"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 10, 2014

"The Gate of Angels" by Penelope Fitzgerald (1990)

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) has been called a writers writer - she wrote extremely fine novels which however have not been embraced by a wider group of readers (real quality is after all only valued by connoisseurs). Penelope Fitzgerald only started writing novels when she was past sixty and over two decades managed to create an exquisite oeuvre of nine novels and two short story collections. Her most famous work is perhaps The Blue Flower about a love affair of the 18th-century German poet and philosopher Novalis (see my post about this novel).

[Penelope Fitzgerald - Photo Wikipedia]

The Blue Flower has some uncanny elements, which are lacking in The Gate of Angels, a novel set at Cambridge University in 1912, when the modern age and modern science are knocking on the venerable doors of its lecture halls. The world was about to change from a world governed by god into a universe governed by the laws of physics.

Fred Fairly, a junior fellow at the (fictional) College of St. Angelicus, is happy about that - he believes that science will soon explain everything. Reason will conquer the mysteries of the world and the demands of the soul will be seen for what they in fact are: a distraction. Fred is a pure scholar, a country vicar's son who has lost his faith, and his whole life is filled with science. He has no girlfriend and, anyway, the College he happens to belong to does not allow its fellows to marry (it was founded long ago by monks). Women are also not allowed inside the college.

Then Daisy Saunders, a working girl, comes into his life. They are accidental fellow cyclists on a dark country road and get involved in a freakish accident with a horse-drawn farm cart. Both unconscious victims are taken in by a family living close to the place of the accident, and so the virginal Fred finds himself in one and the same bed with Daisy - he has never been so close to a woman before, and also never has met one so outspoken and at the same time, so mysterious (she wears a wedding ring, which is the reason why they are put in the same bed, but as she explains later, the ring was a fake which served to ward off aggressive males during her commutes in London, where she worked as a nurse). The nurse-business also means she knows what a man looks like, and has no false shame. Although they are from very different walks of life (England was still a strict class society in 1912) and an accident was necessary to bring them together, Fred is smitten with her. Unfortunately, the next morning she is gone, and Fred starts a frantic search for her - at which a satisfying plot unfolds, with some nice mysteries to be solved, and a finale that has been taken from the traditions of the comedy (the end seems open, but in fact is not - Fitzgerald rightly skips spelling out the obvious).

There is a strong postmodern feel to this novel,  a delicious playing with conventions. The most interesting of these is the presence of one Dr. Matthews, an antiquarian and Cambridge scholar who is clearly modeled on M.R. James, who also happened to be a famous writer of ghost stories.

[M.R. James - Photo Wikipedia]

M.R. James was a conservative Christian who was even against women entering Cambridge University. In the present novel, in the guise of Dr. Mathews he represents those who believe in the soul and the unseen and he even entertains us with an original ghost story - a ghost lurking close to the place of the cycle accident. The presence of this conservative scholar gives Fitzgerald the opportunity to address the position of women and the struggle in which they were engaged early in the 20th century to be allowed to go to university and have the same rights as men.

Fred Fairly in fact works under a professor who is skeptic about the atom and any other "unobservables," bringing the dichotomy between what can be seen with the eyes and what not, also inside the walls of academia. Working with "unobservables" will lead to randomness and ultimately chaos, the conservative science professor believes. On the other hand, Fred who has no belief, at a debating club has to argue the opposite of what he believes, and makes an excellent case for the separate existence of the mind. But he also is interested in atoms, and in fact, his random collision with Daisy is like a collision of subatomic particles in a physicist's laboratory.

And then the "Gate of Angels." This is the name of the gate of Fairly's St. Angelicus College, and at the end of the novel Daisy enters it by mistake and therefore is able to save the life of the Master of the College, who has fallen down in the courtyard because of a sudden heart attack. So she becomes a saving angel - and the random delay saves her happiness.

The Gate of Angels is published by Fourth Estate, London.