Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fred Fairly has a Junior Fellowship at the College of St Angelicus, Cambridge, in 1912. It's a good, respectable job that seems to set him up for life, but for an important proviso. By long-standing custom, no women are allowed on the site - nor even female animals if they are able to produce offspring. Basically, Fred is prohibited from having a serious girlfriend, let alone a wife. Which is fine until his nasty bicycle crash with Daisy Saunders, with whom he almost immediately finds himself in love...

The Gate of Angels is full of the same light touch with darkness under the surface as the author's Booker-winning Offshore. It strikes me that both books are focused on misfits, living in the cracks between the "normal" or "established". The episode of the Backlisted podcast devoted to Fitzgerald's Human Voices (which I've yet to read) compares Fitzgerald to Nancy Mitford in observing eccentricity and foible - but with the important difference that Fitzgerald is more often kind in what she observes. These are ridiculous people, but our sympathies are with them. 

Which real-life characters were closely observed in this instance? Fred's predicament struck a chord, as mathematician John Edensor Littlewood (1885-1977) could not marry the woman he loved without foregoing his place at Trinity; the result being that my great-grandmother married someone else (but, er, continued to see "Uncle John" all the same). I wonder, now, how common such arrangements might have been.

Some of the darkness of the novel stems from our own knowledge of the future: that there is a war around the corner, and that the arguments detailed here about the nature of the atom will produce spectacular results and entirely change the world. Yet there's more to it than that. For all the book pokes fun at the all-male academics - the one who writes ghost stories in the manner of MR James, or the hanger-on who rather logically concludes that he might take on Fred's girlfriend for himself - there's a constant, disquieting threat, especially to women.

One sequence particularly struck me. There's an extraordinary description of 150,000 south Londoners commuting each morning, the journey,

"compared at that time by sociological observers to a great war or catastrophe in a neighbouring land from which the fugitives, forbidden to look back, scurried over the river bridges by any means available to them, only checked by the fear of falling underfoot." (p. 76)

Daisy, aged 15 (in flashback), is caught up in this maelstrom, one that is predatorily male, such as when she's on the tram:

"Those who did the approaching, in the stifling proximity of the tram, were inclined not to believe in the wedding ring [she wore as protection], and knew what else Daisy was wearing as well as she did. It was a battle with no accepted rules and when the tram began to roll with its plunging, strong-smelling human freight, men put their hands over their ticket and money pockets while schoolboys protected their genitals and women every point of contact, fore and aft." (p. 77)

At 19, Daisy's efforts to help a suicidal man only get herself into hot water, and we well understand her predicament - unemployed, orphaned and poor - when a decidedly unpleasant character suggests taking her to a hotel. We also understand, when this has been such constant background noise in Daisy's life, why she now doesn't quite say no, for all this will spell disaster.

The result is that we really feel for her and for Fred and this rash decision casts a pall over their chances of happiness together. Brilliantly, really brilliantly, we're not told how things end up with Fred and Daisy, and things seem quite impossible for them until the last line of the book. It's so lightly done; it's so powerfully effective - a good summary of the book as a whole.

No comments: