No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

2010/09: The Gate of Angels -- Penelope Fitzgerald

"Why should a young woman, or any woman, have to account for her comings and goings? Why should she know her name if she doesn't want to? All that we have the right to ask is, do the higher elements in her nature predominate? Are her feet on the path to joy? Is she in harmony with the new century?"
"I'm not quite certain, Mrs Wrayburn," said Fred. "What did she say herself?" (p. 68)

Set in Cambridge, 1912, in the imaginary College of St Angelicus (motto 'Estoy in mis trece': "It is translated as 'I have not changed my mind', but 'nothing doing' might be nearer." (p.17). Fred Fairly, son of a country rector, joins the college as a junior Fellow, and finds his faith -- and his belief in the soul -- waning in the strong light of Rutherford and Thomson's ideas about the atom. His life is not immune to chaos, though: on a dark night on the Guestingly Rd, Fred is involved in a bicycle accident and encounters Daisy.

Daisy is working-class, alone in the world, and has recently lost her position as a nursing probationer due to a well-intentioned flouting of the rules. She is in Cambridge to seek work at the mental hospital run by a Dr Sage -- and, perhaps, to undertake a baser kind of bargain.

But Fred is in love ...

The eponymous Gate of Angels is the gate in the south-west wall, which nobody has authority to open or close. On two occasions, points out Dr Matthews (the Provost of James', and given to writing ghost stories to be read aloud after supper) the gate has been found standing open: on the 21st May 1423, and once in 1869. Dr Matthews finds this suspicious. "If it were to stand open, who or what do you imagine might come in?" (31)

And thereby hangs the tale: a tale which on the page is slight and inconclusive, yet which suggests a larger story happening around it.

Fitzgerald's writing seems bland at first, but she makes every detail count, even if the significance isn't at first apparent. The reader has to work, too, and not be distracted by Dr Matthews' grisly tales or the deftly-drawn minor characters. Or by the thought of Rupert Brooke as Mephistopheles, which I suspect I enjoyed more than poor Daisy: "Of Doctor Faustus, however, she did not know the words." (155)

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