The Courage of Those Born to be Defeated

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Then Dolly began to see on each side of her, among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.


“Lisa,” she called out, “I can see hands.”


Lisa stood still again. They were in a clearing into which the moon shone. Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close among the trunks, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves, each to their own tree. Then they turned their faces toward Lisa, patches of white against the whitish bark. Dolly saw now that there were many more of them, deep into the thickness of the wood.


“I have come, but I can’t stay,” said Lisa. “You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.”


No one answered her, no one spoke. No one left the protection of the trees, or moved towards them.


~ Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring (1988)

At seven, Penelope was sent away to boarding school. When she was 18 and about to enroll at her mother’s alma mater, she lost her to colon cancer. Penelope’s father forbade anyone to speak of her ever again. He and his brothers were all brilliant and accomplished, one of them a classics scholar and cryptanalyst crucially important in the breaking of the Enigma ciphers during World War II. As for Penelope, a finals examiner at Somerville College Oxford “was so astounded by her papers,” writes novelist Julian Barnes, “that he asked his fellow dons if he could keep them, and later, apparently, had them bound in vellum.”


Penelope married a war hero who happened to be an alcoholic. They had three children. Her flailing husband, a barrister, forged signatures on his colleagues’ checks. They were kicked out of their house. For a time they lived on a dilapidated barge in the Thames, but it sank — twice. They were homeless for four months. Penelope took the children to London restaurants where they ate free bread and olive oil, only to pretend to dislike the menu and leave. Then it was public housing. During all this time she was teaching at a “crammer” for rich kids (e.g., Anna Wintour, Helena Bonham Carter, Tilda Swinton) in the last two years of secondary school, which she would continue doing for 26 years. She shopped with green stamps and used tea to color her hair. Her first novel she wrote at the age of 60 as a yarn to entertain her dying husband.


In a letter from 1967 to her daughter Tina, she shared this anecdote about Tina’s sister Maria:

Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying: “What a funny old couple you are!” and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn’t really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seemed to be crumbling into dust.

(Today Maria Fitzgerald is a neuroscientist who does pioneering work in the basic developmental neurobiology of pain.)


Two years before she died, Penelope Fitzgerald said to an interviewer:

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?

And to be sure, in her novel Bookshop (1978), we find this:

She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.

Now back to those birch trees for a moment.


I have no idea what is happening in that scene. No, that’s not true: I have one or two vague ideas. In any case, the image of that moonlit forest and its ghostly people and that little girl will, I hope, never leave me. It has joined other such images, tales, memories, which I have stored up and rummage through at this or that moment during all the days of my life. In time, I hope I’ll understand what I’ve seen, even if, whenever I do choose to speak of it, no one may believe me.



Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash


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