The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (review)

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for many years, but had never got around to reading. Three of her novels, The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and she won the prize in 1979 with Offshore. I knew she was held in high regard, but somehow, she’d fallen off my radar. But then at the end of last year, 4th Estate reissued Fitzgerald’s books in beautiful new editions. Tempted by these reissues in their smart covers, I thought I’d try one of her novels: The Beginning of Spring, first published in 1988.

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The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in the winter of 1913, a time political and industrial change for Russia. Frank Reid — born and raised in Russia, but English by descent – owns and manages a small printing works, part of a business established by his father. As the book opens, Frank learns that his wife, Nellie, has left him suddenly and without any warning. Nellie has taken their three children (Dolly, Ben and Annushka) with her, but subsequently deposits them at Mozhaisk station. Frank is at a loss as to why Nellie has disappeared so abruptly, abandoning the children during her escape. On the children’s arrival home, Dolly (at ten, the eldest of the three) offers her father the following observation, which makes her seem wise beyond her years:

‘You shouldn’t have expected her to manage by herself. She had to send us back, we weren’t a comfort to her. I think you asked too much of her.’ (pg. 23, 4th Estate)

And a few days later, Dolly tells Frank ‘the mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.’ (pg. 62)

During the novel, we learn a little more of Nellie’s upbringing in Norbury, and how she came to meet Frank through the local choral society. As a young man, Frank journeyed to England to study and gain hands-on experience of the printing industry, and his training took him to Norbury. Fitzgerald takes us back in time to illustrate Frank’s initial impressions of his future wife:

Frank was struck by her way of looking at things. There was a tartness about it, a sharp flavour, not of ill-nature, but of disapproval of life’s compromises, including her own. (pg. 29)

Nellie is determined that she’s ‘not going to be got the better of by Norbury’. We sense her desperation to get away from this stifling environment, the gossip and judgement of its inhabitants, not to mention the scrutiny of aunts, uncles and other family members due to attend the wedding. A little before her wedding day, Nellie seems unsettled by her lack of experience with men, and the same anxieties return to her mind:

It was a moment’s loss of confidence, which Frank knew he mustn’t allow. Under his hands her solid partly naked body was damp with effort. She was recklessly dragging off something whose fastenings seem to defy her. Her voice was muffled. ‘Go on Frank. I’m not going to let them stand about knowing more than I do. I won’t be got the better of.’ (pg. 37)

There’s something quite telling about this section of the narrative, and yet Fitzgerald leaves much unsaid, thereby allowing the reader to contemplate the significance on future events. As the flashbacks continue, Nellie seems quite at home in Moscow on their arrival in Russia, more so than in Germany where the couple spent their first three years of marriage. And so we still don’t know why Nellie has left Frank, or whether she intends to come back.

Returning now to 1913, Frank sets about trying to make arrangements for the care of the children. Keen to avoid the English chaplaincy (the chaplain’s wife is quite a character) for as long as possible, Frank draws on the support of Arkady Kuriatin’s wife and family; Kuriatin is a merchant and business contact, and his family are happy to accommodate the Reid children, in the short term at least. Fitzgerald’s writing contains flashes of sly humour, and we see this in her description of the Kuriatins:

Arkady had children – how many, Frank couldn’t say, because extra ones, perhaps nephews and nieces, perhaps waifs, or even hostages, seemed to come and go. His wife, Matryona Osipovna, was always at home. Frank had heard her say, ‘What is there better outside than in?’ Nellie had always admitted Mrs Kuriatin’s kindness, but couldn’t be doing with her. (pg. 63)

A visit to Moscow by Nellie’s rather naïve brother, Charlie, also provides ample opportunity for Fitzgerald to add touches of wry humour to the narrative.

Another of the novel’s delights stems from its cast of finely-drawn and memorable characters; one such character is Selwyn Crane, Frank’s chief accountant, fervent poet and avid follower of Tolstoy. In order to provide his employer with a solution to his childcare dilemma, Selwyn introduces Frank to Lisa Ivanovna, a bright young peasant girl who can speak good Russian to the children. The author gives us a few details of how Selwyn has encountered Lisa. Finding her in tears while working in a Moscow department store, he assumes she’s feeling homesick and out-of-place in the big city. And yet, there is an air of mystery around Selwyn’s connection with the girl and his reasons for bringing her to the attention of Frank. All goes well when Lisa meets Frank’s children (who seem to be showing few signs of missing their mother), and so the young girl moves into the Reid household. Frank finds himself drawn to this attractive, quietly enigmatic creature, but it would be unfair of me to say any more about how the remainder of the story unfolds…

The Beginning of Spring is a quietly compelling novel, one that draws you slowly, yet steadily, into its mysterious world. Fitzgerald gives us a skilfully realised picture of Russia in this era with its tea rooms bustling with activity and its well-to-do houses. We see how business and dealings with the authorities are conducted in Russia during this period, a time when one had to have ‘an instinct for how much in the way of bribes would be appropriate for the uniformed and political police.’ And despite being born and raised in Russia, Frank is constantly reminded that he’s a ‘foreigner’, one whose freedom to come and go from the country is dependent on the disposition of the authorities.

As I’ve already hinted, there is much going on under the surface of the narrative, plenty left unsaid and this leaves space for the reader to ponder the significance of particular phrases and scenes. Towards the end of the book, there’s a beautiful extended passage covering the change and evolution of birch trees as the seasons pass from spring through to winter and back to spring once again. Fitzgerald describes in two or three pages the lifecycle of the birch, as we follow the trees from birth to decay and death. Once again, I’m sure this piece is symbolic of other events in the novel, but nothing is explicit; we’re left to draw our own meaning from these images. Similarly, could it be that the opening of sealed windows in the Reid household, an event that heralds the start of spring, is symbolic of something else? Could it be a metaphor for the release of repressed emotions, perhaps? A sign of feelings that have been bottled-up for months…

In the closing chapters, Fitzgerald deftly pulls the novel’s threads together, and we discover something of the puzzle surrounding Nellie’s disappearance. It’s a great ending, one that left me keen to read more of her novels at some point.

The Beginning of Spring is published in the UK by 4th Estate. Source: personal copy.

22 thoughts on “The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (review)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That’s good to hear – I liked this one very much, and it left me keen to read others by Fitzgerald. Which ones have you read, Ali? I’ve been looking at The Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower, both of which are late-period novels, but a couple of her earlier ones look interesting too.

      Reply
      1. heavenali

        I read The Gates of Angels which I liked but it was odd. I also enjoyed The bookshop and The Blue Flower. My favourites of the ones I have read were The Golden Child and Offshore.

        Reply
  1. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    I’ve read all but this one and Innocence, and why I have not read those is a mystery. Fitzgerald is a consistently terrific writer and almost a phenomenon – given when she started writing novels, they are all late-period, but I know what you mean; the move from novels drawn from her own experiences to the later historical novels is one of her many surprises.

    The only one I am skeptical about is The Golden Child, an amusing English mystery written to entertain her dying husband. Awfully minor, but it has some good laughs and the museum setting is interesting.

    Those are well-chosen quotations. Fitzgerald is not a showy writer.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Tom. Yes, I liked the quiet confidence of her prose; it’s as if she didn’t feel the need to show off or add unnecessary flourishes.
      It sounds as if I should check out some of her earlier novels to look at the transition between those and the later historical ones. ‘The Bookshop’ looks interesting so maybe I’ll give that one a whirl. Thanks for adding your thoughts on her Fitzgerald’s books – it’s good to hear you rate her so highly.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Terrific review.

    This sounds so good. Well drawn out characters with a lot going on underneath is my kind of book. The characters, especially Nellie sound so well crafted.

    It is also set in a very interesting time and place,

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian. Yes, I love books that leave sufficient space to allow the reader to draw their own thoughts and reflections, and there certainly seems to be a lot going on beneath the surface in this one.

      The combination of the period and Russian setting attracted me to ‘The Beginning of Spring’, I must admit. I’ve never visited Russia, but I’m fascinated with it for some reason and the period detail feels very authentic (even though I have no way of knowing whether that is true).

      Reply
  3. Fleur in her World

    I didn’t like the Bookshop and I’ve not gone back to Penelope Fitzgerald, but I do like the sound of this – especially he time and place – so I might have a look at the library catalogue to see if there’s a copy in Cornwall. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I was attracted to the time and Russian setting in ‘The Beginning of Spring’, and it certainly feels as though Fitzgerald had an eye for period detail.

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    Like you, I’ve long heard of Penelope Fitzgerald but never got round to reading her. This novel sounds particularly interesting (like others, I am intrigued by the setting), and some of the comments above make me feel I should definitely read something by her!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I wish I’d discovered her before now…so many authors, so little time! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you read one of her books.

      Reply
  5. Alice

    TBOS is the one Fitzgerald book I’ve read and not enjoyed, which makes me sad as she is such an enjoyable writer. I may try it again in a few years time. I’ve read The Bookshop and Offshore, both of which I adored, and I’m about to give The Gate of Angels a go.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s a pity, especially as you’ve enjoyed some of Fitzgerald other books. I’m glad to hear that you adored ‘The Bookshop’ and ‘Offshore’, and I’d be interested to know how you find ‘The Gate of Angels’.

      Reply
  6. Max Cairnduff

    I have two unread Fitzgerald’s (Offshore, and The Bookshop which I’ve heard mixed things about so I’m glad to see Alice liked it). That means I won’t be getting a third anytime soon, which is a shame as this sounds great and would probably have made a good first Fitzgerald. I’ll keep it in mind though.

    1913 Russia of course sets up an expectation that their whole world will come crashing down in just a few years. World War I is just round the corner, and the Russian Revolution not too long after that. Did the date seem important to you?

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting as I’ve recently bought The Bookshop and The Gate of Angels, and I’ll probably try The Bookshop as my next Fitzgerald (later this year, I hope). I think you’d like The Beginning of Spring, but as you say, you already have two unread Fitzgeralds, so it makes sense to start with one of those two.

      Re Russia in 1913: yes, I think the date does have some relevance, but Fitzgerald comes across as a subtle writer and so it’s never too explicit. There is a sense that the country is going through a period of change – we hear of developments in the printing process, for example. But possibly more significantly, Frank’s interactions with the Russian authorities illustrate that he is seen as ‘foreigner’ in Russia, despite being born there. And there’s a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with the authorities as Frank tries to get his papers in order in case he needs to leave Russia (for England) at short notice.

      Reply
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