Six gifted Englishwomen

August 9, 2008 at 1:12 am (Anglophilia, books)

In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley begins his Second Reading feature thus:

“In the two decades between 1912 and 1933, six Englishwomen were born who went on to become exceptionally gifted and accomplished writers of sophisticated, surpassingly civilized novels.

The authors he’s referring to are Isabel Colegate, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Anita Brookner.

The article is specifically about The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. This novel was made into a memorable film featuring some of Britain’s finest actors: James Mason (in his last role), Dorothy Tutin, Edward Fox, Sir John Gielgud, Robert Hardy, and Gordon Jackson (whom many of us remember fondly as Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs).

I’ve not read The Shooting Party, though I will certainly make it my business to do so now. (Oh dear – another volume to set atop the groaning pile!) I can recommend, though, Winter Journey, also by Colegate. I read the book some years ago and I remember loving its evocation of rural Britain. I believe one of the characters was a composer.


I am more familiar with three of the other writers. Penelope Lively is probably the best known. Several years ago, she scored “a very palpable hit” with The Photograph. a luminous, achingly sad novel about love, marriage and regret. I led a book discussion on this title, and it was the easiest thing I ever did. I began by asking, “So – what do you think?” The discussion took off from there, with no further prompting required. I love it when that happens!

I had another experience in connection with this book that I would have to say was, for me, unique. I read The Photograph in 2003, the year it came out in this country. The following year, a nonfiction title, May and Amy, fell into my hands. In this work, I was amazed to encounter a character from real life, Amy Gaskell, whose resemblance to the fictional Kath in The Photograph was uncanny.

The subtitle of May and Amy is “a true story of family, forbidden love, and the secret lives of May Gaskell, her daughter Amy, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.” In graceful, evocative prose, author, Josceline Dimbleby tells the story of a journey to the heart of creativity and art as she brings us inside the world of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and his circle. This book, in which a sense of mystery and poignancy is pervasive, grew out of research that Dimbleby was conducting on her own family’s history: she herself is a direct descendant of the Gaskells.

So what does all this have to do with the Lively novel? In that work, Kath is a restless spirit to whom people are invariably drawn. She is possessed of an indefinable sadness that seems to pervade her very spirit and to exist side by side with her warmth and beauty. She weds a man who is her opposite in temperament and proceeds to live a life almost entirely outside the bonds of conventional marriage. Well, guess what? All of the above is likewise true of Amy Gaskell. There’s more – but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that it struck me as a classic case of life imitating art….

My idea of a potentially excellent book discussion would be to read both these books and talk about them together.


Anita Brookner has long been one of my favorite writers. I always think of her as the anti-Grisham, or the anti-James Patterson, because her novels are so intensely about character and often feature very little in the way of plot. They are seemingly still pools of great depth. My favorites are Latecomers, Visitors, Bay of Angels, Rules of Engagement, Leaving Home, and of course the Booker Prize winning Hotel Du Lac.

The precision of Brookner’s prose puts me in mind of a pointillist painting. As it happens, she is also an expert in art history. While studying at Britain’s famed Courtauld Institute in the 1950’s, she was taught, and greatly influenced, by a highly esteemed art historian who, in the fullness of time, would achieve a fame – rather, infamy – of a markedly different sort than that of his literary protegee. This was Anthony Blunt, who was unmasked in 1963 as “the fourth man” in the notorious spy ring that had its origins at Cambridge University. (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy played crucial parts in that unmasking. Connections upon connections!)

[Anita Brookner]


As for Penelope Fitzgerald, who died in 2000: she is the kind of writer that I always worry will slip into postmortem obscurity.

(I have a similar worry regarding Robertson Davies, who died in 1995 at the age of 82. When I finished The Cunning Man, I remember thinking, thank God that novels like this are still being written!)

I enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize winner, Offshore, but what I really love is her historical novels. The Beginning of Spring is about prosperous merchant families living in Moscow, in the years just prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Can there be anything more poignant than watching happy people going about their lives, all the while not knowing that their world is about to be blown to bits? Fitzgerald’s sees deep into the souls of these Muscovites (and an Englishman who lives and works among them).

Many consider The Blue Flower to be Penelope Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It consists of a fictionalized account of the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenburg, better known by his pen name, Novalis. Born in 1772, Novalis barely lived into the next century, dying in 1801. His was the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven, and Fitzgerald brings this turbulent period to life in a way that I can only describe as astonishing. Much of her success in doing so, I think, is due to her use of a strangely antiquated prose style. At any rate, for me this is the gold standard of historical fiction, right up there with Mary Renault, Robert Graves, and Marguerite Yourcenour.

Penelope Fitzgerlad was born into one of those inordinately gifted families that the British seem to specialize in producing. She tells the fascinating story of her father and her three uncles in a collective biography called The Knox Brothers. In addition to introducing us to some truly memorable individuals, the book paints a vivid, highly engaging portrait of England in the first half of the twentieth century. Fellow Anglophiles, this one’s  for you!


  1. daphne sayed said,

    I’m so glad I’ve found your blog recommended by an Australian with I correspond on the web. However I’ve not found your name any where.I have ablog too when I have the energy it’s wormauld:a life in books and and seems most accessible via google. Like you I’m retired and would love to have someone face to face to discuss books with. I do have an online group and younger friends but they are all still working.
    I have all of Colegate’s books. She’s along time favourite of mine. But she’s been very quiet for about 4 years. I must see if she has a web site.

  2. Pauline Cohen said,

    I’m familiar with most of the English writers mentioned and I’d like to add 2 more excellent British women writers from that era–Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark (born in Scotland so British, not English). I was also wondering about Fay Weldon (born in New Zealand, so considered British). I was under the mistaken belief that I had read some of her books, but when I looked up information about her I found that I hadn’t read any of them! What is your opinion of these three writers, Roberta?

  3. Four fantastic (bookloving) friends - and Yours Truly « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] addition, it was wisely suggested that for one of our meetings, we each read a title by Penelope Lively. Hey, no problem – I’ve already read several and am more than happy to read more. The […]

  4. Consequences, by Penelope Lively « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] the past exerts a powerful pull on the present. This is a persistent theme in the fiction of Penelope Lively, a writer whom I very much […]

  5. “Are we really all so beautiful and brave, she thought, or do we just think we are?” - The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] a recent post,  Six Gifted Englishwomen, I used an article by Jonathan Yardley as a springboard for a discussion of some off my favorite […]

  6. nicdafis said,

    Came here looking for pictures of Robertson Davies, but your post reminded me of a big gap in my reading habits – too few women writers! So I’ve been over to eBay and ordered some of the books you recommend.

    Many thanks.

  7. Roberta Rood said,

    You are more than welcome. Since I write this post, I have read The Shooting Party (and reviewed it on this blog). It was terrific!

  8. The New York Times weighs in on the Best Books of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Road Home by Rose Tremain. This author belongs with the cohort of  “Gifted Englishwomen” I’ve written about previously. Her Restoration is one of my all time favorite historical […]

  9. “Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. Thank you, thank you to Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley for urging this small, unassuming masterpiece on area readers. The perfect read for Anglophiles in […]

  10. chatter - Penelope Fitzgerald said,

    […] Books to the Ceiling read Jonathan Yardley’s piece. […]

  11. Anita Brookner « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] last year, inspired by one of Jonathan Yardley’s “Second Reading” pieces, I posted Six Gifted Englishwomen. One of those six was novelist and art historian Anita […]

  12. Five favorite fiction titles of the new millennium (actually eighteen, with twelve nonfiction titles and some music thrown in for good measure) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Andrea di Robilant, Josceline Dimbleby reaches into her own past to tell the poignant story of May and Amy Gaskell. This is the kind of quintessential English story that I am continually seeking.   The fact of […]

  13. The Shooting Party « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] to one of Jonathan Yardley’s Second Reading feature pieces in the Washington Post,  I wrote Six Gifted Englishwomen. Shortly thereafter, I read Isabel Colegate’s luminous novel The Shooting Party. I had seen […]

  14. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Promise of Happiness and To Heaven By Water – Justin Cartwright Intuition – Allegra Goodman The Photograph – Penelope Lively Second Honeymoon and Other People’s Children – Joanna Trollope […]

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