One of my undergraduate friends at university spent seminars comparing everything – everything – to either King Lear or Ulysses. It got a little wearying, bless him. But I seem to have developed the same affliction with Muriel Spark. So many writers I read seem to have the same slightly stylised dialogue and deadpan narrative, or unusual characters who refuse to comply fully with the accepted norms of conversation and life. Never has a novel felt more Sparkian (yes) to me than Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s (1982) – to the point that I kept forgetting that it wasn’t Spark in my hands whilst I was reading. Oh, and this is no bad thing – quite apart from destabilising my grasp on authorship (Barthes would be proud), it’s a fantastic novel.
In my post on The Railway Children the other day, I mentioned Penelope Fitzgerald as an author I’d intended to include in A Century of Books, and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read At Freddie’s since I bought it last November. I have quite a few unread Fitzgeralds, actually, having only read two (Human Voices and The Bookshop), but the theatrical setting of At Freddie’s meant it was an obvious candidate for the next one I’d pick up.
When I say ‘theatrical setting’, I actually mean ‘children’s theatre school’ – Freddie (doyenne of The Temple School, or ‘Freddie’s’) trains children in a haphazard manner, ignoring the brave new world of television (for it is the 1960s) and doing whatever would best please Shakespeare. The children are taught egotism and self-importance, and shipped off to play emotive parts in Dombey and Son or King John. Freddie herself seems to have minimal dealings with them, developing instead the cult of her own personality – for Freddie is a woman. And a wonderful woman at that – one of the most characterful characters I’ve met for a while, if you know what I mean.
Everyone who knew the Temple School will remember the distinctive smell of Freddie’s office. Not precisely disagreeable, it suggested a church vestry where old clothes hang and flowers moulder in the sink, but respect is called for just the same. It was not a place for seeing clearly. Light, in the morning, entered at an angle, through a quantity of dust. When the desk lamp was switched on at length the circle of light, although it repelled outsiders, was weak. Freddie herself, to anyone who was summoned into the room, appeared in the shadow of her armchair as a more solid piece of darkness. Only a chance glint struck from her spectacles and the rim of great semi-precious brooches, pinned on at random. Even her extent was uncertain, since the material of her skirts and the chair seemed much the same.
This is how we first approach her, but it doesn’t do her justice. She is not the sort to fade into the background – more to lure people in, unawares, and charmingly get whatever she wants from them – often in the name of Shakespeare, or following a ‘Word’ she feels she has been given. A Word of the non-theological variety, you understand – it could be something she overheard, or saw in an advertisement, or not traceable at all, and she shows some dexterity in the way she interprets these Words.
Here are a couple of quotations which do her better justice:
She knew that she was one of those few people, to be found in every walk of life, whom society has mysteriously decided to support at all costs.
Freddie herself had fulfilled the one sure condition of being loved by the English nation, that is, she had been going on a very long time. She had done so much for Shakespeare, one institution, it seemed, befriending another. Her ruffianly behaviour had become ‘known eccentricities’. Like Buckingham Palace, Lyons teashops, the British Museum Reading Room, or the market at Covent Garden, she could never be allowed to disappear.
She is indomitable, a little vague, self-aware to an extent – an extent which relies on nobody else reaching quite her level of awareness. Freddie is a joy – and it’s rather a shame that we don’t spend more time in her company. She is the pivot of the school, but she shares centre stage with various other characters in At Freddie’s. Chief amongst these are the two new teachers, Hannah Graves and Pierce Carroll. Hannah is besotted with the theatre and the mystique of backstage life – although she does not wish to be an actress, she wants to live in proximity to that world. I could empathise entirely with her! Carroll is a different matter – and a preposterous, but inspired, character. He, essentially, is incapable of self-delusion or self-aggrandisement. He has no ambition or drive. Carroll recognises – and openly admits to Freddie – that he is not a good teacher, has no gift with children, and would be unlikely to find a job anywhere else. Freddie takes him on as a teacher simply out of curiosity – and he makes no attempt to educate the children at all, except once, in a glorious paragraph:
For the first time since his appointment he was correcting some exercise
books. He had not asked for the exercises to be done, but the children
left behind, those who hadn’t got work in the theatre, had decided, for
a day or so at least, to do an imitation of good pupils. How they
could tell what to do was a mystery, and as to the books, he hadn’t even
known that they’d got any.
And then there are the children. Primarily Mattie and Jonathan. Mattie is as self-absorbed as any of the other actors in the novel, given to pranks, lies, and overdramatics, but also with something of Freddie’s gift for being able to talk anybody around. Jonathan is different. He is a gifted mimic and a thoughtful actor, often quietly in Mattie’s shadow, but the final, curious words of the novel (you will find) are about him…
Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing style seems to be rather different in each novel I read. I found her rather stilted in Human Voices, although perhaps I’d changed my mind on reacquaintance; The Bookshop was poignant and quietly devastating. At Freddie’s has that Sparkian sparseness, coupled with a sly wit best shown in the ironic twist to her characterisations. It’s devastating in a whole different way – an assassination of a character’s foibles in very few words, for example:
He then said he was obliged to be going, for, as a busy man, a necessary condition of his being anywhere was to be on the way somewhere else. He picked up his coat and brief-case, and then, although he knew that he had brought nothing else with him, looked round, as though he were not quite sure.
Curiously, self-delusion and self-importance are censured from this man (Freddie’s businessman brother) but accepted from those connected with the theatre. It is, of course, a separate world. What Fitzgerald does so wonderfully – and it does seem to me quite a remarkable achievement – is to combine two opposing views of the theatre. She is simultaneously cynical and awed – recognising both the glory and the absurdity of the second oldest profession.
Ed was listening for the immediate and irrepressible gap and murmur from the house which is like the darkness talking to itself. He caught, alas, only the faintest snatch of it. Most of the audience, faced with an unfamiliar play, were bent over their programmes. They could have read them more easily earlier on, but chose to do so now. They accepted the presence on the stage of the Lords Salisbury and Pembroke, because the play was by Shakespeare and that was what Shakespeare was like. But they did not expect to be asked to distinguish between one lord and another, unless there was a war or a quarrel, and it was this that was causing them anxiety.
I adore the theatre – watching plays, yes, but above that the idea of the theatre. It is for that reason that I love reading theatrical actors’ biographies, or novels set in that environment. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, in an unworldly way, to be in one of those acting dynasties? Or – like the boys – to grow up in that sphere of extreme emotions and spectacles? Fitzgerald concedes that – she gives us Hannah, who feels that way without having any aspiration actually to be an actress – but she permits no rosy-eyed or glassy-eyed view of the theatre and its people. She gives us wonderful characters, she gives us the adorable, inimitable, formidable Freddie, but she knocks over their pedestals and shows how foolish Freddie’s school is – and, yet, how timelessly glorious too.