Printer Friendly

"Between the Hither and the Farther Shore": Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore.

  I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
  Is a strong brown god--sullen, untamed and intractable,
  Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
  Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce; Then only
  a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem
  once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten By the
  dwellers in cities--ever, however, implacable, Keeping his
  seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder Of what men choose
  to forget.

THERE IS A GROWING BODY of opinion that views Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) as the preeminent English novelist of the late twentieth century, one whose novels in their artistry and grace bear comparison to those of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. This opinion is likely to grow once the biographer Hermione Lee--who has written magisterial biographies not only of Woolf but also of EdithWharton--publishes her forthcoming authorized biography of Fitzgerald. Yet despite the growing recognition of Fitzgerald's prominence in our literary heritage, the body of criticism responsive to her writings still remains small. As Stephanie Harzewski has recently noted in the pages of ContemporaryWomen'sWriting, "despite Fitzgerald's numerous accolades, only a handful of scholarly articles--about a half dozen--exist on her work," and these tend to be less "critical" than "eulogistic." (1) In the following article, focused upon Penelope Fitzgerald's 1979 Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore, I hope to add to the critical examination through a discussion of the novel's origin and its themes, especially those of "betwixtness" and numinosity. The latter theme is especially examined in relation to the matter of prayer--as highlighted by both Fitzgerald's uncle, the ReverendWilfred L. Knox, in Meditation and Mental Prayer (1927), and the philosopher William James--and the matter of evidencing divinity, as highlighted by the contemporary theologian Paul K. Moser.

Offshore was Fitzgerald's third novel, following The Golden Child in 1977 and The Bookshop in 1978. At this point she had also written two biographies, first a study of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, published in 1975, and then a family biography of her distinguished father "Evoe" Knox, longtime editor of Punch, and his equally notable brothers Dillwyn, who did instrumental wartime work on breaking the German "Enigma" codes; Wilfred, a Cambridge University Anglo-Catholic priest and worker amidst the London poor; and the most renowned Roman Catholic convert of his epoch, Monsignor Ronald Knox, a popular journalist, detective-fiction author, Oxford University chaplain, and translator of the Bible (The Holy Bible: A Translation from the LatinVulgate in the Light of the Hebrew and Greek Originals or, as it is better known, the KnoxVersion). In her first novel, The Golden Child, Fitzgerald paid her respects to this last uncle, Ronald Knox, by working in the genre in which he himself had such success, detective fiction. Despite the urgings of her then publisher, Colin Duckworth, Fitzgerald, in her second novel, moved beyond what she took to be a genre too predicated upon formula (in fact, her uncle had memorably published in 1929 his own "Ten Commandments" of detective fiction), (2) and branched out into what she would refer to as her first "straight novel," (3) the story of an aged, childless widower seeking to make a go of it by opening a bookshop (beset by a poltergeist) in the Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough (modeled upon Southwold, where Fitzgerald herself had lived for a period of time, also finding occupation in the space of a haunted bookshop). The novel proved a critical success, being shortlisted for the Booker Prize; yet, suspecting that her Duckworth editor Colin Haycraft did not truly think well of it, Fitzgerald, in late 1978, approached Richard Ollard, at William Collins Sons and Company, about the possibility of publishing her next novel, Offshore. Ollard was pleased to be asked, as he should have been, for this second straight novel did what the first had not quite done: it won the Booker Prize, transforming Fitzgerald's literary reputation for good.

One critic, however, for whom Fitzgerald had the greatest admiration and respect--Frank Kermode--was not convinced that Offshore was a better novel than its predecessor, The Bookshop. Writing in the London Review of Books in the period leading up to the prize announcement, he said that it was his "guess ... that it is on the list only to be eliminated at the last moment," a statement made not as a slight toward Fitzgerald but as part of a larger explanation of "why some good writers can hardly hope to win." (4) But while admiring her work he found himself, while reviewing the newer novel, repeatedly comparing it (not favorably) to its predecessor.
  Offshore, though admirable, strikes me as decidedly inferior
  to The Bookshop. The earlier book was defter, more resonant,
  and more complete. Penelope Fitzgerald is a writer who came
  late to the novel, bringing with her a powerful, slightly
  unorthodox intelligence and a remarkable habit of accuracy,
  which shows not only in the wit of the book but in the
  provision, by apparently casual means, of a deep surface
  polish, an illusion of total specification. Her dialogue
  is excellent, and so is her eye for the peripheral incident
  which enhances without impairing the plot. She writes a
  kind of fiction in which perfection is almost to be hoped
  for, unostentatious as true virtuosity can make it, its
  texture a pure pleasure. ... Like the earlier book,
  it [Offshore] is obsessed with water and loneliness; it
  has also an interest in preternaturally wise girl
  children. ... But the book seems, by comparison, anecdotal.
  Some of the anecdotes are very good. ... But the apocalyptic
  flood of the ending doesn't hold everything together.
  The book is excellent on water, on kindness, courage,
  loneliness. If it wins, though, it should be understood
  as standing in for The Bookshop. (5)

If Fitzgerald found herself pleased by Ollard's embrace and promotion of Offshore, her response to Kermode's review was more complicated. She had the greatest respect for Kermode's work and was pleased to have her book be taken up for his consideration, and naturally to have The Bookshop so well praised, but she also thought that he had misjudged her range and misread Offshore's ending (not a difficult thing to do, for it ends, as is so often the case in her books, quite ambiguously) and ventured to say so in letters both to Ollard and Kermode himself. About the first matter (her range), she, replete with self-conscious anxiety, wrote Ollard:
  I don't know if you've ever had a minute to look at this piece
  of Prof. Kermode's, which he did before the awards for the London
  bit of the NY Review of Books-he is the only critic, and indeed
  the only Professor of Eng. Lit, whose opinion I value since Lionel
  Trilling died, and indeed I don't think I could teach anyone
  anything about the novel at all if it hadn't been for his The
  Sense of an Ending. What worries me isn't that he doesn't think
  too well of Offshore-(in fact I'm very pleased that he should
  say anything about me at all), but that I get the feeling that
  he's saying I can write a single-consciousness novel (which
  anyone can do if they can find a pen and a bit of paper) but
  I'm not up to multiple-consciousness, then I just fall into
  bits, and that depresses me. (6)

About the second matter, the perceived misjudgment respecting the novel's ending, Fitzgerald wrote, on the same day, to Kermode, saying,
  Could I make one comment--you said in passing that the "apocalyptic
  flood" at the end of Offshore wasn't a success and I expect it
  isn't, but it isn't really meant as apocalyptic either--I only
  wanted theThames to drift out a little way with the characters
  whom in the end nobody particularly wants or lays claim to. It
  seems to me that not to be wanted is a positive condition and
  I hoped to find some way of indicating that. (7)

Fitzgerald's correction was offered in the space of a more general letter of gratitude for the critic's work (again praising The Sense of an Ending) and "for what you wrote about me in the London Review of Books." (8) This was the beginning of a significant literary friendship, for not only did Fitzgerald possess the greatest respect for Kermode as a critic and stylist ("that wouldn't have worried me if I could write like FK") (9) but he also returned the admiration, reviewing a number of her novels favorably in the subsequent years and writing the introduction to an Everyman's Library omnibus edition of her novels (The Bookshop, The Gate of Angels, and The Blue Flower) as well as being among the mourners at the memorial service held in her honor at St. James Church, Piccadilly. (10) And then, in what was perhaps the last interview he gave, Kermode's first response when asked to name the most important postwar writers was to say, "I'm certainly a devoted admirer of Penelope Fitzgerald." (11) Meanwhile, both Fitzgerald, in her response to Kermode's essay, and Kermode, in his response to Offshore, appear to get some things wrong. In the first instance, as noted, Fitzgerald appears to be speaking more to her anxiety about her fiction than to anything that Kermode has actually said; and in the second instance, Kermode, while offering some fine praise, appears (at least to this reader) mistaken when he says that the novel is "decidedly inferior" to The Bookshop, it being too anecdotal and too loosely plotted in its ending. Offshore is, as Kermode suggests, something akin to a companion volume to The Bookshop, both novels steeped in a mood of aloneness that seriously threatens the well-being of their protagonists, but the London novel set on the Thames is the equal of the East Anglian novel set beside the North Sea, and it should appear anecdotal and loosely brought together at its end only by the theological standard (and then not even by this) evoked by Kermode in The Sense of an Ending:
  As the theologians say, we "live from the End," even if
  the world should be endless. We need ends and kairoi and
  the pleroma, even now when the history of the world has
  so terribly and so untidily expanded its endless successiveness.
  We re-create the horizons we have abolished, the structures
  that have collapsed; and we do so in terms of the old patterns,
  adapting them to our new worlds. Ends, for example, become a
  matter of images, figures for what does not exist humanly.
  Our stories must recognize mere successiveness; Ulysses,
  for example, may be said to unite the irreducible chronos
  of Dublin with the irreducible kairoi of Homer. In the
  middest, we look for a fullness of time, for beginning,
  middle, and end in concord. (12)

There is a bit of an irony here, for Kermode, who defined himself as a secular critic ("since--not if, as in the original formulation-God is dead" (13)), is found judging Fitzgerald, whose religious faith imbues her fiction, by a decidedly religious standard, though Kermode does argue that notions such as kairoi and pleroma are themselves inscribed in human biology and culture ("Biology and cultural adaptation require it"), (14) and thus are not inherently theological. Whether kairoi and pleroma be so or not, they do inform Fitzgerald's practice in fiction, Offshore included. True, it is a novel that, like The Bookshop, with its people "divided into exterminators and exterminates," (15) evinces a predatory world wherein it is thought to be the fate of the charitable and kind that they, in Tilda's words, "get kicked in the teeth," (16) a thought replete with examples. But it is also a novel wherein "what is past and passing and to come" are firmly understood and represented as "interdependent." (17) So if, like The Bookshop's Florence Green, Nenna James is an outlier, she is an outlier whose relations appear to stop nowhere. Henry James had observed "really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so." (18) Fitzgerald clearly knows the importance of creating her own analogous circle, a circle that in this instance includes the relations extant between Nenna and her husband, children, sister, and fellow Battersea Reach boat dwellers, Maurice, Sam Willis, Woodie, and Richard and Laura Blake. These relations, or stories, both parallel and interconnect with one another, the way in which, for example, the growing disaffection between Nenna and her husband Edward finds itself mirrored by a like movement in the marriage of Richard and Laura, the latter of whom (before leaving her husband) asks Nenna, "How does it feel to live without your husband? ... I've often wondered" (17). And, by way of another example, there is the parallel that the male prostitute Maurice, in a conversation with Nenna, draws between all the boat dwellers, living as they do in a state of betwixtness, not only between land and sea but also between states of being: "You know very well that we're two of the same kind, Nenna. It's right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you're half in love with your husband, then there's Martha who's half a child and half a girl, Richard who can't give up being half in the Navy, Willis who's half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who's half alive and half dead" (47). In response to this, Fitzgerald, as narrator, comments, "He stopped before describing himself, if, indeed, he had been going to do so" (47).

The novel's theme of betwixtness, aloneness, and of simply not fitting in, finds its most fitting symbol in the approximate relation of the boat dwellers to "the Chelsea shore":
  The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water,
  would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They
  aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s,
  many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate
  amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to
  themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink
  back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up,
  into the mud moorings of the great tideway. (10)

On the one hand, the boat dwellers garner the reader's sympathy for the fact of their difference, for their readiness to live out Kenneth Burke's monition that "when in Rome, do as the Greeks." (19) Offshore's London, like early 1960s culture more generally, exudes a respect for the societal forms (for instance, affluence, matrimony, heterosexuality, obedience to the law) that those living at Battersea Reach find it more difficult to live out. And here, on the lighter side, there is Richard, a respectable businessman whose love of the sea has led him to take up residence on Lord Jim, despite his shires-bred wife's resistance; and Willis, aged and widowed, who makes a dwindling living painting, on canvas, ships and other nautical scenes. But on the other hand, or the darker side, there is Maurice, whose work as a male prostitute places him outside the law and puts him in contact with nefarious types such as Harry, who uses Maurice's barge to store his booty, and who is both a sexual predator (six-year-old Tilda dangerously comes into Harry's sight) and a man of explosive violence (he leaves Richard for dead, after he has struck him with a spanner). Maurice himself is drawn sympathetically by Fitzgerald, but his is a childlike--and, at times, childish--character whose notion of responsibility is unimpressive, as in the instance when Willis's barge, Dreadnought, begins to sink, something that Maurice notices even as the other guests aboard the doomed boat remain oblivious, an obliviousness that Maurice himself does nothing to counter: "With a keener sense of danger than the others, and finding it exhilarating, as they certainly would not, he had noticed at once that something was wrong, even before he had rubbed a clear patch on the steamy windows and, looking out into the night, had seen the horizon slowly rising, inch by inch. He made a rapid calculation. Give it a bit longer, we're all enjoying ourselves, he thought" (78).

Nenna, the center of the novel, also has childlike (in the pejorative sense) tendencies, tendencies that Fitzgerald repeatedly calls to our attention, even as we are urged to view this thirty-two-year-old woman's plight sympathetically. In the first place, Nenna's responsibility toward her children seems lacking, something that Fr. Watson, at the insistence of the Sisters of Misericord, who staff the local parochial school, visits the Reach to remind her of, in a manner both diplomatic and gentle: "It's a question of school attendance. The situation, you see, they tell me there's a legal aspect to it as well" (22). Yet, made distraught by the refusal of her husband, Edward, to join them on Grace (the barge that she purchased with the family's small savings when Edward, unconsulted, was away), Nenna has begun to be less and less attentive to her daughters' needs, to the point that the older child, Martha, age eleven, has been unfairly forced into a parental role, responsible both for Tilda and Nenna:
  "I've got the supper, Ma," said Martha, when Nenna returned to Grace.
  Nenna would have felt better pleased with herself if she had
  resembled her elder daughter. But Martha, small and thin, with dark
  eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world's shortcomings,
  was not like her mother and even less like her father. The crucial
  moment when children realise that their parents are younger than
  they are had long since been passed by Martha. (20) (23; italics

Sadly, Edward is even more childlike than Nenna, a fact made symbolic by his taking up residence in the Stoke Newington home of a friend's mother. As Nenna, in pain, says to him, "To be in a position where you have to say that someone's mother has been very good to you--that's ridiculous!" (90). But, while Edward's physical and emotional abandonment adds layers of stress to Nenna's already stressful life, it does not excuse her own lurches in the direction of childlike dependency. "Nenna was a child again," we hear at the moment when her sister Louise asks her about Edward's whereabouts: "She felt her responsibilities slipping away one by one, even her marriage was going" (82). When Nenna returns to Grace, after a night first spent unsuccessfully seeking to convince Edward to return and then in Richard's bed, Martha, after introducing her to their young Austrian visitor Heinrich, says to Nenna, "From Heinrich's point of view, you hardly look like a mother at all" (109). At this point, bedraggled and shoeless, Nenna probably does not, and Heinrich even wonders whether "she is Swinging" (109), that is, whether she is a woman whose emancipation (sexual as well as social) is the most defining thing about her. Certainly, Nenna is a youthful and attractive-looking woman. Edward's quasi-friend and housemate Gordon tells her, "I should have thought you were twenty-seven or twenty-eight at most" (87); and even sixteen-year-old Heinrich tells Martha, "She is a very attractive woman for her years. But on the Continent we appreciate the woman of thirty" (113). In the space of the night spent away from Grace, Nenna also finds herself repeatedly appreciated, in London, for her attractiveness. Not only does Gordon display a prurient interest, but in the course of her hasty retreat from Edward, whose last, scornful words are, "You're not a woman!" (95), Nenna finds herself the object of several men's sexual attentions: beginning with a man, smelling "of loneliness," in the Kingsland Road, who approaches her with the sad and desperate query, "Fixed up for the night?" (97), a query that goes nowhere, though it does provoke the man into a violent gesture of frustration (he throws one of Nenna's shoes into the road); who is followed by a goodhearted but lonesome cabdriver ("We can go round by Arthur's in Covent Garden and get a sandwich, if you want ... that won't break the bank" [98]), not realizing at first that his "Sleeping Beauty" has already dozed off (98); and who together are followed by Richard, abandoned by his wife and waiting longingly for Nenna's middle-of-the-night return, with the hope that he might persuade her to go out in his dinghy: "I was hoping someone might come along and keep me company" (101).

Richard is but seven years older than Nenna, yet she views him not only as a figure of authority, which he is for those living on the Reach, but also as something of a father substitute, a substitute made all the more attractive by the failure of her husband to provide for the family. Apropos of this latter failure, one of the most poignant moments in the novel occurs when Nenna, alluding to the brightening economic prospects that the 1960s have brought the country, says to her husband, "There's plenty of jobs! Anyone can get a job anywhere!" to which Edward, truthfully, answers, "I can't" (92). This is followed by the lovely passage describing a wife who realizes that her husband is not really like other men, not really able to compete, even in a world where the bar has been, if only temporarily, lowered: "He turned his head away, and as the light caught his face at a certain angle Nenna realised in terror that he was right and that he would never get anywhere. The terror, however, was not for herself or for the children but for Edward, who might realise that what he was saying was true. She forgot whatever she had meant to tell him, went up close and took him tenderly by both ears" (92-93).

Nenna does love Edward, and she means it when she thinks that she "could never leave him" (93), but no sooner does she think this, and no sooner are the two rolling on the floor in sexual embrace, then Gordon's mother is standing at the door, further infantilizing Edward and leading to the row that culminates with the husband, sadly and pathetically, declaring that his wife is "not a woman!" (95), a desexualizing conclusion that has meaning only for him, and then probably not for very long. But the hurt has been done, and it helps direct Nenna into the arms of Richard, an able man (though not so able that he is able to keep his wife, Laura, happy) to whom, in the lengthy absence of her husband, Nenna has begun to look for assurances, to the point that early in the novel, when invited to remain aboard the Lord Jim for a drink, following a boat dwellers' meeting, she, comforted by his "calm authority," longs "to throw her arms round him" (20). A favorite of her own father, himself a man who loved the water (Louise tells her, "But you were always the one for boats--I'm always thankful to remember how happy that made father, the way you shared his feeling for boats and water" (112-13).) Nenna wishes for Richard's approval (while fearing that "as far as he's concerned, I'm just a drifter" (84)) and is gratified to see him take notice of the good work that she has done mending Willis's clothing, damaged by the Dreadnought's sinking: "I'm pleased for him to see that I can make a proper job of something. Why am I pleased?" (80). For Nenna, Richard is not only a fatherly figure but also a potential lover, a conflation made most evident at the point that she accepts his offer of a middle-of-the-night row in his dinghy: "She was back for a moment on Bras d'Or, casting off, coiling the painter up neatly, approved of by her father" (102). Here the "bras d'or" are at once handles and arms of gold and they belong both to her father and to Richard. And while she loves her husband and truly thinks that his time "away was the longest fifteen months and eight days I ever spent" (36), the imaginary trial that her conscience puts her to (nicely dramatized by Fitzgerald) presents a woman torn between her love for Edward and her need for him to be more able and giving, more like her own father: "Mrs. James. Did your husband, or did he not, complain that the houseboat Grace, apart from being damp, needed extensive repairs, and that it was difficult if not impossible for you to resume any meaningful sexual relationship when your cabin acted as a kind of passageway with your daughters constantly going to and fro to gain access to the hatch, and a succession of persons, including the milkman, trampling overhead?" (36). To this imagined magistrate-turned-judge, Nenna's alter ego ends up shouting, "I only wanted him to give way a little. I only want him to say that I've done well in finding somewhere for us to be!" (37).

Approval, however, is not what Edward is good at offering, and if Nenna's "childhood had been gift-ridden, with much atonement, love and reconciliation conveyed in the bright wrappings," her husband's history bespeaks a very different beginning, a family that "had not been in the habit of exchanging presents," a habitual neglectfulness that has now become Edward's (37). "He was," thinks Nenna, "not much used to giving at all" (37), a sense of things given further confirmation by their daughter Martha, who tells her sister that they will, with their newfound wealth (they have sold two William de Morgan tiles found in the river's sands), need "to get a present for Ma," for, "You know Daddy always used to forget to give her anything" (72). At novel's end, after the storm has forced all the boat dwellers, excepting Maurice, onto the protective shore, Edward will come, bearing a gift of perfume, in search of Nenna, but his incompetency will prove the most telling thing about him, throwing his one gift at a rat sitting on the companion, and then ending up clinging to the side of Maurice's boat, freed from its mooring, as it puts "out on the tide" (141).

It is perhaps not surprising then that Nenna should be comforted by thoughts of Richard and should, at the first invitation, succumb to his embrace. But Richard has his own childlike behavior. First, he puts up with, and even encourages, his wife's indifference and abuse (Laura: "Well, make the stove up then. Make it up, you idiot!" (19)), mistakenly thinking it best not to have the conversation that the decline in her affection has clearly mandated. His failure this way leads him to the ultimately sad query that he makes of Nenna, "Let's say that matters hadn't gone quite right with you, I mean personal matters, would you be able to find words to say exactly what was wrong?" She answers that she would; he retorts that such "might be useful," to which she alluringly, and tellingly, replies: "Like manufacturers' instructions. In case of failure, try words" (104).

Richard, in his emotional helplessness, is, it turns out, more like the other boat dwellers than one first imagined. The epigraphs from Dante and Virgil could be understood as bearing upon these characters in their deficiencies: (Canto XI: 71-72) "those the wind drives, those the rain beats down on, / those clashing with such bitter tongues"; and from chapter one of Virgil's Aeneid, "There they stood, pleading to be the first one ferried over, / reaching out their hands in longing toward the farther shore" (356-57); and, finally, again from Dante's Inferno (Canto III: 88-89): "And you there, living soul, / move aside from these now dead." (21)

What the references most give force to is the interstitial state of the boat dwellers, as people not only more exposed to the elements than others but also as people whose uncertainties are beginning to define them, to the point that it can be said by the narrator, without irony, that "without the guidance of the nuns, Tilda seemed to have lost her last vestige of moral sense" (114), just as her sister can, when speaking of her own experience of sin ("There's a great deal of sin in me" [118]), employ an image of light--"I know that a great part of me is darkness, not light" [118]-that, like The Aeneid's autumnal image ("As thick as leaves in autumn woods are at the first frost / that slip and float to earth" [352-53]), plays back into the novel's theme.

For instance, it is notable that when Fr. Watson pays his visit to the boat, he appears identified not only with Dante's "anima viva" [living soul], forced to stand apart from those about to make a crossing, but that he also has trouble, as others do not, with the descending darkness.
  But rat-ridden and neglected, it was a wharf still. The river's
  edge, whereVirgil's ghosts held out their arms in longing for
  the farther shore, and Dante, as a living man, was refused
  passage by the ferryman, the few planks that mark the meeting
  point of land and water, surely, is a place to stop and reflect,
  even if, as FatherWatson did, you stumble over a ten-gallon
  tin of creosote.

  "I'm afraid I'm not accustomed to the poor light, Mrs. James."
  "Look at the sky, father. Keep your eyes on the lightest part
  of the sky, and they'll adapt little by little."

  Tilda had sprung ahead, at home in the dark, and anywhere
  within sight and sound of water. Feeling that she had given
  her due of politeness to the curate, the due exacted by her
  mother and elder sister, she pattered onto Maurice, and,
  after having a bit of a poke around, shot across the
  connecting gangplank onto Grace.

  "You'll excuse me if I don't go any further, Mrs. James."

Fr. Watson finds himself, as Eliot puts the matter in Dry Salvages, "between the hither and the farther shore," (22) thinking it best to beat a retreat ("No, no, I won't risk the crossing a second time" (23)), and looking as "relieved" as one who has "completed a mission to those that dwell in the waters that are below the earth" might (23). This does not mean that those who dwell on land--for example, Nenna's sister Louise or her own husband Edward--are to be understood as more fully in heaven's graces (after all, Nenna's boat is named Grace), (23) but it does appear to suggest that Fitzgerald herself is mindful not only of the ways in which we repeatedly fail one another but also of the ways in which we fail God.

We might admire the boat dwellers for the reason, as noted earlier, that they come closest to representing the modernist ethos that "when in Rome, do as the Greeks," but the Fitzgerald novel appears to be upholding a different standard of judgment than this, one that judges those who live on land or sea as from the perspective of a world elsewhere. This world is repeatedly alluded to, often humorously, as in the instance of the school's Sr. Paul who composes a special prayer, offered at the institution's own "life size model of the grotto of Lourdes" and meant to bring Martha and Tilda's father back to the family: "Heart of Jesus, grant that the eyes of the non-Catholic father of Thy little servants, Martha and Matilda, may be opened, that his tepid soul may become fervent, and that he may return to establish himself on his rightful hearth, Amen" (41). There are other prayers, like those that pepper both the children's and Nenna's thoughts, as when Tilda, after making Fr. Watson a cup of tea, accompanies him in saying an Act of Contrition, a prayer that Nenna also later says, "O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee" (39). These instances too have their element of humor, for in the first instance the child is shown blithely deferring to another's will and in the second the reason for Nenna's being "full of contrition" is that she has misplaced Edward's squash racquets, things that were left with her in the spirit of "a sacred trust" (39).

At the same time that these and other prayers have their humorous and even childlike aspect, they do bespeak a faith that Nenna and her daughters resort to, and rely upon, in good times and bad, as when Nenna, escaping from Edward's flat, finds herself lost and without money:
  It came to her that it was wrong to pray for anything simply
  because you needed it personally. Prayer should be beyond the
  self, and so Nenna repeated a Hail Mary for everyone in the
  world who was lost in Kingsland Road without their bus fare.
  She had also been taught, when in difficulty, to think of a
  good life to imitate. Nenna thought of Tilda, who would
  certainly have got on to a late night bus and ridden without
  paying the fare, or even have borrowed money from the
  conductor. (96)

Yet the point is that this world elsewhere comes to form the backcloth of the narrative's action as when Martha and Heinrich slip into the "peaceful garden," which is the Moravian cemetery in Chelsea's World's End district--"They're buried standing up, so that on Judgment Day they can rise straight upward" (114)--a district that has its own Boschian element ("the refuge of crippled and deformed humanity" [114]) from which relief might naturally be sought.

Humanity, be it land or sea dwelling, is crippled and it needs an intercessor to make its case for it, much in the manner that Henry Adams said medieval Europeans, mindful of their own depravity, sought out the assistance of Mary:
  They knew what they were, and like children, they yearned for
  protection, pardon and love. This was what the Trinity, though
  omnipotent, could not give. Whatever the heretic or mystic might
  try to persuade himself, God could not be Love, God was Justice,
  Order, Unity, Perfection; he could not be human and imperfect,
  nor could the Son of the Holy Ghost be other than the Father.
  The Mother alone was human, imperfect, and could love; she alone
  was Favor, Duality, Diversity.

Fitzgerald's Mariology is not as fracturing as this, but when Tilda, after telling the story of the "poor woman who earned her daily bread by working long hours at her treadle," concludes by saying "that woman, for all her tribulations, had faith in the intercessions of our Lady" (115), the sense is that the world elsewhere is best addressed through prayer, even when this prayer seems to turn us into children. "We need the innocence of little children," says Wilfred Knox in Meditation and Mental Prayer, "before we can enter into the Kingdom of God, and most of us as we grow older lose that innocence." (25)

Knox's estimation of the child's innocence echoes a long and rich tradition. St. John is an important precursor: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now" (1 Jn 3: 1-2). In British literature, William Wordsworth carries this tradition forward: "The Child is father of the Man; / And I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety" ["My heart leaps up"]), as does W. H. Auden: "Every Christian has to make the transition from the child's 'We believe still' to the adult's 'I believe again.' This cannot have been easy to make at any time, and in our age it is rarely made, it would seem, without a hiatus of unbelief." (26) The theologian Paul K. Moser incorporates this tradition theologically: "We must distinguish two kinds of knowledge: (i) propositional knowledge that God exists, and (ii) filial knowledge of God's reality as one's humbly standing in a childlike, volitionally submissive relationship to God as perfectly authoritative and loving Lord and Father. (We should avoid confusion of one's being childlike and one's being childish.)" (27)

In Offshore, Fitzgerald repeatedly thematizes the difference between behavior that is childlike, caught in an innocent openness to the world and its mystery, even divinity, and that which is, as Moser puts it, childish, a description that can be applied to the behavior of the novel's adult characters. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald herself had the greatest respect for her uncle Wilfred Knox, and particularly admired Meditation and Mental Prayer, which she said was his "most accessible" book, (28) and concerning which she wrote her daughter Maria, "I value it highly." (29) In The Knox Brothers, she spoke of it as "a small, modest book, which has become a great favorite," wherein "Wilfred tells us" "all prayer ... is answered." (30) The latter is an interesting assertion, recalling us, in part, to William James's own discussion of prayer in The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which the philosopher argues that if the "intercourse," represented by prayer, between ourselves and God, "be not effective; if it be not a give and take relation; if nothing be really transacted while it lasts; if the world is in no whit different for its having taken place; then prayer, taken in this wide meaning of a sense that something is transacting, is of course a feeling of what is illusory, and religion must on the whole be classed, not simply as containing elements of delusion--these undoubtedly everywhere exist--but as being rooted in delusion together, just as materialists and atheists have always said it was." (31) But James did not believe it illusory, writing that "prayer, by which term I understand no vain exercise of words, no mere repetition of certain sacred formulae, but the very movement itself of the soul, putting itself in a personal relation of contact with the mysterious power of which it feels the presence," "is religion in act; that is, prayer is real religion." (32)

Offshore itself is, as noted, peppered with instances of prayer, at times formulaic, at times comic, yet all the while testifying, in the spirit of James's "real religion," to a faith in a world elsewhere, a testimony that, in the words of Fitzgerald's uncle, required only "the power to understand and appreciate the Christian ideal as it is set before us in the person of Him who said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me,'" and thus need not entail the putting "into words or connected sentences" but only the directing of "our thoughts to God." (33) In Offshore, the importance of the child, and of the recovery of a childlike faith, is given greatest point in the latter moments of the novel when Tilda, the younger daughter, finds herself in very real danger, as the violent and sexually predacious Harry sets his sights upon her. Calling Tilda a "nasty little bitch" (121), he begins chase, removing the gangplank (and the cat Stripey that had been resting upon it) connecting Maurice and Grace and then, via the wharf, putting himself aboard Grace, the child's refuge. Threatening the child with a bottle of hydrochloric acid, Harry appears ensnared by an evil that is larger than himself; and as he stares down at the child "with the points of his eyes, the whites still rolling," his look is of one possessed (122). (34) His violence toward the pregnant cat Stripey--"Your kitty's split open, my love" (122)--meanwhile, becomes suggestive of the violence that he means to inflict upon Tilda. But she, more nimble than he, is able to scoop up into her arm the fallen cat and half slither, half climb down the side of Grace onto the deck of Rochester where Woodie's wife, Janet, provides (unbeknownst to herself) the child a welcome protection. "Oh, Mrs. Woodie, will you look after me?," the child (in effect abandoned by mother, father, and sister at this crucial moment) asks; and then after the former, alluding to the cat's pregnancy, makes a query about Stripey's condition, the child replies, "I believe that there's an angel that guards her footsteps" (122). There appears to be an angel that guards Tilda's footsteps as well, for escape to safety here is meant to be understood, I believe, as providential--like, but even more so, the cat in The Gate of Angels that found itself "blown across the room after an explosion, but landed in a lady's hat, which had providentially been left on the ground." (35) This particular Providence appears foreshadowed by a statement made by Nenna's sister Louise (who has been praying for Nenna and her daughters) about her husband Joel: "Joel isn't a Catholic, as you know, but he's told me that he believes there's a Providence not so far away from us, really just above our heads if we could see it, that wants things to be the way they're eventually going" (112). Louise tells Nenna that this "idea appeals to me," just as it apparently appealed to Fitzgerald herself. Or as the New Yorker's Joan Acocella, in the space of her interview "Assassination on a Small Scale," wrote with reference to this same passage, "Don't laugh--Fitzgerald believes the same thing. She combines an old-world faith with a completely modern pessimism." (36)

Fitzgerald's is a view that appears to move in synch with that espoused by Moser in The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined. Mindful of the modern inclination to be struck, in the spirit of Isaiah ("Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself " [45:15]), by God's hiddenness, Moser recalls to us the ways in which we each possess the possibility of giving evidence of God's existence, that by participating in the good, in divinity, we are each--like so many characters in Offshore and Fitzgerald's fiction more generally--capable of helping bring others to the sense of God's presence. Or, as Moser writes,
  Humans are, themselves, to become personifying evidence of God in
  willingly receiving and reflecting God's moral character for others.
  Indeed, as we increasingly become personifying evidence of God, our
  evidence of God becomes more salient, if only because we ourselves
  are more salient evidence of God. In our inquiry about God, then,
  we are put under challenge by God to become the evidence of God
  we claim to seek. (37)

In part, Moser's argument is meant to serve as a response to Bertrand Russell's imagined Judgment Day riposte--"God, you gave us insufficient evidence" (38)--a riposte meant to ascribe responsibility for human failings to a God who has historically, in this view, kept himself too well hidden, the introjection of Christ into human history apparently notwithstanding. Moser, naturally, views this introjection otherwise, conceiving Jesus as the Christ, or, as he writes, "God sent revelatory personifying evidence of Jesus, and in the followers of Jesus who are being conformed to his self-giving moral image." (39) This parallels something said by Fitzgerald in response to an observation presented to her by Joan Acocellla.
  In recent interviews--under, I am sure, aggressive interrogation--
  Fitzgerald has said that she has strong religious beliefs and feels
  ashamed that she has never made this altogether clear in her books.
  I propose to her that she can atone for this now by explaining her
  religious beliefs to me. It seems to me, I say, that at times she
  views her characters through God's eyes. This gets a rise out of
  her. "I wouldn't dare do that," she protests vigorously. "No, I
  wouldn't. I mean, I think that Jesus was born into the world so
  that we could see God's view through human eyes, so to speak.
  And that's easier. It's not easy, but it's possible." (40)

As Fitzgerald says, the imitation of Christ is not easy, but it is possible. This is thought somewhat in the spirit of Paul: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us" (2 Cor 5:19-20). And, as Moser argues, it is a view that entails a volitional act, a choice: "The question of evidence for God's existence should become for us humans the question of how we respond, at the volitional level of a decision, to the powerful gift of agape to us and others." (41) Certainly, in Fitzgerald's fiction--in Offshore and perhaps even more so in the later novels--we are aware of characters being represented and judged in the light of what are ultimately less philosophical than spiritual questions. Or as Moser again puts it, the question, as Paul should formulate it, "is not so much 'Who am I?' as 'Whose am I?,'" (42) recalling us, once again, to the centrality of the child--directed toward the future and alive to a world elsewhere-- in this and so many other Fitzgerald novels: "Tilda and Martha both sang absolutely true, and Willis, who was fond of music, and always optimistic about the future of others, liked to think of them as concert performers. They could still manage Abends, wenn wir schlafen gehen, taught them by the nuns as a party piece, and then, indeed, they sounded like angels, though angels without much grasp of the words after the second line" (32).

In the end, then, Offshore is not, as Kermode considered it, apocalyptic, if by this is meant a depiction of a world that is on the edge of its demise. Yes, the novel concludes with an image of Maurice and Nenna's husband Edward set adrift upon the tide by the storm that has freed the former's barge from its mooring: "It was in this way that Maurice, with the two of them clinging for dear life, put out on the tide" (141). But the emphasis is not upon death but "dear life," and the tide that goes out shall also come back in. This does not mean that the lives lived on the Reach are not lived, like those elsewhere, in the shadow of death, as in the instance of the Dutch barge Waalhaven's third sailor, who seeking to reach shore by means of a dinghy found the risk-taking life ending: "The men were pitched overboard and they were swallowed up beneath the heavy iron bottoms of the lighters. After a while the bag of shoes came up, then two of the men, then a pair of seaboots, floating soles upwards" (32). (43) As Tilda herself is said to know, "the river could be dangerous" (30); "one could die within sight of the Embankment" (31). She herself does not die, nor (as far as we know) do Edward and Maurice. But if the river, in T. S. Eliot's words, is a "reminder / Of what men choose to forget," (44) the sense in Offshore is of a novelist who would remind us that this forgetting, by those who live either on- or offshore, is the real danger. Thus there is, says Fitzgerald, a lesson to be learned from the earliest amphibians when they themselves took to shore, for while many were successful, many also "perished in the attempt" (10).


(1.) Stephanie Harzewski, "New Voice: Old Body: The Case of Penelope Fitzgerald," ContemporaryWomen'sWriting, 1:1-2 (2007): 30.

(2.) Ronald Knox, "Introduction," The Best English Detective Stories of the Year (London, 1929).

(3.) Penelope Fitzgerald, in an interview with Diana Hinds (Books & Bookmen, September 1986), said that she turned away from the writing of detective fiction for the reason that she could not conceive of how she would extend the work she did in The Golden Child: "But I couldn't think of any more after that, so I wrote a straight novel about a bookshop I worked in in Southwold, which had a real poltergeist."

(4.) Frank Kermode, "Booker Books," London Review of Books, 1:3 (November 22, 1979): 12-13. The biographer Hilary Spurling (who was also the pugnacious literary editor of the Spectator in the late 1960s) has offered an insider's view of the 1979 Booker competition:
  I was a Booker judge that year and largely responsible for the
  pain Fitzgerald's unexpected triumph seems to have caused her.
  The presenter of the BBC's book programme told her angrily that
  he'd been promised that she would lose. Drunken reporters
  upbraided her for making them rewrite copy citing the favourite
  (VS Naipaul's A Bend in the River) as winner. The verdict had,
  in fact, been as much of a shock to the judges as to anybody
  else. We'd spent the entire afternoon at loggerheads, settling
  at the last minute by a single vote for William Golding's
  Darkness Visible, by which time the atmosphere had grown so
  heated that I said I'd sooner resign than have any part in a
  panel that picked a minor Golding over a major imaginative
  breakthrough by Naipaul. So we compromised by giving the
  prize to everybody's second choice, the small, slight,
  melancholy but beautifully judged and executed Offshore.
  (Review of Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought ofYou,
  The Observer [Review Books] [August 3, 2008], 21.)

(5.) Kermode, "Booker Books."

(6.) Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You, 374.

(7.) Ibid., 452.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Ibid., 415.

(10.) "A Memorial Service for Mrs. Penelope Fitzgerald, Writer," The Times, October 11, 2000,

(11.) Quoted in Jonathan Derbyshire, "Frank Kermode, 1919-2010," New Statesman (August 18, 2010).

(12.) Frank Kermode, The Sense of Ending: Studies in Theory of Fiction (1967; repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 58.

(13.) Frank Kermode, "The Men on the Dump: A Response," Addressing Frank Kermode: Essays in Criticism and Interpretation, ed. Margaret Tudeau-Clayton and Martin Warner (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 105.

(14.) Kermode, The Sense of Ending, 58.

(15.) Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; repr. London: Everyman's Library, 2001), 29.

(16.) Fitzgerald, Offshore (1979; repr. New York: Mariner Books, 1998), 67. Subsequent page references will be cited in text.

(17.) Cf. Kermode: "Revelation answers the command, 'write the things which thou hast seen, and things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter'--'what is past and passing and to come'-and the command to make these things interdependent." The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, 58.

(18.) Henry James, "Preface to Roderick Hudson, " The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Roger Gard (NewYork: Penguin, 1987), 452.

(19.) Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement (1931; repr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 119.

(20.) The child's name, "Martha, " is an allusion to the biblical story of Martha in Luke 10:38-42, a fact referenced by Fr. Watson: "A very delightful name. Martha busied herself about the household work during our Lord's visits" (21).

(21.) Canto XI: "che men ail vento, e che batte la pioggia, / e che s'incontran con si aspre lingue"; and Canto III: "E tu che se' costi, anima viva, / partiti da contesti che son morti." Ibid., 21-22. The Dante Inferno translation is that of Robert and Jean Hollander (NewYork: Anchor Books, 2002). The Virgil Aeneid translation is that of Robert Fagles (New York: Viking, 2006).

(22.) T. S. Eliot, "Dry Salvages," The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971), 134.

(23.) About Fitzgerald's actual barge named Grace, Terence Dooley says that it was "probably bought for its name as much as its cheapness" ("Introduction," So I Have Thought ofYou: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, xxix).

(24.) Henry Adams, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904; repr. NewYork: Penguin, 1986), 248. Cf. Julia Kristeva, in The Feminine and the Sacred, trans. Jane Marie Todd (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
  I am well situated to add that, in my tradition, that of Orthodox
  Christianity, the role of the Virgin as a power of intercession
  between the Son and the Father is extremely well developed. People
  have even gone so far as to suggest her immortality, since she is
  the only one in the gospel saga who does not die, but is content
  to pass from life to death via the intermediary of the "Dormition,"
  ... the title of an apocryphal text from the twelfth or thirteenth
  century, which recounts how Mary did not spare herself any torments
  suffered by the poor fishermen we all are--"the children of my
  son"--in the avowed goal of better pleading our cause before God,
  but, even more, of making herself the defender of the Son himself
  before the Father, whose pity seems very difficult to obtain.
  Both Adams and Kristeva might, of course, further be compared
  with 1 Jn 4:8. "He who does not love does not know God; for
  God is love."

(25.) Wildred L. Knox, Meditation and Mental Prayer (London: Philip Allan, 1927), 11.

(26.) W. H. Auden, Forewords & Afterwords (NewYork: Vintage Books, 1974), 518.

(27.) Paul K. Moser, The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 210.

(28.) Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (1977; repr. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000), 197.

(29.) Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You, 154.

(30.) Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 156.

(31.) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902; repr. New York: Penguin, 1985), 465.

(32.) Ibid., 464. While almost secularist in tone, this passage appears a variant on Paul in 1 Cor 15:16-20: "For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep."

(33.) W. Knox, Meditations and Mental Prayer, 8, 5.

(34.) In Understanding Penelope Fitzgerald (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), the one scholarly monograph dedicated to Fitzgerald's work, PeterWolfe says that "Harry, the scurviest wretch in the Fitzgerald canon," "supports the Christian myth" (129), but this reading hardly seems to do justice to the potency of Fitzgerald's religious faith.

(35.) Penelope Fitzgerald, The Gate of Angels (1990; repr. NewYork: Mariner Books, 1998), 91. In MustYou Go: My Life with Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser draws a similar parallel between the vulnerability of cat and child: "One of my cats--Rocky the rover--disappeared at the age of 18 months. I thought of what it must be like for parents of 'disappeared' children, as I listened for the sound of the cat-flap which did not come, and glimpsed the wrong cat at street corners" (quoted in Jenny Diski, "Short Cuts," London Review of Books [February 25, 2010], 20).

(36.) Joan Acocella, "Assassination on a Small Scale," The New Yorker (February 7, 2000), 87-88.

(37.) Moser, Evidence for God, 264.

(38.) Ibid., 38, 115, 265.

(39.) Ibid., 160.

(40.) Acocellla, "Assassination," 82.

(41.) Moser, Evidence for God, 216.

(42.) Ibid., 213.

(43.) The allusion to homophones--"soles" and "souls"--would appear here deliberate. 44. Eliot, "Dry Salvages," 130. In this piece, Eliot has, of course, the Mississippi River most in mind, however, the river is also a stand-in for all rivers, the Thames included.
COPYRIGHT 2014 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Knight, Christopher J.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Previous Article:The human quest and divine disclosure according to Walker Percy: an Examination in Light of Lonergan.
Next Article:Fallen nature and infinite desire: A Study of Love, Artifice, and Transcendence in Joris-Karl Huysmans s A rebours and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters