Ain’t it just the way, in a week where I’ve proclaimed my scepticism about historical fiction over at Vulpes Libris, that I’ve also written about two historical novels that I’ve really liked? The True Heart fell within my ‘safety zone’ of post-1800, but The Blue Flower (1995) doesn’t – although it is the 1790s, so it’s hardly a million miles away.
I think I have chiefly heard people talk about The Blue Flower in the context of being upset that it didn’t win the Booker – and it’s certainly considered Penelope Fitzgerald’s best novel, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure I’d place it above others that I’ve loved by her (The Bookshop and At Freddie’s are both fantastic), but I did really like it.
The main character was a real person, though not one I’d heard of. He is Friedrich von Hardenberg, famed later under the pseudonym Novalis, and his Wikipedia page tells me that he was ‘a practitioner of German Romanticism’ as well as occupied as ‘prose writer, poet, mystic, philosopher, civil engineer, mineralogist’. Exhausting, no?
We don’t see any of that in The Blue Flower, though he certainly speaks like a philosopher (he is a kind, thoughtful, and eloquent character). Instead, we see him as a man in his early 20s, a student of history, philosophy, and law at various universities, who has fallen in love with 12-year-old Sophie. Fitzgerald’s strength is that this is no Lolita. There is nothing unpleasant on the page. He does not sexualise her – rather, he idealises her, and is more than happy to wait the four years until she can marry him.
The blue flower of the title comes in a story that Fritz tells Sophie (and others), about a young man who longs to see the blue flower. What does it mean? Fitzgerald isn’t vouchsafing it to us, though we may come up with theories. Karoline Just – a close friend of Fritz’s, clearly in love with him, though Fritz cannot see this – can only rule out options for what the blue flower symbolises.
She said “The young man has to go away from his home to find it. He only wants to see it, he does not want to possess it. It cannot be poetry, he knows what that is already. It can’t be happiness, he wouldn’t need a stranger to tell him what that is, and as far as I can see he is already happy in home.”
It is not the key to the novel’s comprehension or anything like that – but it is representative of the way Fitzgerald frame s a story. We come at it sideways and unexpected angles, hearing mundane conversations that hint towards a whole, waiting for Fritz to confide in his father about the engagement.
What makes Fitzgerald’s novels so great is undoubtedly her style. Whatever she’s writing about, she has a wonderful wryness. I have realised that one of my favourite authorial techniques is that slight detachment – the shared awareness with the reader that the scene shown is, perhaps, slightly absurd. She laughs gently at her creations, while watching them as though from Olympus…
“Sophie, listen to me. I am going to tell you what I felt, when I first saw you standing by the window. When we catch sight of certain human figures and faces… especially certain eyes, expressions, movements – when we hear certain words, when we read certain passages, thoughts take on the meaning of laws… a view of life true to itself, without any self-estrangement. And the self is set free, for the moment, from the constant pressure of change… Do you understand me?”
Sophie nodded. “Yes, I do. I have heard of that before. Some people are born again and again into this world.”
Fritz persevered. “I did not quite mean that. But Schlegel, too, is interested in transmigration. Should you like to be born again?”
Sophie considered a little. “Yes, if I could have fair hair.”
Sophie is an enigma. To others, she is an average 12-year-old. Not particularly interesting or imaginative – even, perhaps, a little stridently silly. To Fritz, she is ‘my philosophy’. And Fitzgerald balances the two brilliantly, so that we never think Fritz an idiot, yet we never think Sophie truly has any hidden depths. Fitzgerald has, I suppose, shown us the subjectivity of love – even in so bizarre and uncomfortable a situation.
My favourite character, incidently, is Sophie’s sister Mandelsloh. She has a delightfully biting wit, and an acerbic awareness of her own shortcomings. Here’s a quick instance of why I like her, in conversation with Fritz (who speaks first):
“Courage is more than endurance, it is the power to create your own life in the face of all that man or God can inflict, so that every day and every night is what you imagine it. Courage makes us dreamers, courage makes us poets.”
“But it would not make Sophgen into a competent house-keeper,” said the Mandelsloh.
It’s an unusual, exciting, glittering novel. It should be disturbing and it isn’t (which creates its own questions); it is Fitzgerald showing what an excellent writer she is. Is it her best novel? Possibly, but I don’t think it much hurts where you start reading her.