‘There is a variable delicate friction between the interests of wives, husbands and children, and between human beings and nature,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote in a piece about her friend Stevie Smith, published in the LRB in 1981. ‘One might say between the seaside and the sea.’ She would know. The years of Fitzgerald’s life that she drew on for The Bookshop (1978) and Offshore (1979) combined complicated family dynamics with precarious physical circumstances, waving/drowning halfway between the shoreline and the water.
In 1957, she moved with her husband and children from Hampstead to Southwold, on the East Suffolk coast, a town that had been completely cut off a few years earlier by the Big Flood of 1953: ‘an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold,’ as Fitzgerald puts it in The Bookshop. They took up residence in an old oyster warehouse by the harbour, where the town dissolves into marshland on either side of the River Blyth. ‘Local stories of hauntings and spooky phenomena abounded,’ Hermione Lee writes in her biography of Fitzgerald. ‘A poltergeist plays a dramatic part in The Bookshop, and Fitzgerald always maintained that it was an absolutely real manifestation.’
In 1960, the Fitzgeralds moved back to London, onto a houseboat named Grace, moored on the Thames at Chelsea Reach. Penelope’s husband Desmond, a lawyer, was drinking heavily and stealing from his chambers. He was caught, put on probation and disbarred. Three years into their life on the river, Grace sank, taking with her most of the family’s letters and books and possessions, but furnishing Fitzgerald with the material for one of Offshore’s most memorable scenes. A boat is ‘holed amidships by a baulk of timber’. In its struggle ‘to rise against the increasing load of water’, it resembles ‘one of those terrible sights of the racecourse or the battle field where wallowing living beings persevere dumbly in their duty although mutilated beyond repair’.
A similar fate, charged with a similar significance (though self-inflicted) awaits Peter Grimes’s fishing boat at the end of Britten’s opera, set a few miles down the coast from Southwold, in Aldeburgh – a coincidence that wouldn’t have been lost on Fitzgerald. ‘In June 1945,’ Lee writes,
Penelope went to the second night of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells … and was excited enough by it to write a long account to Janet and to keep her programme all her life.
Perhaps coincidence isn’t quite the right word. There are several suggestions, in Lee’s biography, that Britten and Peter Grimes occupied a special place in Fitzgerald’s imagination. She went to the first night of Billy Budd and wrote about it in World Review; in her teaching notes on ‘The Borough’, George Crabbe’s poem on which Peter Grimes is based, she wrote:
Crabbe was well aware that your own emotions make landscape change but aimed himself at true scrupulous accuracy (nothing vague). His Suffolk picture is true poetry because born into him is the feeling that land & sea & people share one mysterious life.
Lee doesn’t connect these dots as she reflects on Penelope and Desmond’s decision to subject themselves to such a damp version of bohemianism. ‘Why did the Fitzgeralds choose Southwold?’ she asks.‘Their reasoning is never explained.’
But Fitzgerald’s fictionalised account of life in the far east of England has a lot in common with the ambiguous story that Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, spun out of their source material. Both tell the tale of an imaginative individual, haunted by the spirits that slip out of the liminal spaces between places – seaside and sea, town and country – whose valiant-ish attempts to face down the reactionary provincialism of an isolated small-town community end in failure. Both protagonists are brought down by the machinations of a local busybody. Violet Gamart has designs on Florence Green’s bookshop because ‘many of us have the idea of converting it into some kind of centre – I mean an arts centre … chamber music in summer – we can’t leave it all to Aldeburgh.’ She means the music festival that Britten founded in the town in which Peter Grimes is set, largely as a result of the opera’s spectacular success.
In an introduction to ‘The Borough’, Kevin Crossley-Holland describes the ‘unlovely, humdrum aspects of the place’ which ‘barb locals … and never let them go’. Crabbe was hooked, certainly, and kept returning to the town of his birth, the last time to finish ‘The Borough’ in 1809. Britten, born in Lowestoft, was living in America when he read an article about Crabbe by E.M. Forster in the Listener, which unleashed a tidal wave of homesickness that carried him back to Suffolk, with a sketch of an opera that would mean he’d never again leave.
‘I still miss, and shall always miss, the wide shining horizons of East Suffolk,’ Fitzgerald wrote in 1989, ‘and the sight of the rooks and the seabirds balancing themselves on boundless currents of air.’ That’s precisely what I hear in the first notes of the first of the ‘Sea Interludes’ in Peter Grimes: a trill of flutes representing gullsong, followed by a gust of clarinets, and only then the cymbal crash of a wave, before the brass sounds like shingle being dragged back into the sea. Was Fitzgerald remembering Peter Grimes, here, as much as she was remembering Southwold? Was she caught on the barb of Britten’s orchestral account of the far east of England in 1945, and did she move there twelve years later in part because of Britten? I’m inclined to think so, and not just because I was born in East Suffolk, spent most of my childhood holidays in Southwold and moved onto a Thames barge in West London in the summer of 2014, a year after I’d seen Peter Grimes for the first time, on Aldeburgh beach. (I moved back onto dry land last September, into a flat in Stoke Newington, just like Nenna’s estranged husband in Offshore; my book about Peter Grimes is published today by Routledge.)
To look for through-lines in Fitzgerald’s life and work may, however, be to miss the point. As Lee puts it, writing about Offshore, ‘almost everything … is ambivalent … everything is betwixt and between.’ Or as Fitzgerald puts it, writing about Stevie Smith, and possibly herself, ‘she was straightforward, but not simple, which is a version of not waving but drowning.’