Penelope Fitzgerald: A Short Story about Modernity

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), a woman who did not start writing until after her sixtieth birthday in the 1970s, was not what scholars would consider a traditional modernist.  She did not write during modernism’s height, did not help to create the significant change of that era, and did not fraternize with other modernists.  However, she did live during that time and observed the effect those vast social and political changes had on society.  She also set some of her work in that era.  Her novels return us to the 1940s and earlier and follow the themes of that time.  I guess we could say Downton Abbey attempts to do the same thing, set a few decades earlier.

For Fitzgerald, her modernist themes include sexual freedom and religion’s wane.  Changing attitudes toward sex were an important part of establishing modernism as an era separate from Victorianism.  From the collection The Means of Escape (2000), the title short story best illustrates Fitzgerald’s attention to this subject and the important change it underwent in the early twentieth century.  Alice Godley, the rector’s daughter in the story, finds herself wishing to have sex with an escaped convict after he enters the church one afternoon while she practices the organ.  Fitzgerald tells us that “if it had been ten years ago, when she was still a schoolgirl, she might have shrieked out” when she saw a man advancing toward her in the shadows of the church (p. 5).  However, she does not.  Instead, she engages the man in conversation and finds that he is wearing a sack on his head with eye holes, a sure sign that he has escaped from prison.  His name, Savage, suggests danger; however, Alice decides to help him.

fitzgerald means of escape cover

When Alice tells her friend about the convict, Aggie warns, “He might have cut your throat, did you think of that?” (p. 8). Fitzgerald uses images of death to represent the Victorian attitudes of sex.  Although this young girl is the one to suggest the danger at associating with a man―especially a man convicted of poisoning his wife, another allusion to the danger of sexual relationships―Aggie and Alice are also the girls who begin to defy the conventions of their strict and formal society shaped by the church.  The two girls raid Aggie’s parents’ warehouse and give food and a change of clothing to Savage.

Alice’s rebellion continues after helping the man, for she takes the sack he wore on his head and experiments with wearing it on her own head, even as her family is waiting for her to appear at dinner.  She finds that the mask “did not disarrange her hair, the neat smooth hair of a minister’s daughter, always presentable on any occasion” (p. 10).  Her perfection, represented in her groomed appearance and status as a daughter of a minister, is not ruined by her association and infatuation with Savage.  She even asks herself in this moment: “Wherein have I sinned?” (p. 10).  She questions what she has been taught about sin, representative of her changing attitudes.  Alice also fantasizes about running away with Savage.  She knows he plans to stowaway on a ship that is leaving Australia soon.  She slyly mentions to her father that Mr. Luke, a family friend, should try learning to play the church’s organ in case Alice should go away.

Alice makes plans with Savage after delivering his supplies; Savage says he will knock on her window that night, and she intends to run away with him.  He, however, tells her to wait and he will send for her after he has established himself again in England.  As she waits in the dark, still house, Alice imagines that she will sleep with him when he comes.  “If he wanted to get into bed with her, what then?  Ought she to raise the house?  She imagined calling out (though not until he was gone), and her door opening, and the bare shanks of the rescuers jostling in their nightshirts” (p. 18).  She wants to sleep with him but decides to cover it up by crying rape after he leaves.  She is plotting ways to free herself sexually, yet maintain the perfect church-girl persona she has maintained her entire life.  Instead, Savage never arrives and her purity is salvaged.

As all of the action surrounding Alice and her dangerous “love affair” occurs, Fitzgerald turns her attention to Mrs. Watson, a servant of Alice’s family who has had a tough life.  She has lost her children and husband in a fire, and then found herself accused and convicted of killing them, so she was sent to Australia from England as a convict.  Alice has taught her to read and write.  In turn, Mrs. Watson had become fond of Alice, often holding her hand or following her around the house.

Alice eventually receives a letter from Savage.  He writes that when he arrived at her home, he went the wrong way and ended up being seduced by Mrs. Watson.  She, instead of Alice, accompanied him to England.  Alice’s virtue is therefore preserved because of Mrs. Watson, a woman who had already been convicted and abused in life.  Fitzgerald shows the irony of this occurrence, but also the idea that this young girl remains pure and church-worthy by a mistake, not by her own choosing.  Perhaps Mrs. Watson has rescued Alice on purpose.

Although her name, Godley, is symbolic of her life and purity, she tries to reject it.  Alice seems to be a prototype of the first Modern woman, one who is trying to reject the angel in the house.  Fitzgerald sets the church as a background to Alice’s desire for Savage, giving this story another layer of modernity, that of religion’s waning importance to the masses at that time.  In fact, the first four paragraphs of the story are devoted to describing the construction, history, and characteristics of the church.  The descriptions are not flattering, saying “it looks strange and must always have done so . . . . [It] give[s] you the curious impression, as you cross the threshold, of entering a tomb” (p. 3).  Fitzgerald uses this death imagery to characterize the church in which a passionate love affair is about to occur.  This suggests both the waning of religion’s authority and respect and also the loosening of society’s views on sex and morals.

This is my favorite story from the collection, but you might find some of the others interesting as well.  I find Fitzgerald herself to be interesting, because of her age at the time of her success as an author, but I also find her work to be engrossing and mature.  They are books and stories meant to be savored and read carefully and deeply.

Fitzgerald, P. (2000). The Means of Escape. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.