemed to confront them with a look of reproach.
In the backhouse kitchen, since there was absolutely no room for them in the shop itself, were two deep drawers set apart for the Books of the Books – the Ledger, Repeat Orders, Purchases, Sales Returns, Petty Cash. Still blank, with untouched double columns, these unloved books menaced the silent commonwealth on the shelves next door.
Photograph of an old bookshop in Madrid, circa 1950s
What’s terrifying is how Mrs Gamart works invisibly against our good woman and through agents. I have had experiences like this where a chairman of a college department maneuvered to try to fire and then when she could not, give me terrible teaching schedules, and cut back my number of sections. Florence resists the inroads at every turn. No she will not turn her store however temporarily into an art exhibit. But here and there she yields to circumstances which Mrs Gamart uses against her. She hires a daughter of a numerous family, Christine, to be her clerk because she knows the family needs the money and she will find Christine useful, compliant and yes inexpensive. Lawyers show up with citations of infractions against town regulations. Florence is served with a writ because she is breaking the law by the number of hours the girl works. This is said to take time from Christine’s studies.
There is even a poltergeist (who like Mrs Gamart) recognizes no bounds, no rules, will stop at nothing:
The hostile force, pushing against her push, came and went, always a little ahead of her, with the shrewdness of the insane. The quivering door waited for her to try again. From inside the backhouse came a burst of tapping. It did not sound like one thing hitting another, more like a series of tiny explosions. Then, as she leaned against her door, trying to recover her breath, it suddenly collapsed violently, swinging to and fro, like a hand clapping a comic spectacle, as she fell inwards on to the brick floor on her knees.
Everyone in Score Lane must have seen her pitch head foremost into her own kitchen. But stronger than the embarrassment, fear and pain was the sense of injustice. The rapper was a familiar of the bathroom and the upstairs passage. In the backhouse she had never heard or seen any signs of malignancy. There are unspoken agreements even with the metaphysical, and the rapper had overstepped them. Her will-power, which she felt as indignation, rose to meet the injury. The Unseen, as the girls had always called it at Muller’s [her ex-bookshop, could mind its own business, no better than the Seen. Neither of them wou prevent her from opening a bookshop (p. 35).
It delivers a night of terror through ever increasing knocks and raps that put me in mind of Robert Wise’s The Haunting
There are several climaxes: one is the remarkable scene where Florence is made to feel electrifying fault because Christine does not do well on her ElevenPlus: the day the selection of children for Grammar school or Technical modern depending on how each did on a test called the Elevan Plus and administered to children at the age of 11.
The page in the novel which describes the day the envelopes are given out in Christine’s classroom was so powerful I was startled. All the children in the class sit together and some get a long-letter horizontal white envelope (you are going to a grammar school and there will be prepared for a university place) and some get a long beige one rather like receiving a contract for work (you are going to a technical modern). The sense of inexorable placing of the child forever in a place where there will be opportunity for fulfillment, for advancement and just high respect as opposed to a place where the child is cut off from these things for not being intelligent enough is felt in the class like some lightning bolt. In the novel the girl’s mother bitterly tells Florence that Christine will never have an opportunity to meet the right kind of man who would give her a middling to upper class life. It’s over for her. Wee know that Christine herself has said she doesn’t like to read and doesn’t read what she doesn’t have to; Christine denies that she could have gotten a high grade. It’s not our heroine’s fault but it hurts and makes her feel bad; worse Mrs Gamant how goes after her through the authorities as having abused a child. As before the case falls to the ground.
It’s a quietly feminist book even if the great spider enemy is a woman. In order to attract customers looking for the latest popular “high” best-seller, she orders in many copies of Nabokov’s Lolita. One of the book’s strengths is its inimitable evocation of the 1950s in England, small town life on the East Coast. Lolita is a brilliant choice in this respect: it’s Playboy‘s answer to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Rebecca Solnit is a rare woman’s voice with the courage to say she is deeply pained as she reads about Lolita and her mother’s destruction and resists allowing a man to speak for her (and ironically?). She shows it’s a cruel pornographic book disguised through having an ironic narrator — or supposedly ironic narrator. Solnit argues those who read it that was have taken on the patriarchal point of view. “Men explain Lolita to me” by Rebecca Solnit. Fitzgerald is showing us the true destroyer of women’s lives in the gendered circumstances Florence cannot escape. In women’s book there is often a woman who is powerful and hurts the heroine. And who the author loathes. It’s that women enact the patriarchal script and as Gilligan says nothing hurts or enrages women more – especially since female friendship can mean so much.
It seems that gradually the good custom that Florence was building dissipates away and she can’t figure out why. She learns that Mrs Gamart has managed to set up an alternative bookshop and Christine gone to work in that. Milo North has become a mole as he takes Christine’s place, treacherously supposedly clerking for Florence but actually an informer, when Florence is gone he sits outside the shop on a chair. The banker who lent Florence the money originally and whom she now cannot pay comes to hint she should give over. Florence lives in that bookshop. She has tried to keep up the store-room garage but finds it is rotting away much more quickly than it should. She is told she should not fix it because Parliament has passed a law which has a subsection which will allow the community to take her bookshop from her for the arts.
Finally, an aging ill decent male,one with respect and self-esteem and thus position, what’s more, someone who knows how the world works, Mr Brundish comes to visit Mrs Gamart. He tells her to leave Florence and her bookshop alone. For a moment, Mrs Gamart tries scoffing, what has she to do with this? Florence disobeyed child protective laws, she is not responsible for laws in Parliament intended to provide buildings for the arts. He breaks that down immediately (her son was responsible for the subsection) and then she falls silent. He leaves and alas drops dead. The result Mrs Gamart’s husband, a General who first tries to win over Florence by asking her pity: he is he tells her one of the world’s “Walking Wounded.” Maybe. Is that why he obeys Mrs Garmart? This General puts it about that Mr Brundish came to praise Mrs Gamart. It’s over for Florence. Her shop is to be pulled down. She tries to get money for her stock and it emerges it’s worthless or no one will give her anything. A final blow is to discover the treachery of Milo. She is last seen in a bus station. This is Cathy Come Home stuff: Cathy’s children are taken from her at a bus station.
The Bookshop is pure heroine’s text, Florence Green is our center, and much about the book reminds me of other books of this type by women: a kind of desperate courage in the face of the world’s bullies and terrors. . Among the things shown is how a person can be entrepreneurial, do everything one is told to do, ambitious within constraints, socially appropriate, and keep at this — and utterly fail. And yet the tone is not lugubrious, you are not whipped about in the way Dickens will do, nothing maudlin. She just sits and cries we are told. The sky shines still.
Offshore (see wikipedia for a concise account)
She plunges you (the verb is apt as this is a watery world) into the world of fringe people living on boats, most of them very precariously, though there are a couple more well-heeled ones who are fancying a bohemhian kind of life for a time.
As novel opens there is a meeting because Willis one of the boat owners, Willis, is trying to sell his boat and lying about its condition. Is that acceptable?, Richard, a man who owns the best boat among them, Lord Jim (beautifully named). wants to know. We move to learn quickly about each of the boatowners family but within a few pages we are at our heroine’s boat, Grace: Nenna separated from her husband, Edward, and lives there with her two daughters, Tilda and Martha, very young, 8 and 6, not being sent to school and the school authorities have sent Father Watosn, to find out why, and demand she start sending them. Of course the threat is they will be removed. Richard’s wife, Laura, is jealous of him with every woman. People are named after their boats so one person called his boat Maurice. Nice of him so it’s easy to remember him too. We learn Willis is an old man without a pension; that Maurice receives stolen goods and has other shady businesses with shady people visiting his boat from time to time.
So we are again with a powerless person, a woman, not much money, this one with the burden of two daughters, and she is menaced by powerful authorities indifferent to her and truth to tell her daughters, and surrounded by vying people some of them in desperate straits.
The book seems to me to be vague in time. It’s set in the 1960s, the year 1965 has not yet come but I feel she is mirroring the 1970s. This book also fits in with one of the messages of the extraordinary Cathy Come Home. You can see it only by buying it: there is no YouTube, it’s not on Netflix. Anyone who claims the 1960s or 70s were an easy era to live through, that the gov’t and English society were suddenly truly socialist needs to watch Cathy Comes Home (or Up the Junction). Or ask someone. The film shows the punitive nature of the underlying norms which have come out of cover and now are no longer being ameliorated for people the way the Labor gov’t of the 1940s and again 60s tried. Richard Hoggart’s famous book outlining and extolling the pro-social communal nature of the working class is heavily fantasy — as he attacks those undermining such people most readers are reluctant to admit this.
Fitzgerald also shows how cheap things were. How you could get along on very little. How no one was rent racking; how food was around; people lived on a cash basis and did not have to plan ahead, have credits and the like. So this is a mirror of the era after The Bookshop and we see human beings are being devastated just as surely.
There are no chapter numbers,and the book moves much more quickly than The Bookshop; you might say it sinks quickly. Nenna’s two little girls gather junk on the shore and manage to get an antique store to give them money for it — out of pity. Nenna is waiting for her husband to return, but she (and we even more) have no faith in this. Meanwhile Richard uses his connections to try to sell Willis’s boat. He fails with an agent, but two people come to see it and the boat collapses under its leaks. He is left swimming for his life.
Desperate and lonely, Nenna goes to where her husband is renting a room from some obnoxious conventional people. They respect neither husband or wife. Edward can’t get a job, it’s not easy for him, and they try to have it out. But they don’t manage at all. They begin quarrelling bitterly about side issues — the main one is where should they live? Then they are at an impasse. He will not live on a boat, and she will not live in this room. She leaves without her purse and only realizes this as she begins to get lost in the streets. This is the kind of book I literally dialogue with. So as I read, I felt a bite, and responded to myself, ah ha, I wouldn’t do that. So I would have gone back to get the money and my purse. I would have forced myself. Come to that I would have the two children and gone to live him in that goddamn room. So there’s where she and I differ. She is wrong not to return for the money but maybe she is brave to stick it out in the boat, which she bought with some money she got that was hers.
There is an assault, sexual transgression, a quiet murder, and possibly a drowning
I now realize the night Nenna before this catastrophe and after Nenna visited Edward and saw how useless was the relationship, and was so insulted when he told her “you’re not a woman” (why this should have set her off so is not clear except maybe that all she’s experiencing could only be experienced by a woman), she and Richard made love in Lord Jim. So Richard’s wife was rightly jealous of Nenna at least.
Meanwhile Richard has returned to the Maurice because he is worried about Willis — to see if he can find help with the Dreadnought. One of the shady men is there and fractures Richard’s skull with some kind of iron instrument to hand — he is in a rage over money — common enough kind of rage. As in The Bookshop no good deed goes unpunished once again. Richard ends in hospital and his wife (we learn) sells his boat.
In the end the children come back with a relative, Heinrich, who is a visitor and it seems that Nenna is going to allow herself to be bullied by Louise, another relative get off the boat and return the children to the hideous school where they will taught stupid conventional values (it’s a nun’s school of some sort where teaching is through threats of humiliation). While she is gone to see Louise, this relative (or somewhere else, she still has no money, no cards, no identity), Edward comes to the boat! he is very drunk and gets drunker with Maurice. I began to fear they would drown, but no they sort of get their act together and sail off a bit — or possibly they drown.
The pain of these scenes is intense. Again I became personally anxious. I wanted to be sure and know that Nenna’s children would drowned. What kept me frightened as I read was my fear they’d drown. They are very young, she is so troubled she cannot get herself to send them to school. There they will learn their life is skewed and wrong and they haven’t got the right clothes. But she has no energy to watch them. I said I would have returned for my purse, and also that I would probably have given in early on and just given up the idea of the boat. One reason for that is I’d be perpetually worried about my children’s safety. For me safety was always a first consideration in bringing up my daughters.
It does end sadly — or tragically. It ends in life’s mess, nothing is truly resolved, nothing changes a lot and yet a lot changes. Now Richard’s Lord Jim will be sold; he is badly wounded in his skull and who knows what will happen in that hospital. He will be under his wife’s management from now on and is lost to the boat people.
End of book. I suppose it’s an increase of maturity for her not to pull the curtain down at the moment of complete nadir despair as she does in The Bookshop but take us on to another turn in her heroine and her children’s lives. I am relieved to think she is getting off the dangerous, wet, uncomfortable boat but not for the choice she is driven to take or the drunken husband who did return to give her her purse but seems to haae thrown it overboard — that’s not clear. Maybe it’s still on deck. Willis will carry on because Maurice decides to stay with the boat life (we are not surprised by this)
Whistler, Old Battersea Bridge
Hermione Lee is brilliant on this book. Her comments on the motif of failure in the novel. She treats the book asa poetry of water — these three paragraphs made me think of Bachelard’s Reveries about Reveries (in one of his books):
Tilda has a comprehensive knowledge of all river-craft, tide times, flag markings and boat signals. Martha worries that “with so much specialised knowledge” she would be qualified for “nothing much except licence.” But Martha also believes that “everything you learn a pilot’s And Tilda’s knowledge is useful to the reader, as well as funny, as it provvides one kind of language, a detailed, technical one, for the boats and river, the novel’s dominant characters. The language of painting is used,too. Tilda and the marine artist Willis visit the Tate (a disrereputable pair closely watched by the gallery attendant) to look at the Thames paintings by Whistler and Turner. Tilda criticises them for inaccuracies but Willis puts her right: “Whistler was a very good painter … There’s Old Battersea Bridge. That was the old wooden bridge. Painted on a grey ground you see, . to save himself trouble. Tide on the turn, lighter taking advantage the ebb.”
Fitzgerald daringly infiltrates a whole paragraph of Whistler’s famous 1885 lecture “Ten O’Clock” into Nenna’s mind. The prosecutor in her head asks her if she knows Whistler’s description of the time “when evening must clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city:’ ahngs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us.” There are other kinds of grand language sounding through this plain-spoken, low-key novel. A curate visits the barge to complain about the girls’ irregular attendance at their convent school. (“Ma, it’s the kindly old priest,” bellows Tilda.) This allows in a solemn biblical note: “You’ve decided to make your dwelling place upon the face of the waters,” he says. All through, the sound of he water, the changing tides, the light, the smell, the air, the wind, the feel of living on the Thames, is invoked with a mysterious, melancholy eloquence. One of notes to herself in the manuscript of Offshore sums up the mood she wantedd to invoke: “Slack tide, calm, knocking sound on boatside, peace, it doesn’t matter when & how sordidly you live, happiness.”The magical moment of the changing tide is conjured up, when “the Tham es had turned towards the sea,” and the moment as night falls when “the darkness seems to rise from the river to make it one with the sky.” We hear the groaning of the old boats as they stir and long “to put out once again into mid-stream.” Maurice and Nenna think of the Thames, in a an echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets (“I think that the river / Is a strong brown god —sullen, untamed and intractable”) as “a powerful god, bearded with the white foam of detergents, calling home the twenty-seven lost rivers of London, sighing as the night declined.” This is a pagan god. The river’s edge is where Virgil’s ghosts “held out their arms in longing for the further shore.”
A death wish is here. The passage reminds me in its lyricism of Woolf’s prose, The Voyage Out, The Years.
I’ve read popular kinds of accounts of Offshore and heard people discuss it. It’s an easy read, won a famous prize so they go for it. They never fail to say of this book the characters are eccentrics. I’ve a local friend who remembered it as about a “weird’ or “odd” set of people. That is to profoundly misread: the very point of the book is these are ordinary people in desperate straits. In NYC we had areas of the Hudson River where one saw people like this living in boat communities, some better off and okay but many not. And the book is a cracked mirror of Penelope’s life with her husband and children on a boat while he was an alcoholic.
I’ve just started this book and so will treat it briefly in this way: I wrote a foremother blog on Charlotte Mew and offer one of her powerful poems:
The Farmer’s Bride
Three Summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe — but more’s to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day.
Her smile went out, and ’twasn’t a woman —
More like a little, frightened fay.
One night, in the Fall, she runned away.
“Out ‘mong the sheep, her be,” they said,
‘Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wasn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before our lanterns. To Church-Town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched home at last
And turned the key upon her, fast.
She does the work about the house
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk stay away.
“Not near, not near!” her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.
Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?
The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low gray sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas-time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house than we!
She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh, my God! — the down,
The soft young down of her; the brown,
The brown of her — her eyes, her hair, her hair!
— Charlotte Mew
Great pity for a young woman shattered or who was disabled and remains so.
One of Fitzgerald’s novels is called The Beginning of Spring
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