The Means of Escapeby Penelope Fitzgerald
The last book and only collection of short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald fittingly showcases her at her wisest, her funniest, her best. Like her novels, these stories are "mordantly funny, morally astute . . . [as] they plumb the endless absurdities of the human heart" (Washington Post Book World). Roaming the globe and the ages, the stories travel from England
The last book and only collection of short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald fittingly showcases her at her wisest, her funniest, her best. Like her novels, these stories are "mordantly funny, morally astute . . . [as] they plumb the endless absurdities of the human heart" (Washington Post Book World). Roaming the globe and the ages, the stories travel from England to France to New Zealand and from today to the seventeenth century and back again.
Now featuring an introductory essay by A. S. Byatt and two newly published stories, this Mariner edition of THE MEANS OF ESCAPE "serves as an elegiac gift to dedicated fans of her award-winning novels and a tantalizing introduction for new readers" (Entertainment Weekly). It memorializes a writer guided by a generous but unwavering moral gaze and proves once more "why [Fitzgerald] will endure" (Los Angeles Times Book Review).
Times Literary Supplement
New York Times Book Review
"Penelope Fitzgerald is the finest British writer alive."
The Los Angeles Times
“Warm and wry, her writing is as economical as it is perfect. It’s always a pleasure to see a new book under her name.”
The Washington Post
"She is, isn't she, the best." -- A.S. Byatt
“Reading [Fitzgerald’s Tction] is like having someone play Mozart two rooms away: light, sweet jolly, even and utterly piercing, like a needle though the heart.”
The New Yorker
“Fitzgerald is the funniest writer in English now alive.”
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Read an Excerpt
The Means of Escape
St. george’s church, Hobart, stands high above Battery Point and the harbor. Inside, it looks strange and must always have done so, although (at the time I’m speaking of) it didn’t have the blue-, pink- and yellow-patterned stained glass that you see there now. That was ordered from a German firm in 1875. But St. George’s has always had the sarcophagus-shaped windows, which the architect had thought Egyptian and therefore appropriate (St. George is said to have been an Egyptian saint). They give you the curious impression, as you cross the threshold, of entering a tomb.
In 1852, before the organ was installed, the church used to face east, and music was provided by a seraphine. The seraphine was built, and indeed invented, by a Mr. Ellard, formerly of Dublin, now a resident of Hobart. He intended it to suggest the angelic choir, although the singing voices at his disposal — the surveyor general, the naval chaplain, the harbormaster and their staffs — were for the most part male. Who was able to play the seraphine? Only, at first, Mr. Ellard’s daughter, Mrs. Logan, who seems to have got L20 a year for doing so, the same fee as the clerk and the sexton. When Mrs. Logan began to feel the task was too much for her — the seraphine needs continuous pumping — she instructed Alice Godley, the rector’s daughter.
Hobart stands "south of no north," between snowy Mount Wellington and the River Derwent, running down over steps and promontories to the harbor’s bitterly cold water. You get all the winds that blow. The next stop to the south is the limit of the Antarctic drift ice. When Alice went up to practice the hymns she had to unlock the outer storm door, made of Huon pine, and the inner door, also a storm door, and drag them shut again.
The seraphine stood on its own square of Axminster carpet in the transept. Outside (at the time I’m speaking of) it was a bright afternoon, but inside St. George’s there was that mixture of light and inky darkness which suggests that from the darkness something may be about to move. It was difficult, for instance, to distinguish whether among the black-painted pews, at some distance away, there was or wasn’t some person or object rising above the level of the seats. Alice liked to read mystery stories, when she could get hold of them, and the thought struck her now: The form of a man is advancing from the shadows.
If it had been ten years ago, when she was still a schoolgirl, she might have shrieked out, because at that time there were said to be bolters and escaped convicts from Port Arthur on the loose everywhere. The constabulary hadn’t been put on to them. Now there were only a few names of runaways, perhaps twenty, posted on the notice boards outside Government House.
"I did not know that anyone was in the church," she said. "It is kept locked. I am the organist. Perhaps I can assist you?" A rancid stench, not likely from someone who wanted to be shown round the church, came towards her up the aisle. The shape, too, seemed wrong. But that, she saw, was because the head was hidden in some kind of sack like a butchered animal, or, since it had eye holes, more like a man about to be hanged.
"Yes," he said, "you can be of assistance to me." "I think now that I can’t be," she said, picking up her music case. "No nearer," she added distinctly.
He stood still, but said, "We shall have to get to know one another better." And then, "I am an educated man. You may try me out if you like, in Latin and some Greek. I have come from Port Arthur. I was a poisoner." "I should not have thought you were old enough to be married." "I never said I poisoned my wife!" he cried.
"Were you innocent, then?" "You women think that everyone in jail is innocent. No, I’m not innocent, but I was wrongly incriminated. I never lifted a hand. They criminated me on false witness." "I don’t know about lifting a hand," she said. "You mentioned that you were a poisoner." "My aim in saying that was to frighten you," he said. "But that is no longer my aim at the moment." It had been her intention to walk straight out of the church, managing the doors as quickly as she could, and on no account looking back at him, since she believed that with a man of bad character, as with a horse, the best thing was to show no emotion whatever. He, however, moved round through the pews in such a manner as to block her way.
He told her that the name he went by, which was not his given name, was Savage. He had escaped from the Model Penitentiary. He had a knife with him, and had thought at first to cut her throat, but had seen almost at once that the young lady was not on the cross. He had got into the chuurch tower (which was half finished, but no assigned labor could be found to work on it at the moment) through the gaps left in the brickwork. Before he coullllld ask for food, she told him firmly that she herself could get him none. Her father was the incumbent, and the most generous of men, but at the Rectory they had to keep very careful count of everything, because charity was given out at the door every Tuesday and Thursday evening. She might be able to bring him the spent tea leaves, which were always kept, and he could mash them again if he could find warm water.
"That’s a sweet touch!" he said. "Spent tea leaves!" "It is all I can do now, but I have a friend — I may perhaps be able to do more later. However, you can’t stay here beyond tomorrow." "I don’t know what day it is now." "It is Wednesday, the twelfth of November." "Then Constancy is still in harbor." "How do you know that?" It was all they did know for certain in the penitentiary. There was a rule of absolute silence, but the sailing lists were passed secretly among those who could read, and memorized from them by those who could not.
"Constancy is a converted collier, carrying cargo and a hundred and fifty passengers, laying at Franklin Wharf. I am entrusting you with my secret intention, which is to stow on her to Portsmouth, or as far at least as Cape Town." He was wearing grey felon’s slops. At this point he took off his hood and stood wringing it round and round in his hands, as though he were trying to wash it.
Alice looked at him directly for the first time.
"I shall need a change of clothing, ma’am." "You may call me Miss Alice," she said.
At the prompting of some sound, or imaginary sound, he retreated and vanished up the dark gap, partly boarded up, of the staircase to the tower. That which had been on his head was left in a heap on the pew. Alice took it up and put it into her music case, pulling the strap tight.
She was lucky in having a friend very much to her own mind, Aggie, the daughter of the people who ran Shuckburgh’s Hotel; Aggie Shuckburgh, in fact.
"He might have cut your throat, did you think of that?" "He thought better of it," said Alice.
"What I should like to know is this: why didn’t you go straight to your father, or to Colonel Johnson at the Constabulary? I don’t wish you to answer me at once, be- cause it mightn’t be the truth. But tell me this: Would you have acted in the same manner if it had been a woman hiding in the church?" Alice was silent, and Aggie asked, "Did a sudden strong warmth spring up between the two of you?" "I think that it did." No help for it, then, Aggie thought. "He’ll be hard put to it, I’m afraid. There’s no water in the tower, unless the last lot of builders left a pailful, and there’s certainly no dunny." But Alice thought he might slip out by night. "That is what I should do myself, in his place." She explained that Savage was an intelligent man, and that he intended to stow away on Constancy.
"My dear, you’re not thinking of following him." "I’m not thinking at all," said Alice.
They were in the hotel, checking the clean linen. So many tablecloths; so many aprons, kitchen; so many aprons, dining room; so many pillow shams. They hardly ever talked without working. They knew their duties to both their families Shuckburgh’s had its own warehouse and bond store on the harborfront. Aggie would find an opportunity to draw out, not any of the imported goods, but at least a ration of tea and bacon. Then they could see about getting it up to the church.
"As long as you didn’t imagine it, Alice!" Alice took her arm. "Forty-five!" They had settled on the age of forty-five to go irredeemably cranky. They might start imagining anything they liked then. The whole parish, indeed the whole neighborhood, thought that they were cranky already, in any case, not to get settled, Aggie in particular, with all the opportunities that came her way in the hotel trade.
"He left this behind," said Alice, opening her music case, which let fly a feral odor. She pulled out the sacking mask, with its slits, like a mourning Pierrot’s, for eyes.
"Do they make them wear those?" "I’ve heard Father speak about them often. They wear them every time they go out of their cells. They’re part of the new system; they have to prove their worth. With the masks on, none of the other prisoners can tell who a man is, and he can’t tell who they are. He mustn’t speak either, and that drives a man into himself, so that he’s alone with the Lord, and can’t help but think over his wrongdoing and repent. I never saw one of them before today, though." "It’s got a number on it," said Aggie, not going so far as to touch it. "I daresay they put them to do their own laundry."
At the Rectory there were five people sitting down already to the four o’clock dinner. Next to her father was a guest, the visiting preacher; next to him was Mrs. Watson, the housekeeper. She had come to Van Diemen’s Land with a seven-year sentence, and now had her ticket of leave. Assigned servants usually ate in the back house, but in the rector’s household all were part of the same family. Then, the Lukes. They were penniless immigrants (his papers had Mr. Luke down as a scene painter, but there was no theatre in Hobart). He had been staying, with his wife, for a considerable time.
Alice asked them all to excuse her for a moment while she went up to her room. Once there, she lit a piece of candle and burned the lice off the seams of the mask. She put it over her head. It did not disarrange her hair, the neat smooth hair of a minister’s daughter, always presentable on any occasion. But the eye holes came too low down, so that she could see nothing and stood there in stifling darkness. She asked herself, "Wherein have I sinned?" Her father, who never raised his voice, called from down-stairs, "My dear, we are waiting." She took off the mask, folded it, and put it in the hamper where she kept her woollen stockings.
After grace they ate red snapper, boiled mutton and bread pudding, no vegetables. In England the Reverend Alfred Godley had kept a good kitchen garden, but so far he had not been able to get either leeks or cabbages going in the thin earth round Battery Point.
Mr. Luke hoped that Miss Alice had found her time at the instrument well spent.
"I could not get much done," she answered. "I was interrupted." "Ah, it’s a sad thing for a performer to be interrupted. The concentration of the mind is gone. ‘When the lamp is shattered . . .’ " "That is not what I felt at all," said Alice.
"You are too modest to admit it." "I have been thinking, Father," said Alice, "that since Mr. Luke cares so much for music, it would be a good thing for him to try the seraphine himself. Then if by any chance I had to go away, you would be sure of a replacement." "You speak as if my wife and I should be here always," cried Mr. Luke.
Nobody made any comment on this — certainly not Mrs. Luke, who passed her days in a kind of incredulous stupor. How could it be that she was sitting here eating bread pudding some twelve thousand miles from Clerkenwell, where she had spent all the rest of her life? The rector’s attention had been drawn away by the visiting preacher, who had taken out a copy of the Hobart Town Daily Courier and was reading aloud a paragraph which announced his arrival from Melbourne. "Bringing your welcome with you," the rector ex-claimed. "I am glad the Courier noted it." "Oh, they would not have done," said the preacher, "but I make it my practice to call in at the principal newspaper offices wherever I go, and make myself known with a few friendly words. In that way, if the editor has nothing of great moment to fill up his sheet, which is frequently the case, it is more than likely that he will include something about my witness." He had come on a not very successful mission to pray that gold would never be discovered in Van Diemen’s Land, as it had been on the mainland, bringing with it the occasion of new temptations.
After the dishes were cleared Alice said she was going back for a while to Aggie’s, but would, of course, be home before dark. Mr. Luke, while his wife sat on with half-closed eyes, came out to the back kitchen and asked Mrs. Watson, who was at the sink, whether he could make himself useful by pumping up some more water.
"No," said Mrs. Watson.
Mr. Luke persevered. "I believed you to have had considerable experience of life. Now, I find Miss Alice charming, but somewhat difficult to understand. Will you tell me something about her?" "No."
Mrs. Watson was, at the best of times, a very silent woman, whose life had been an unfortunate one. She had lost three children before being transported, and could not now remember what they had been called. Alice, however, did not altogether believe this, as she had met other women who thought it unlucky to name their dead children. Mrs. Watson had surely been out of luck with her third, a baby, who had been left in the charge of a little girl of ten, a neighbor’s daughter, who acted as nursemaid for four-pence a week. How the house came to catch fire was not known. It was a flash fire. Mrs. Watson was out at work. The man she lived with was in the house, but he was very drunk, and doing — she supposed — the best he could under the circumstances, he pitched both the neighbor’s girl and the baby out of the window. The coroner had said that it might just as well have been a Punch and Judy show. "Try to think no more about it," Alice advised her. As chance would have it, Mrs. Watson had been taken up only a week later for thieving. She had tried to throw herself in the river, but the traps had pulled her out again.
On arrival in Hobart, she had been sent to the Female Factory, and later, after a year’s steady conduct, to the Hiring Depot where employers could select a pass holder. That was how, several years ago, she had fetched up at the Rectory. Alice had taught her to write and read, and had given her (as employers were required to do in any case) a copy of the Bible. She handed over the book with a kiss. On the flyleaf she had copied out a verse from Hosea: "Say to your sister, Ruhamah, you have obtained mercy." Mrs. Watson had no documents which indicated her age, and her pale face was not so much seamed or lined as knocked, apparently, out of the true by a random blow which might have been time or chance. Perhaps she had always looked like that. Although she said nothing by way of thanks at the time, it was evident, as the months went by, that she had transferred the weight of unexpended affection, which is one of a woman’s greatest inconveniences, on to Miss Alice. This was clear partly from the way she occasionally caught hold of Alice’s hand and held it for a while, and from her imitation, sometimes unconsciously grotesque, of Alice’s rapid walk and her way of doing things about the house.
Aggie had the tea, the bacon, the plum jam, and, on her own initiative, had added a roll of tobacco. This was the only item from the bond store and perhaps should have been left alone, but neither of the girls had ever met or heard of a man who didn’t smoke or chew tobacco if he had the opportunity. They knew that on Norfolk Island and at Port Arthur the convicts sometimes killed for tobacco.
They had a note of the exact cash value of what was taken. Alice would repay the amount to Shuckburgh’s Hotel from the money she earned from giving music lessons. (She had always refused to take a fee for playing the seraphine at St. George’s.) But what of truth’s claim, what of honesty’s? Well, Alice would leave, say, a hundred and twenty days for Constancy to reach Portsmouth. Then she would go to her father.
"What will you say to him?" Aggie asked.
"I shall tell him that I have stolen and lied, and caused my friend to steal and lie." "Yes, but that was all in the name of the corporeal mercies. You felt pity for this man, who had been a prisoner and was alone in the wide world." "I am not sure that what I feel is pity." Certainly the two of them must have been seen through the shining front windows of the new terraced houses on their way up to the church. Certainly they were seen with their handcart, but this was associated with parish magazines and requests for a subscription to something or other, so that at the sight of it the watchers left their windows. At the top of the rise Aggie, who was longing to have a look at Alice’s lag, said, "I’ll not come in with you." "But Aggie, you’ve done so much, and you’ll want to see his face." "I do want to see his face, but I’m keeping myself in check.
That’s what forms the character, keeping yourself in check at times." "Your character is formed already, Aggie." "Sakes, Alice, do you want me to come in with you?" "No."
• "Mr. Savage," she called out decisively.
"I am just behind you." Without turning round, Alice counted out the packages in their stout wrappings of whitish paper. He did not take them, not even the tobacco, but said, "I have been watching you and the other young lady from the tower." "This situation can’t continue," said Alice. "There is the regular Moonah Men’s prayer meeting on Friday." "I shall make a run for it tomorrow night," said Savage, "but I need women’s clothing. I am not of heavy build. The flesh came off me at Port Arthur, one way and another. Can you furnish me?" "I must not bring women’s clothes to the church," said Alice. "St. Paul forbids it." But she had often felt that she was losing patience with St. Paul.
"If he won’t let you come to me, I must come to you," said Savage.
"You mean to my father’s house?" "Tell me the way exactly, Miss Alice, and which your room is. As soon as the time’s right, I will knock twice on your window." "You will not knock on it once!" said Alice. "I don’t sleep on the ground floor." "Does your room face the sea?" "No, I don’t care to look at the sea. My window looks onto the Derwent, up the river valley to the northwest." Now that she was looking at him, he put his two thumbs and forefingers together in a sign which she had understood and indeed used herself ever since she was a child. It meant I give you my whole heart.
"I should have thought you might have wanted to know what I was going to do when I reached England," he said.
"I do know. You’ll be found out, taken up and committed to Pentonville as an escaped felon." "Only give me time, Miss Alice, and I will send for you." In defiance of any misfortune that might come to him, he would send her the needful money for her fare and his address, once he had a home for her, in England.
"Wait and trust, give me time, and I will send for you."
In low-built, shipshape Battery Point the Rectory was unusual in being three stories high, but it had been smartly designed with ironwork Trafalgar balconies, and the gar-den had been planted with English roses as well as daisy bushes and silver wattle. It was the rector’s kindheartedness which had made it take on the appearance of a human warren. Alice’s small room, as she had told Savage, looked out on the river. Next to her, on that side of the house, was the visiting preacher’s room, always called, as in the story of Elijah, the prophet’s chamber. The Lukes faced the sea, and the rector had retreated to what had once been his study. Mrs. Watson slept at the back, over the wash house, which projected from the kitchen. Above were the box rooms, all inhabited by a changing population of no-hopers, thrown out of work by the depression of the 1840s. These people did not eat at the Rectory — they went to the Colonial Families’ Charitable on Knopwood Street — but their washing and their poultry had given the grass plot the air of a seedy encampment, ready to surrender at the first emergency.
Alice did not undress the following night, but lay down in her white blouse and waist. One of her four shawls and one of her three skirts lay folded over the back of the sewing chair. At first she lay there and smiled, then almost laughed out loud at the notion of Savage, like a mummer in a Christmas pantomime, struggling down the Battery steps and onto the wharves under the starlight in her nankeen petticoat. Then she ceased smiling, partly because she felt the unkindness of it, partly because of her perplexity as to why he needed to make this very last part of his run in skirts. Did he have in mind to set sail as a woman?
She let her thoughts run free. She knew perfectly well that Savage, after years of enforced solitude, during which he had been afforded no prospect of a woman’s love, was unlikely to be coming to her room just for a bundle of clothes. If he wanted to get into bed with her, what then? Ought she to raise the house? She imagined calling out (though not until he was gone), and her door opening, and the bare shanks of the rescuers jostling in their nightshirts — the visiting preacher, Mr. Luke, her father, the up-stairs lodgers — and she prayed for grace. She thought of the forgiven: Rahab the harlot of Jericho, the wife of Hosea who had been a prostitute, Mary Magdalene, Mrs. Watson who had cohabited with a drunken man.
You may call me Miss Alice.
I will send for you.
You could not hear St. George’s clock from the Rectory. She marked the hours from the clock at Government House on the waterfront. It had been built by convict labor and intended first of all as the Customs House. It was now three o’clock. The Constancy sailed at first light.
Give me time and I will send for you.
If he had been seen leaving the church, and arrested, they would surely have come to tell the rector. If he had missed the way to the Rectory and been caught wandering in the streets, then no one else was to blame but her-self. I should have brought him straight home with me. He should have obtained mercy. I should have called out loud to every one of them: Look at him, this is the man who will send for me.
The first time she heard a tap at the window she lay still, thinking, He may look for me if he chooses. It was nothing, there was no one there. The second and third times, at which she got up and crossed the cold floor, were also nothing.
Alice, however, did receive a letter from Savage (he still gave himself that name). It arrived about eight months later, and had been dispatched from Portsmouth. By that time she was exceedingly busy, since Mrs. Watson had left the Rectory, and had not been replaced.
Honoured Miss Alice,
I think it only proper to do Justice to Myself, by telling you the Circumstances which took place on the 12 of November Last Year. In the First Place, I shall not forget your Kindness. Even when I go down to the Dust, as we all shall do so, a Spark will proclaim, that Miss Alice Godley Relieved me in my Distress.
Having got to the Presbittery in accordance with your Directions, I made sure first of your Room, facing North West, and got up the House the handiest way, by scaleing the Wash-house Roof, intending to make the Circuit of the House by means of the Ballcony and its varse Quantity of creepers. But I was made to Pause at once by a Window opening and an Ivory Form leaning out, and a Woman’s Voice suggesting a natural Proceeding between us, which there is no need to particularise. When we had done our business, she said further, You may call me Mrs. Watson, tho it is not my Name. — I said to her, I am come here in search of Woman’s Clothing. I am a convict on the bolt, and it is my intention to conceal myself on Constancy, laying at Franklyn Wharf. She replied immediately, "I can Furnish you, and indeed I can see No Reason, why I should not Accompany you."
This letter of Savage’s, in its complete form, is now, like so many memorials of convict days, in the National Library of Tasmania, in Hobart. There is no word in it to Alice Godley from Mrs. Watson herself. It would seem that like many people who became literate later in life, she read a great deal — the Bible in particular — but never took much to writing, and tended to mistrust it. In consequence, her motives for doing what she did — which, taking into account her intense affection for Alice, must have been complex enough — were never set down, and can only be guessed at.
Copyright © 2000 by the Estate of Penelope Fitzgerald. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
PENELOPE FITZGERALD wrote many books small in size but enormous in popular and critical acclaim over the past two decades. Over 300,000 copies of her novels are in print, and profiles of her life appeared in both The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. In 1979, her novel Offshore won Britain's Booker Prize, and in 1998 she won the National Book Critics Circle Prize for The Blue Flower. Though Fitzgerald embarked on her literary career when she was in her 60's, her career was praised as "the best argument.. for a publishing debut made late in life" (New York Times Book Review). She told the New York Times Magazine, "In all that time, I could have written books and I didn’t. I think you can write at any time of your life." 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?"
- Date of Birth:
- December 17, 1916
- Date of Death:
- May 3, 2000
- Place of Birth:
- Lincoln, England
- Place of Death:
- London, England
- Somerville College, Oxford University, 1939
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I READ THIS COLLECTION AFTER READING her biographhy of Mew. Fitzgerald is a diligent researcher, and she has a wry sense of humor. These stories are little more than research notes cobbled together, however. They lack human interest or imagination. Although they are detailed, they evoke no sense of place or time. This is the work of a scrupulous but not very insightful writer.