Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

First published in 1980, Human Voices was Penelope Fitzgerald’s fourth novel, a story set largely within the confines of the BBC during the London Blitz. Like both its predecessors (The Bookshop and Offshore), Human Voices was inspired by experiences from Fitzgerald’s own life as she worked for the Corporation while WWII was underway.

fitz

Over the course of this novel, Fitzgerald paints a vivid picture of life at the BBC, complete with all its foibles and idiosyncrasies. She is particularly adept at capturing the atmosphere within the walls of Broadcasting House, highlighting the dynamics between various employees and departments along the way. In its infinite wisdom, The BBC has decided that ‘truth is more important than consolation’, especially in the long run; and so its role, as far as possible, must be to inform the nation about important developments in the world, irrespective of the views of other authorities. By the spring of 1940, the organisation is beginning to feel the effects of the war, the mood turning to one of urgency and mild anxiety. There is a fair amount of making do and getting on with the job as best one can.

Since March the lifts below the third floor had been halted as an economy measure, so that the first three staircases became yet another meeting place. Few nowadays were ever to be found in their offices. An instinct, or perhaps a rapidly acquired characteristic, told the employees how to find each other. On the other hand, in this constant circulation much was lost. The corridors were full of talks producers without speakers, speakers without scripts, scripts which by a clerical error contained the wrong words or no words at all. The air seemed alive with urgency and worry. (pp. 6-7)

Human Voices contains very little in the way of conventional plot. Instead, Fitzgerald focuses on her characters, capturing their hopes and anxieties as they go about their day-to-day activities in the production of radio programmes for the BBC. The two central characters are Sam Brooks, the Director of Recorded Programmes, and Jeff Haggard, the Director of Programme Planning. Both are referred to by their job title initials, RPD and DPP respectively.

RPD (Sam) is a rather needy, self-indulgent chap, keen to surround himself with attentive young girls as far as humanly possible – a trait that has given rise to an alternative name for his department as ‘the Seraglio’. In spite of his vast technical knowledge of sound recordings and apparent competence in his role, RPD frequently feels the need to confide his personal troubles in one of the female RPAs (Recorded Programmes Assistants) from his division – someone like Vi (the most experienced of the group) or the new girl, Lise. RPD’s wife has effectively left him, possibly because he never seems to spend much time at home, hence his requirement for a little moral support at work. By contrast, PPD (Jeff) is more level-headed and relatively self-sufficient in his role, so much so that he is often called on to help RPD whenever some minor crisis comes to light. Here’s a brief extract from a telephone conversation between the two Directors.

RPD was put through.

‘Jeff, I want you to hear my case.’

DPP had been hearing it for more than ten years. But, to do his friend justice, it was never the same twice running. The world seemed new created every day for Sam Brooks, who felt no resentment and, indeed, very little recollection of what he had suffered the day before.

‘Jeff, Establishment have hinted that I’m putting in for too many girls.’

‘How can that be?’

‘They know I like to have them around, they know I need that. I’ve drafted a reply, saying nothing, mind you, about the five thousand discs a week, or the fact that we provide a service to every other department of the Corporation. See what you think of the way I’ve put it – (p. 15)

What follows is an extended dialogue which highlights the internal politics at play within the organisation as RPD is frequently sidelined or excluded from discussions concerning his own department due to his tendency to take things too personally.

Much of the novel’s action (if one can call it that) revolves around the activities involved in producing the radio programmes: recording sounds, finding and sequencing recordings, managing the schedules, and overseeing the broadcasts themselves – sometimes pulling the plug if things get too hairy.

There is much dry humour running through this book, with some choice exchanges between employees at different levels within the organisation. RPD’s first meeting with the new girl, Lise, gives rise to a very humorous conversation between the Director and the staff canteen about the nature of the cheese in their sandwiches. There are also some priceless scenes involving Dr Vogel, a rather eccentric expert who seems hell bent on capturing the most obscure sounds through field recordings – several hours’ worth of material featuring church doors squeaking and creaking are presented as just one example of his work. Conversations between RPD’s secretary, Mrs Milne, and her chief crony, a fellow secretary from Establishment, also result in some wonderfully comic moments, especially when the former decides on a new strategy for finding a replacement RPA for Lise when the girl leaves rather suddenly. The plan is to focus on sensible middle-aged women as they are ‘less prone to tears and hysteria’ than their younger counterparts. (Mrs Milne and her colleague are both ‘Old Servants’, long-standing members of the Corporation – part of the BBC old school, so to speak.)

Alongside the dry humour, there are melancholy moments too. I love this passage about one of the male RPAs, Teddy, at the end of a conversation he has been having with fellow RPA, Vi – she is expecting her fella to arrive home on leave fairly soon.

‘I hope he keeps strong for you,’ said Teddy gloomily, a spectator of experience, always on the wrong side of the windowpane. Sometimes he went down to the BH typing pool to see if any of the girls would like to come out, say to the pictures, or for a cup of tea at Lyons. Their heads, dark and fair, rose expectantly as he came in, then, although he was quite nice-looking, sank down again over their work. Nor was Teddy very popular with the Old Servant who supervised the pool. (p. 81)

The novel also touches on the personal lives of several of the main characters: RPD and his myriad of troubles; Lise and her search for boyfriend Frédé, a soldier in the French army; Vi and her efforts to support Lise in various ways; and, perhaps most notably of all, Annie (the second new girl) and her developing feelings for RPD. We even gain an insight into DPP’s inner life. There is a sense that some of these people – certainly RPD, Vi, Annie and Teddy – find a form of solace in their activities at the BBC as a means of distraction from the various stresses and strains of war. Fitzgerald is particularly good at capturing the mood in London during the Blitz: people seeking shelter in the underground at night; snapshots of streets following the bombing raids. It’s all here.

After the first week in September London became every morning a somewhat stranger place. The early morning sound was always of glass being scraped off the pavement. The brush hissed and scraped, the glass chattered, tinkled, and fell. Lyons handed out cold baked potatoes through one hole in their windows and took in the money through another. (p. 143)

Human Voices is another excellent novel from Penelope Fitzgerald, strong on characterisation, attention to detail and the conveyance of mood. It is perhaps closer in style to Offshore than to The Bookshop, but there are some similarities with both. By focusing on the personal experiences and feelings of her characters, Fitzgerald finds a means of putting the broader developments of the war into a more human context. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that gets to the heart of the matter at the BBC.

The subject of the meeting was the familiar one of how to carry on. Engineering had skilfully ensured that the BBC, switching from one transmitter to another, need never go off the air. Maintenance was probably at work already on the broken pipes. Catering brewed away remorselessly in the basement, but the problem remained: what should the voices say? (p. 188)

Human Voices is published by Flamingo/HarperCollins; personal copy.

61 thoughts on “Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. Eric

    I read a number of Fitzgerald’s novels years ago but I must admit I don’t remember them that well except for The Blue Flower which is probably my favourite – although Offshore is wonderful too. Human Voices is one of the few I haven’t read so you make me want to go back to her. It sounds like such an interesting style – almost like a documentary and I can see from the excellent quotes you gave the impact of what these characters say. I often find with books heavy on dialogue that it takes time to really get to know the characters and see their distinctions more, but how nice it can be when you get to a point where you can guess who is speaking before reading their name. One I’ll definitely have to read!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really interesting comment about the dialogue. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I can totally see what you mean now. The individual voices are very distinctive and they definitely give a feel for the differences between the main characters – the two directors in particular.

      I shall have to try again with The Blue Flower as I struggled to get into it a couple of years ago. Maybe my timing was off as I ended up putting to one side for another time. One to revisit at some point!

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    This sounds like one of the few books which has at heart the working world and its foibles and follies. It seems to have some similarities to Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses, which also makes fun of a revered public organisation and the eccentric characters within it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think she uses the setting brilliantly here. There’s an authenticity to the world she creates which is hard to capture in a review. The Hazzard is new to me so I shall have to look it up – thanks for the tip.

      Reply
  3. Elena

    Sounds like a very interesting novel, and the only one that I know of set in the BBC. Thanks for the review, Jacqui. I love that you write about backlisters – I will be doing a lot of second-hand book shopping in the UK thanks to you! x

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you – that’s nice to hear. To be honest, I’m finding older works so much more satisfying and rewarding than contemporary fiction these days. I guess the backlisters have survived for a reason, usually as a result of the quality of the writing.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Over the years I have heard about this book.

    There is a lot here that sounds interesting. The BBC’s philosophy concerning truth is particularly interesting. It is a subject worth exploring.

    I am also beginning to appreciate more and more novels that are light in plot but strong in characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s an interesting topic for fiction, isn’t it? I’ve been trying to think of other novels that explore similar territory, but nothing springs to mind right now. That said, I’m going to take a look at the book Marina suggested earlier which is set in the UN.

      Reply
  5. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui. I’ve read both Offshore and The Bookshop by Fitzgerald, and I found Offshore the more affecting of these or perhaps the most memorable because I read it first and wasn’t really expecting anything. I recall Fitzgerald’s skill in crafting highly believable and unique characters, and the slightly dry sense of humour which pervades her work. It sounds like this is similarly formed, and perhaps as strong as the others.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that wonderfully dry sense of humour is in evidence here as well, something to balance the more poignant moments in the story. She is so good when it comes to depicting these small communities. It’s a common thread that runs through many of her early novels – The Bookshop, Offshore and Human Voices, for sure.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    I have read a few Penelope Fitzgerald novels but hadn’t even heard of this one. It sounds excellent. I particularly like the sound of the London blitz setting. I don’t think I have ever read a book that depicts the BBC at this period (or possibly any other).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This is a book I would definitely recommend to you, Ali. I think you would really enjoy it, particularly given your fondness for Offshore – well, I’m speaking from memory here, but I’m pretty sure we’ve discussed it in the past! The blitz setting was a selling point for me too – it’s one of the things that attracted me to the book.

      Reply
  7. realthog

    I really MUST get round to reading some Penelope Fitzgerald one day! You make her work sound so enticing every time you write about it — your enthusiasm really rubs off.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, that’s really nice to hear. One of the things I like most about her early novels is the way she depicts these fragile communities. There’s an intimacy to her portraits of these disparate characters, a quality that’s hard to capture in a review. I think you’ll have to try her for yourself to discover what I mean!

      Reply
  8. Caroline

    I don’t think it would be ideal for someone who hasn’t read her yet although a novel about the BBC during the Blitz sounds interesting. Somehow your review made me think if Larkin’s novel. Possibly the tone is similar.mi also have an Everyman edition of three of her novels but this isn’t among them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re absolutely right. I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one as it’s very subtle, more so than The Bookshop which is more immediate/direct. A Girl in Winter is set in a similar period, so there’s definitely a connection in that respect. Human Voices is a little funnier though – it has that streak of dry humour that runs through much of Fitzgerald’s early work.

      Reply
  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui and the book sounds fascinating – Fitzgerald does choose to have her books in interesting settings, doesn’t she? I’ve only read one of hers so far, and it was slightly disappointing, but I shall definitely explore more if I come across them!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I love the way she draws on different aspects on her own personal experience in these early novels – it gives them a sense of authenticity that really comes through. This is different book from The Beginning of Spring, so there’s a chance you might fare better here!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You should give Fitzgerald a try if you haven’t done so already. For the early novels, she draws heavily on different elements of her own personal experience from running a bookshop to living on a houseboat to working at the BBC.

      Reply
  10. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    Wait, isn’t subtle good? Aren’t we all looking for subtle? This was the first Fitzgerald I read, actually. A great book, although it turned out to be only one of her, I don’t know, eight best novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that subtlety is a bad thing. It’s one of the things I love most in literature. I just think there are other, more accessible novels in Fitzgerald’s repertoire that might make better starting points for someone coming to her for the first time – The Bookshop, for example. Anyway, that’s just my view! :)

      Reply
  11. banff1972

    Great review, Jacqui. I agree this isn’t the best Fitzgerald to start with. But it’s a terrific book nonetheless. That recommendation of the Hazzard book about the UN really intrigued me. Human Voices is an odd book in that it’s kind of about an institution at a moment of crisis, and in that sense its canvas is large, but it’s also interested in offering an intimate look into its characters’ lives. I’m reminded of Henry Green’s Loving, where it’s the situation concerning a fairly large cast of characters that matters much more than any plot.

    Much as I like early Fitzgerald, the most fascinating thing to me about those books is how different they are from her truly extraordinary later works, the non-autobiographical ones. The Beginning of Spring simply can’t be beat, IMO.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the sense of intimacy is very apparent, isn’t it? I love the way she creates the feeling of closeness among these somewhat eclectic communities – it’s there in Offshore too, I think, That’s an interesting comparison with Henry Green – an author I have yet to read, but he’s on my list thanks to you.

      I loved The Beginning of Spring! It’s a novel I hope to revisit one day, maybe once I’ve worked my way through the rest of her early novels just to remind myself how it compares. Have you read The Blue Flower? I struggled to connect with it when I tried the opening chapters a few years ago. Maybe the time wasn’t right for me, sometimes it’s hard to tell with these things. Anyway, I put it aside in the end with the intention of going back at some point, but I’ve not been tempted since. One day, maybe…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m sure it would! I had completely forgotten about The Hour – was it just the one series or two in the end? I shall have to investigate…

      Reply
  12. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I like the setting as well, especially since it reminded me of Radio Girls, which I thought was a fun novel. You said to Caroline that you wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one as an introduction to Fitzgerald. Which one would you recommend?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, Radio Girls – that rings a bell. I shall have to look it up for a reminder of the premise. Thank you.

      As an introduction to Fitzgerald, I would strongly recommend The Bookshop. It was actually my second, but in hindsight I think it would make a great introduction to her style. It’s more ‘immediate’ (or direct) than some of her others, so it should be a safe bet. Plus there’s the bookshop angle, always a bonus. :)

      Reply
  13. buriedinprint

    She is one of my MustReadEVerything authors, but I’ve done a relatively poor job on the ‘everything’ part. It was The Bookshop which ignited my interest, but I’ve also dipped into her colleciton of letters (more recently) and am very keen to read those as well (once I’ve settled properly into her fiction of course ). There is something quintessentially satisfying about this era’s women’s writers isn’t there. *nods in agreement with your comment above*

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d definitely like to read all of her early novels, and probably The Gate of Angels too, but I’m a bit more ambivalent about the biographies (e.g. The Knox Brothers one). I have to be super-interested in the subject matter or person concerned when it comes to non-fiction as it’s not my usual thing. That said, her letters do sound wonderful, so I might be tempted to give them a go at some point. We’ll see. In the meantime, I still have a few of her novels to look forward to!

      Yes, there is something very appealing about this broad era of women – writers like Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym. I think it’s a combination of skillful observation and a degree of precision/economy in the writing. I just can’t seem to get enough of them these days.

      Reply
  14. 1streading

    Of her four autobiographical novels this sounds like the one which would interest me most. It reminded me a little of Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, though that is set at the end of the war. Fitzgerald’s historical novels also sound interesting, particularly The Beginning of Spring.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m delighted to hear that this reminded you of the Muriel Spark as I have a copy of that novel in my reading pile – in fact it’s one of my Classics Club choices so I’m hoping to be able to get to it later this year. In the meantime, I can heartily recommend The Beginning of Spring. It’s an unusual book, very nuanced and subtle – I would be fascinated to hear what you think of it!

      Reply
  15. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Max Cairnduff

    Sounds good, and the period and setting are definitely appealing. I already have The Bookshop unread though and rather fancy the Russian one (Beginning of Spring?) so I doubt I’ll read this anytime soon.

    The Hour lost me by having a murder plot. It seemed so unnecessary. Must all drama feature a murder? Is an attempt to shake up news programming in the 1950s and the struggles of a woman trying to be taken seriously in a very-male dominated business not dramatic enough? If you can’t make that interesting a murder won’t help.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s good as I would probably place The Bookshop and The Beginning of Spring (yes, that’s the Russian one) ahead of this in my personal pecking order. Mind you, it’s a little like splitting hairs as they’re all good – Offshore, too, which I know you’ve read. (As a slight aside, I think I underestimated Offshore at the time of reading/reviewing as it’s grown on me quite considerably since then. I can still recall certain scenes in my mind which isn’t always the case with some of the other novels I read that year.)

      Yes, point taken about The Hour. It’s not in the same league as something like Mad Men which tackles grittier issues in a largely male-dominated sphere of business. Nevertheless, it was fun while it lasted in a lighthearted way (or maybe that’s just how I remember it now)!

      Reply
  17. BookerTalk

    Offshore didn’t do much for me – I couldnt connect with the characters – but so many people have commented on how good a writer she is that I felt for some time I should give her another go. This one sounds more to my taste

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked Offshore at the time of reading and then it grew me even more over time. Something about the rather tragic nature of some of the characters got under my skin. It’s definitely worth giving Fitzgerald another try at some point. All things considered, I would be tempted to steer you towards The Bookshop. At times it reminded me a little of Barbara Pym – I think I’m right in saying that you’ve enjoyed some of her novels in the past?

      Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s