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Betty Smartt Carter

Lost Causes

Penelope Fitzgerald and the story of a British family.

I once opened a magazine to an article that began, "Everybody hates an Anglophile," to which I answered, "No, but everybody does hate a ______." Still, I understood what the writer meant. For many Americans, England remains the river of myth and history that branches into so many smaller rivers, including our own. We adopt its traditions; we claim a stake in its literary achievements. But some of us haven't faced facts. If the modern UK bears little resemblance to the country of Masterpiece Theater, and if the queen now hands out CBEs to people like Mick Jagger—well, we Anglophiles have the luxury of being an ocean away.

For the generation that came of age in the Twenties and Thirties, the older Britain was like an elderly relative, still present but fading fast. Novelist Penelope Fitzgerald describes such a world in an autobiographical essay from her posthumous collection The Afterlife. Remembering her childhood in Sussex, Fitzgerald writes,

From time to time Lady Denman, the most important benefactress in the neighborhood, took me out for what was then called a joy ride in her chauffeur-driven motor-car … . To me it was bitterly disappointing. You could see so much from a trap, where you sat high up above the fields and hedges, which seemed to be snatched away from the side of the road as the horse pounded forward. Not quite as good as a trap, but better than kind Lady Denman's Daimler, was a ride home on the last cow when they were brought in for afternoon milking. You had to sit sideways because a cow's backbone is as sharp as a rail and the view was limited, but the movement was delightful.

Fitzgerald, born in 1916, was the daughter of humorist and poet Edmund Knox, aka "Evoe" of Punch (he was the editor of the magazine from the Thirties through World War II). Her literary childhood was simultaneously old-fashioned and modern. Both her parents were products of Victorian vicarages, and, once children were born, they settled down into the old domesticity. ...

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