Afterlife: Essays and Criticism


"A good book," wrote John Milton, "is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." In this generous posthumous collection of her literary essays and reviews, Penelope Fitzgerald celebrates the "life beyond life" of dozens of master-spirits—their afterlife not only in the pages of their works but in the minds of their readers, critics, and biographers.

Here are Fitzgerald's brilliant introductions to the classics-Jane Austen's Emma, George Eliot's ...

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"A good book," wrote John Milton, "is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." In this generous posthumous collection of her literary essays and reviews, Penelope Fitzgerald celebrates the "life beyond life" of dozens of master-spirits—their afterlife not only in the pages of their works but in the minds of their readers, critics, and biographers.

Here are Fitzgerald's brilliant introductions to the classics-Jane Austen's Emma, George Eliot's Middlemarch, the works of Mrs. Oliphant-as well as considerations of recent novels by Barbara Pym, Carol Shields, Roddy Doyle, and Amy Tan. Here too are reviews of several late-twentieth-century literary biographies, including Richard Holmes's Coleridge, A. N. Wilson's C. S. Lewis, and Martin Stannard's Evelyn Waugh-reviews that together form a memorable criticism both of life and the art of life-writing. And here especially are extended explorations of "minor" figures, the creators of modest, overlooked, but fully achieved imaginative works, the celebration of which reveals so much about Penelope Fitzgerald's own artistic sensibility. Among these are Charlotte Mew, "who was completely successful perhaps only two or three times, though that is enough for a lyric poet"; William Morris, the consummate craftsman who, in life as in art, was determined to do "nothing shabby"; and the cartoonists and humorists of Punch, the comic weekly of which her father, "Evoe" Knox, was for many years the editor. She confesses she admires wit, values personal and artistic courage, and feels drawn "to whatever is spare, subtle, and economical." Rounded out by travel writings, bits of autobiography, and essays on the craft of fiction, The Afterlife is one of the most engaging books about books since Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader. As the critic Hermione Lee says in an appreciative introduction, in each of these "wonderfully sympathetic, curious, and knowledgeable pieces, Penelope Fitzgerald leads us right to the heart of the matter-the feeling of a novel, the nature of a life, the understanding of how something or someone works, the sense of a place or a time"-and does so with brevity, justice, humor, grace, and style.

Author Biography: Terence Dooley is a poet and the literary executor of the Estate of Penelope Fitzgerald. He lives with his wife, Penelope Fitzgerald's older daughter Tina, in Cornwall, England.

Mandy Kirkby is an editor at Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins UK. She lives in London.

Penelope Fitzgerald (1918-2000) is the author of 9 novels, 3 works of biography, and a posthumously published collection of short fiction. The Blue Flower won the NBCC Award for Fiction and was chosen by the editors of The New York Times Book Review as one of the eleven best books of 1997. Offshore won the Booker Prize, and three of her other novels have made the Booker short list. For almost all her life she lived in London.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Treating serious things gracefully is also the hallmark of Penelope Fitzgerald and of this fine collection, compiled by her son-in-law and her American and British editors. —Michael Dirda
Library Journal
British novelist Fitzgerald (Offshore; The Blue Flower), who died in 2000 at age 83, was one of England's most celebrated contemporary writers. This scintillating patchwork of her literary essays celebrates her range of writing styles as well as interests, featuring travel pieces, commentary on the art of the written word, and essays on her private life, as well as biographical essays about the works and lives of her British predecessors (e.g., George Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Jane Austen) and her contemporaries (e.g., Muriel Spark, Carol Shields, and Richard Yates). While Fitzgerald's penetrating literary criticism and biographies make up the bulk of this anthology, it is the author's musings about her English childhood that truly incarnate her. Seductively abstruse, Fitzgerald was a master at creating a unique interweaving of literature and memoir. This anthology certainly attests to that. Recommended for all academic and large public libraries.-Colleen Lougen, Mount Saint Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Though Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, was surely a writer for her time, the English novelist and essayist (The Means of Escape, 2000, etc.) seemed most at home wandering through libraries devoted to late Victorian and Edwardian writers, many now forgotten. This selection of essays, forewords, and book reviews introduces modern readers to some of them: the bookseller, poet, and editor Harold Monro, who asked in his will "for his ashes to be scattered at the root of a young oak tree, though only if the idea proved practicable"; George Moore, the Irish writer who, like Fitzgerald, "set himself to read everything"; the unhappy Bloomsburyite Dora Carrington, whose ashes none of that weird circle could remember scattering, if she had even been cremated in the first place; John Lehman, the editor who aspired to be a poet-though, as Fitzgerald remarks, "he produced eight collections in his lifetime, there was never any evidence that he was able to write good poetry." Fitzgerald is a generally amiable critic, motivated by a passion for good books but aware of the effort it takes to write even an undistinguished one. Her sidelong journeys through the stalls and stacks, pointing out treasures and private passions, will delight those Virginia Woolf honored with the designation "the common reader," who are, of course, none-too-common these days.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582433202
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 10/11/2004
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 737,834
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.37 (d)

Meet the Author

Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald
"I've heard my novels described as 'light,' but I mean them very seriously," Penelope Fitzgerald has written. And while it's true that the tone and humor in her novels may belie the insight they carry, the award-winning Fitzgerald has always been a writer that people do indeed take seriously.


Although some of her novels were published previously in the U. S., Penelope Fitzgerald remained little known to a general American audience until 1997, when Houghton Mifflin's trade paperback imprint, Mariner, published The Blue Flower, which was chosen as an Editor's Choice by the New York Times Book Review, and won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award.

The then 81-year-old Fitzgerald was selected as winner of the NBCC Award over fellow nominees Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and Charles Frazier, winning her first American literary award. In her native England, Fitzgerald had long been a favorite of critics and writers. Her novel Offshore won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize, and three of her novels -- The Bookshop, The Gate of Angels, and The Beginning of Spring -- were finalists for the Prize.

Fitzgerald began her writing career late in life. She was sixty years old in 1977 when her first novel, The Golden Child, was published, a book she wrote to entertain her husband, who was dying of cancer. Much of her previous sixty years' experience informs her writing, from her days as a lowly assistant at the BBC (Human Voices), to a stint living on a houseboat in the Thames (Offshore), to working at a bookstore in a seaside village (The Bookshop).

Fitzgerald was born into a distinguished intellectual and professional family, the daughter of E. V. Knox, who was editor of Punch, and the granddaughter on both sides of Anglican bishops (her father and three uncles are the subjects of her biography, The Knox Brothers). She won a scholarship to Oxford and graduated shortly before the Second World War.

With her husband, Desmond, she ran a small literary journal called the World Review, which reprinted pieces by such writers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Dylan Thomas.

Author biography courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.

Good To Know

Dinitia Smith, in her New York Times obituary of May 3, 2000, quoted Penelope Fitzgerald from 1998 as saying, "I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?"

While studying on scholarship at Oxford, one of Fitzgerald's fellow students was J.R.R. Tolkien.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      December 17, 1916
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lincoln, England
    1. Date of Death:
      May 3, 2000
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      Somerville College, Oxford University, 1939

Table of Contents

Editors' Note
Jane Austen 3
William Blake 8
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 12
Sarah Orne Jewett 16
George Eliot 20
Mrs. Oliphant 29
The Victorians 54
William Morris 75
Arts and Crafts 91
Rhyme and Meter 100
M. R. James 134
The World of Punch 141
Yeats and His Circle 153
New Women and Newer 166
Bloomsbury 197
Moderns and Anti-Moderns 209
The Forties and After 236
Writers 275
Witnesses 300
The Grange 311
The Moors 319
Canaletto's Venice 325
The Holy Land 331
Curriculum Vitae 337
Scenes of Childhood 348
Aspects of Fiction 358
Why I Write 368
How I Write: Daisy's Interview 369
Last Words 379
Index 385
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