by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979)
Mariner Books (1998)
141 pp

I was wary of Penelope Fitzgerald. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s something about an author publishing her first four novels in four years. But to offset that, this outburst of fiction (The Golden Child, 1977; The Bookshop, 1978; Offshore, 1979; and Human Voices, 1980) began when she was sixty years old — and those were some exceedingly cultivated sixty years. These books were well received, and she has the good opinion of many discriminating critics. So what if she published her first four novels in four years? There is something miraculous in her literary career: in eighteen years toward the end of her life, she published nine books of fiction. If this was a true artistic explosion and not just someone who tacked together a working formula, it couldn’t be missed. I decided to start by reading Offshore.

I love how the book begins, such a sly attention grabber:

‘Are we to gather that Dreadnought is asking us all to do something dishonest?’ Richard asked.

Dreadnought nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.

It turns out that Dreadnought is one of several houseboats in Battersea Reach on the Thames. Its owner is Willis, a sixty-five-year-old painter, and he has plans to sell his boat and move to land where he can live with his widowed sister. However, the boat is old and not worth much — but, perhaps it could be worth a bit more . . .

Richard, captain of the boat Lord Jim, is the de facto leader of the small community set in Battersea Reach. It probably goes without saying that Fitzgerald’s characters are people living on the fringe of society. Living neither on the land nor on the sea, these are characters who don’t fit well in society. Besides Dreadnought and Lord Jim (and others), this community also includes Maurice and Grace. Maurice lives on Maurice (the boat used to be named Dondeschipolschuygen IV, but Maurice renamed it when he found out everyone referred to each other by their boat’s name). Maurice’s male clients are there most of the night, but it’s the man who stores his merchandise on the boat that causes the most fear. Nenna lives on Grace with her two young daughters, Tilda and Martha. When Nenna’s husband, Edward, returned from South America a failure, his wife’s situation on the boat was still below him.

Offshore revolves around these strange, basically lonely characters. They frequently encounter each other, they are friendly, they do form part of a community, but the loneliness, the separateness remains. And that is all due to Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose. The following quote, for example, says so much about Nenna and her two daughters. On the surface, it sounds somewhat hopeful, as they like to see their situation. But there’s a desperation beyond the obvious. There’s an intimation into what could happen when Martha and Tilda grow up a bit more.

Martha and Tilda were in the position of having no spending money, but this was less important when they were not attending school and were spared the pains of comparison, and they felt no bitterness against their mother, because she hadn’t any either. Nenna believed, however, that she would have some in the spring, when three things would happen, each, like some melting ice-floes, slowly moving the next one on. Edward would come and live on Grace, which would save the rent he was paying on his rooms at present; the girls, once they were not being prayed for at the grotto, would agree to go back to the nuns; and with Tilda at school she could go out herself and look for a job.

Nenna is, in many ways, the central character. The other characters have their unique stories, but more time is spent on Nenna, which is proper. Not only is Nenna’s story intriguing but Fitzgerald has given her a fabulous interior dialogue:

. . . Nenna’s thoughts, whenever she was alone, took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrate’s hearing, in which her own version of her marriage was shown as ridiculously simple and demonstrably right, and then, almost exactly at the same time, as incontrovertibly wrong. Her conscience, too, held, quite uninvited, a separate watching brief, and intervened in the proceedings to read statements of an unwelcome nature.

For glorious pages Nenna is interrogated by this judge as her husband, the plaintiff, sits in the background. Though this goes on for pages, Fitzgerald doesn’t overdo it. This technique doesn’t take over Nenna’s personality, and it still allows Nenna’s sad story to be told.

Though short, this book actually took me quite a bit of time to read. The story and the characters are complex. Though Fitzgerald’s sentences hold this complexity well, they are intricate and complex in and of themselves and take some time to digest. The book demanded time. But it was time so well spent. I loved this book.

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By |2016-06-08T18:12:35-04:00March 8th, 2010|Categories: Penelope Fitzgerald|Tags: , , , , |20 Comments


  1. Rhys March 8, 2010 at 2:59 am

    If you loved this book then you have hours of riveting reading ahead of you over the years (don’t rush these books) as this is not her best book by any means….. in the biographies and the last four novels she is working at the very highest level……

  2. Lee Monks March 8, 2010 at 8:00 am

    I too am wary of Fitzgerald, but less so following this review. I’m not sure quite why I’m so wary – I always assume things about certain writers for no good reason other than perhaps a subconscious sway away certain books on flimsy presuppositions of a Woolf-lite nature. I find myself avoiding Fitzgerald and Rose Tremain and others merely because I’m worried about wasting my time on a voice that is not particularly distinct (an impression often – unfairly – gleaned after a chapter or two) when there’s so much other stuff out there and so little time.

  3. Teddy March 8, 2010 at 9:05 am

    I LOVE Penelope Fitzgerald´s writing. So condensed an concentrated and with such a lovely subtle humor. Happy to see you loved this book:-)

  4. KevinfromCanada March 8, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Unlike Rhys, I do think this is her best book — but I’ll admit there are five or six that could be considered. I’m glad you loved this book because I did as well, and Fitzgerald has become one of my favorite authors. One of the things that I loved about Offshore was the way that Fitzgerald located this off-the-wall (shore?) crew in isolation and then used that to explore the London of the day. For those of us who have wandered the Embankment and wondered about just who was on those boats in the Thames, Offshore provides an intriguing possibility. A wonderful book from a wonderful author — if I were you, I’d save The Bookshop until you have read a couple of others.

  5. Trevor March 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Lee, as you can see from my review and from the other cmoments, we are foolish when wary of Fitzgerald. Sounds like we both have quite a bit of reading to do!

    Rhys, I am glad to hear that you don’t consider this her best book (though Kevin does). I’m very anxious to read more — but I’ll take your advice and go about it slowly.

    Kevin, I have The Bookshop on hand, so it would have been the next one for my reading. What do you suggest instead? I’m open for recommendations. And why, may I ask, not The Bookshop next?

    And Teddy, I feel like another world opened up to me with this book. I’m thrilled to see I’m not alone in this and that there is much more to enjoy.

    Thanks all for the comments.

  6. KevinfromCanada March 8, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    If you have The Bookshop on hand, ignore what I said. The reason I might put it off for a bit is that it is a somewhat subtler and more introspective work that most of what Fitzgerald writes — and I think a little broader exposure to her story-telling style is useful.

  7. Rhys March 8, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Following your post this morning I have been trawling about NewsBank and came across a sentence or two by Penelope F in which she states that the three books which made the biggest impression upon her were: The New Testament, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist……..and I think that gives a good clue as to the direction she comes from……AND have you had a go at my Literary Quiz posted on Dovegrey ?… if not please do so as you might enjoy the five minutes distraction it may give you….I am preparing another one called Where did it happen?……

  8. Rhys March 8, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    And something else …The Bookshop opens with Mrs Green having had a dream and P F herself said she had come to believe this was a weak opening and wished she had started it differently……..

  9. Trevor March 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks Rhys. I haven’t taken your quiz, but I’m on my way!

  10. kimbofo March 8, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I’ve got this one on my wishlist. I remember KfC recommending this one to me after I read Sam Sevlon’s Lonely Londoners and Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. Correct me if I am wrong, KfC, but I think you said these books were all set in roughly the same time period and reflected vastly different Londons.
    I do know that everytime I go into a book shop I look for this book, but it’s never in stock. I guess I just need to bite the bullet and order it online.
    Thanks for a great review, Trevor.

  11. KevinfromCanada March 8, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    kimbofo: You are right. Selvon’s book is set a few decades earlier, but does convey the impression of the immigrant class that is essential to London functioning. Spark’s book is in the same time period as this one, although her characters are in a much higher social class than even Fitzgerald’s. If anything, Offshore is about a “between-class” that is trying to figure out what its opportunities are. I think comparisons with the other two novels are quite appropriate.

  12. Guy Savage March 8, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    This is one of my least favourite Fitzgerald novels, My favourite: The Bookshop.

  13. KevinfromCanada March 9, 2010 at 12:18 am

    Given the different opinions offered here, I would add another reason why I think Fitzgerald is such a good author — her books are so different that no one can agree on which is best. We haven’t even mentioned Human Voices or the Blue Flower yet.

  14. Trevor March 9, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Just looking at her titles, Kevin, I’m thrilled to see how many apparently different settings and subjects she tackles.

    I’m not sure if you remember, but I bought Offshore one day after asking if you had any recommendations for books similar to A Month in the Country. I had picked Offshore off the bookstore shelf and thought, I wonder if Kevin has responded. I looked it up, and sure enough you recommended Offshore, the book I was holding. I’m not sure if I would have bought it that day or not without that final push. Thanks!

  15. Rebecca March 9, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Very interesting review, thank you. I have not yet read any of this author’s work, but she sounds intriguing!

  16. tolsmted March 9, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    I’ve always had better luck finding Penelope Fitzgerald in used bookshops than finding a new copy.

    My favorites are At Freddie’s (beautiful ending) and The Gate of Angels. The Blue Flower contained lovely writing, like all her books, but it bothered me. I think Fitzgerald’s style was always just on the edge of being too ephemeral (if that makes sense?). As if you could wave your hand and scatter all the words, because there wasn’t enough substance to hold them together. That was the case with The Blue Flower – the plot was subordinate to the language.

    I haven’t read The Bookshop yet, but it appears more grounded than her other books. The same with Offshore, which will probably be my next Fitzgerald novel.

  17. John Self March 24, 2010 at 8:43 am

    I would avoid The Bookshop, which was my first Fitzgerald, and which I thought light and of little substance. That’s doubtless unfair, but I do think it’s more of a ‘straight’ novel (or more grounded, as tolsmted says) than her other work, and less interesting as a consequence.

    My next – and to date only other – foray was The Beginning of Spring, a book of an altogether different order of magnitude than The Bookshop, and one which I remember with great fondness, even though I’m quite sure I didn’t really understand it. But I’d rather have a mysterious, imaginative, brilliantly written book than a run-of-the-mill piece of lit fic.

  18. Max Cairnduff January 26, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I was checking Sam Jordison’s Booker blogs, and found his one on Offshore:

    It was that review put me off her, so it’s interesting to see how much you and Kevin enjoyed this one. That link is interesting for the very unfortunate history of how she came to win the Booker which seems to have done her no favours at all. A rather cruel episode from the prize’s history as best I can tell.

  19. Trevor January 26, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Great link, Max. Probably best that, after two more decades of relentless productivity, this episode is somewhat in the past — though I will note that I’m among the only bloggers on The Complete Booker to have a positive impression of this book (and it remains very positive a year later). I haven’t read the Golding or the Naipaul, though I’ve read other works by each author. Based on those, I can see why some in the committee thought they were masterful and others — well — not masterful.

    But, we can’t fail to overlook that it was apparently everyone’s second choice, though it also creates divergent views.

    I notice John Self’s note above:

    I would avoid The Bookshop, which was my first Fitzgerald, and which I thought light and of little substance. That’s doubtless unfair, but I do think it’s more of a ‘straight’ novel (or more grounded, as tolsmted says) than her other work, and less interesting as a consequence.

    I guess I forgot about this or just ignored, John, because my next Fitzgerald was The Bookshop, which I may have enjoyed more than Offshore. I now have all of her books and I’m anxious to dip in frequently.

  20. KevinfromCanada January 26, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    One of the problems with Prize shortlists is that they provoke comparisons, which may or may not be fair. I think Sam’s is fair in that context (although I disagree with it), but in no way should it be regarded as a fair assessment of this book. Offshore is a wonderful study and a very rewarding read.

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