British writer Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, was published when she was sixty. As a writer of novels, short stories and biographies, she was both a finalist and winner of the Booker Prize as well as a National Book Critics Circle Award winner. Daughter of E.V. Knox, a writer and editor of Britain’s Punch magazine, Fitzgerald became a voracious reader and writer at a young age. The Afterlife, her collection of essays and criticism, was published posthumously (she died in 2000 at the age of 83).
The Afterlife is a beautiful book about books, written in that understated, wryly humorous style so familiar to Fitzgerald’s readers. Most of the essays in this book are short, thought-provoking and thoughtful works addressing the “afterlife” of both well-known and lesser known books, like Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Mrs. Oliphant’s Carlingford series. Every essay is written with great insight and made me wish for time enough to re-read the classics Fitzgerald re-introduced me to, and made me want to run to my library to check out the works of the many other writers whose names were less familiar to me.
This collection is the perfect companion for the serious reader looking to both refresh their knowledge of literary masterpieces and to be gently nudged to new literary horizons. Also included in this book are travel essays, memories of Fitzgerald’s childhood, and her remarks on writing some of her own fictional tales. There are treasures to be found in every essay; Fitzgerald writes with such ease and grace that I found myself marking passages simply for their lyrical beauty. Of poet Christina Rossetti she writes, “She became a fountain sealed...” And of C.S. Lewis’s fabled Chronicles of Narnia, she says, “Neither the house nor the attic would ordinarily be thought of as romantic, but myth is not answerable to beauty.”
Small treasures, indeed. Every essay in The Afterlife is a gem.