Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: "The Blue Flower" by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower (1995) 

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000)

228 pages

Centered on a love story involving the German Romantic poet Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, Penelope Fitzgerald has written an historical novel that provides a fascinating window into life in Germany in the late 1700’s.

As the story opens, Friedrich has graduated from university and returned to his family home in what is now the east-central German state of Saxony-Anhalt. His father, despite being a land owner of noble birth, struggles to make ends meet and cannot support another mouth to feed at home, so he arranges for Friedrich an apprenticeship in a nearby town with a magistrate who also functions as the tax collection supervisor for the larger area; the apprenticeship comes with room and board and a small stipend. Friedrich obeys his father and heads off to take up his new work, though his thoughts remain consumed with the romantic and philosophical musings that are his true interest and calling, and that he would eventually publish and become famous for under the pseudonym Novalis.

A principal part of Friedrich’s apprenticeship involves traveling with the tax collection supervisor through the various local communities to review the records of businesses and land owners. Stopping at the estate of a friend of the supervisor’s, Friedrich falls deeply in love with a young daughter of estate owner, a girl of twelve whose dreamy manner he ascribes to the depth of a romantic soul, as opposed to the shallowness of a simple mind that his friends and family see in her. The balance of the plot of the story evolves around his blind love for the girl, his courting of her, and the reactions of his friends and especially family to this sudden but unshakable infatuation for someone who everyone feels is far his inferior. The conflict between the mental world of a German Romantic poet and the real world he had to live in come clear (at times painfully) on every page.

The love story also serves a deeper purpose for Fitzgerald however: she uses it as a framework within which to describe the daily customs of the families in the story, the internal relationships within families and households, and the interactions between families and friends. Thus she provides the reader an historical view into life at this time, in the form of a novel. Two examples from the book will serve to demonstrate how Fitzgerald’s beautifully crafted writing conveys clearly the world the characters inhabit, without her having to simply state dry facts.

The first example is the opening paragraph of the novel:
Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend’s home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weissenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler’s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillowcases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows in the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might not mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case it didn’t, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family, also. There underwear of children and young persons, as well as the larger sizes, fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken to flight.
In one short paragraph Fitzgerald not only introduces the family at the heart of the novel, and its noble but no longer rich status, but also provides insight into how people lived at that time, how something as ‘simple’ as washing the laundry was handled two hundred some years ago. And she does it not simply by telling us, but rather by showing us, in a colorful description so vivid we almost feel like we are standing in the middle of the “great dingy snowfalls” of laundry.

A second example is much shorter, but if possible even more wonderfully done. In a scene that takes place mid-way through the story, Friedrich has gone home to speak with his mother about his new love, and how to break the news to his father. He asks her to meet him alone, at night, in the garden of the estate, “without reflecting what an extraordinary thing it would be for her to do,” going out alone. As they sit together, she reflects on her now adult son:
When Friedrich had been born, sickly and stupid, she had been given the blame, and had accepted it. When after months of low fever he had become tall and thin and, as they all said, a genius, she had not been given any credit, and had not expected any.
Like a picture being worth a thousand words, these few lines tell us so much, not only about Friedrich’s life, but even more about his mother’s: her place in the family and society, her acceptance of that place, and how that acceptance has become so deeply ingrained in her understanding of the world around her that her opinions reflect what she has been told, “as they all said, a genius.”

Fitzgerald’s writing in the novel has a different feel to it from most other historical novels I have read. She plays the role of the narrator, which at times gives the writing a bit of the detached feel of a history book; she will step outside the story and comment on what a character has not realized about the effects of their own actions or words on others, or their lack of awareness of societal norms. But, she also presents extended sections of dialogue, which allows the reader the kind of intimacy with and knowledge of the characters available in a novel. Through this combination of techniques she provides us with a refreshing style in the genre of historical novels that I enjoyed immensely.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:

A review that discusses positive and negative reaction to the book at Grumpy Old Book Man.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION