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A sample from Hermione Lee's 'Penelope Fitzgerald'

"Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life" by Hermione Lee (Knopf, November 2014). Credit: Knopf

Chapter One

The Bishops' Granddaughter

"Must We Have Lives?"

 

The Old Palace of the Bishop of Lincoln was freezing cold and full of hectic activity in the winter of 1916. The Bishop's younger daughter, Christina Frances, had said goodbye to her husband, Eddie Knox, in peacetime a journalist and poet, now second lieutenant in the Lincolns, a regiment he had joined because of its connection to her family home. He was waiting to embark for France. They had been married four years and had a three-year-old son, Rawle. Christina was thirty-one, and heavily pregnant. She and Eddie had set up home in rural Hampstead, but because of the war she had moved into the Palace with Rawle and a young nursemaid, to have their second child under her parents' care.

But the Bishop, Edward Lee Hicks, and his wife, Agnes, were under strain. They had thrown open the Palace at the start of the war to a group of pitiful Belgian refugees, some of whom were still living nearby and doing odd jobs for them. Lincoln, because it had munitions factories, was a target for Zeppelin raids. The town was full of war-wounded and displaced persons and housewives coping with bereavements, air raids and rationing. The Bishop was shocked to see police controlling huge queues for margarine at the shops. He was working so hard -- visiting camps and hospitals, protesting against the ill-treatment of conscientious objectors, giving sermons all over the country -- that he had come down with a dangerous attack of the flu. Agnes was doing everything.

He was too ill to see Christina when her baby, Penelope Mary Knox, was born, without much fuss, on the Sunday afternoon of 17 December 1916. The Bishop was still not well enough to officiate at the baptism on 18 January 1917. Penelope Mary was baptised by the Dean of Lincoln, with two aunts from either side of her family (Eddie Knox's sister Ethel and Christina's sister-in-law Margaret Alison Hicks) as her sponsors. Her given names, though, were never used by the family. She was always called Mops, or Mopsie, or Mopsa.

The great frost lasted into March. The Bishop had barely recovered from his illness, and his granddaughter was only a few months old, when the news came of his oldest son's death. Christina's brother Edwin Hicks caught trench fever at Amiens, then died of an attack of meningitis. The Bishop, a pacifist who opposed the war, asked that "nothing about 'victory' should be put on the grave of his dead son." The young widow, Margaret Alison, married for less than two years, bore up valiantly: this was a comfort to his parents. Weeks later, Bishop Hicks and his family turned the Old Palace over to the Red Cross for a hospital, and moved into a much smaller house, cramped quarters for Christina, her parents, her little boy and the new baby.

In September 1917, Eddie Knox, who had been shooting rats in the trenches, observing "ordinary behaviour under terrible conditions" and finding himself unable to write comic pieces from the front line for Punch, was reported missing. He had been shot in the back by a sniper at the Battle of Passchendaele, then found in a shell hole in a pool of blood. He was invalided out, operated on, and brought to a Lincoln hospital to convalesce. Christina, meanwhile, was playing her part on the home front, looking after the children, helping her father, and organising an exhibition of women's war work at the local branch of Boots. In April 1919, when Eddie was finally demobbed, she was being visited by the Hickses in a Lincoln hospital for women and children, and was said to be only slowly improving; perhaps she had had a miscarriage. Just then, the Bishop, finally worn out, retired from his duties. He died in August 1919. Christina and her children were at his bedside, but Penelope, aged two, was too young to remember. Nevertheless, Bishop Hicks was a figure who mattered to her, among the bishops, missionaries, vicars and priests thickly scattered through her family tree. She liked the sound of him.

Excerpted from "Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life" by Hermione Lee. Copyright © 2014 by Hermione Lee. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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