At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies, reasonably similar in style to her earlier works, Human Voices and OffshoreMany of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopeless, befuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. It’s an excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature both positive and negative.

Situated in the midst of Covent Garden, the Temple Stage School is managed by the eponymous Freddie, an elderly matriarch and longstanding doyenne of the theatrical world. Aiding Freddie in this capacity is Miss Blewett – affectionately known as the Bluebell – her devoted assistant of several years. The school specialises in training children for classic roles, parts in Shakespeare’s plays, Peter Pan and other such staples. Naturally, Freddie’s pupils are terribly precious in a rather dramatic way, prone to overexcitement and competitiveness, qualities typified by the following passage.

The children did a half day’s education only. If they went to their music, dancing and dramatic classes in the morning, they spent the afternoon in a kind of torpor; if they weren’t to go till the afternoon, they were almost uncontrollable all morning. Feverishly competitive, like birds in a stubblefield, twitching looks over their shoulder to make sure they were still ahead, they all of them lied as fast as they could speak. Whether they had any kind of a part in a show or not, they wrote ‘Working’ against their names in the register and claimed that they were only in school because there wasn’t a rehearsal that day. The first professional secret they learned was an insane optimism. Still, all children tell lies. But not all of them, if reproached, well up at once with unshed crystal tears, or strike their foreheads in self-reproach, like the prince in Swan Lake. (pp. 29-30)

While Fitzgerald is primarily concerned with recreating a rather peculiar world, the novel does have a narrative thread of sorts, namely the perilous state of the school’s finances. (Pupils must carefully navigate the sagging floors and areas of disrepair to avoid any unpleasant accidents.) For years, Freddie has used her considerable and power and influence in the theatre community to keep the establishment going, procuring resources here and there to maintain the business. Moreover, when necessary, she has been successful in combating various adversaries, as evidenced by her success in staving off the creditors.

Debt collectors had long since given up waiting at the front and back doors of the Temple School. They knew there was no prospect of getting anything, and it was said that one of them, in the manner of the old comedies, had been persuaded to part with his waistcoat and jacket and donate it to the stock of costumes. ‘He gave them to Freddie’s Frocks, dear,’ said the Bluebell with loyal vagueness. (p. 59)

However, now we are in the ‘60s, the surrounding world is beginning to change. The importance of television is growing, but Freddie remains wedded to the medium of theatre, a place where longevity and tradition are admired and treasured.

Into the mix comes Mr Blatt, a potential investor in the school, if only he could make Freddie see sense. Blatt is dismayed at the lack of business management at the Temple, so he sets about making a number of sensible suggestions for improvement, all of which are promptly ignored. As far as Blatt sees things, the potential for TV and radio commercials is vast, but Freddie remains steadfast, at least until the novel’s closing stages. Fitzgerald is clearly making a point about the dynamics between artistic merit and commercialisation – that said, it never feels forced or laboured, just wonderfully ironic instead.

Also threaded through the novel is a subplot involving the school’s only proper teachers, Hannah Graves and Pierce Carroll, both recently hired from Northern Ireland (naturally, as this is Freddie’s, they are being paid a pittance). Hannah is attracted to the romance and atmosphere of the theatre, a point successfully identified by Freddie during their discussions about the role, hence her ability to strike a bargain on the girl’s salary.

Hannah Graves was a nice-looking girl of twenty, with too much sense, one would have thought, to consider a job at eleven pounds fifteen shillings a week. But Freddie had instantly divined in her that attraction to the theatre, and indeed to everything theatrical, which can persist in the most hard-headed, opening the way to poetry and disaster. (p. 19)

Pierce, on the other hand, has no interest whatsoever in dramatic pursuits. Instead, he is simply grateful to have found a half-decent job, knowing his own value (or lack of it) in the wider world. As the weeks go by, Hannah and Pierce fall into a loose relationship with each another, one that seems doomed from the start. There is an excruciating proposal of marriage, followed by an even more desperate discussion in a Lyons tea shop, complete with waitresses itching to clear up and go home. Pierce is one of Fitzgerald’s classic hopeless men, aware of his own tragedy but clueless as to how to negate it.

Interspersed with these storylines are various vignettes of life at the stage school and the theatre in general. We follow the progress of twelve-year-old Mattie (a bit of a prankster) and his gifted friend, Jonathan, both of whom have landed the role of Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John. (Mattie is to play the part for the first twelve weeks followed by Jonathan for the remainder of the run.) There are also some highly amusing pen portraits of the various luvvies in the theatrical world, typically men with overinflated views of their own importance. Take William Beardless, for instance, the actor who has been hired to play King John – a performer whose reputation proceeds him.

He [Beardless] was disliked throughout the profession for his habit of handing out little notes to the cast after every performance, pointing out, in a friendly spirit, exactly where they had gone wrong. His notebook and pencil were out already. (p. 91)

A visit from Noël Coward is another highlight, an occasion that prompts Mr Blatt to give nine-year old Jonathan a drink of whisky for courage, something that results in the young lad being sick in the boys’ toilets.

Overall, At Freddie’s offers a marvellous insight into a rarefied world, that of a stage school struggling to survive in a time of change. The theatrical world in general is revealed as one characterised by resentments, jealousies, overinflated notions and egos, and yet there is also compassion and understanding too. As ever, Fitzgerald is wonderfully perceptive on the opportunities and disappointments of life, both big and small. The Covent Garden setting, with its traditional fruit and vegetable market, is also beautifully evoked.

Once again, Penelope Fitzgerald confirms her status as one of my favourite writers. If they’re of interest, you can find my posts on some of her other novels here.

At Freddie’s is published by Fourth Estate; personal copy.

41 thoughts on “At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. madamebibilophile

    No-one ever buys me books, but the one friend who did bought me this and I loved it. You’ve completely taken me back to it Jacqui, it’s such a warm but unblinking portrait of this particular community at a moment of change. Wonderful review :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad my post has revived a few happy memories for you. It’s such a tricky thing, isn’t it, buying books for bookaholics? Most of my friends tend to steer clear of books unless they know I’d like something in particular (the Anthony Powell series, for example). Your friend clearly knows your tastes very well!

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    Ooooh this is a Fitzgerald I have not read and it sounds just up my street – having loved Ballet Shoes and Curtain Call as a child, this seems to be the grown-up version of that!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s a nod to that world for sure, but the Fitzgerald is a darker beast altogether. Wickedly funny at times and rather poignant too. I think she strikes that balance very well.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review. Novels about art forms, such as theatre, are particularly interesting to me.

    I Understand that Fitzgerald taught at a couple of drama schools herself. Such experiences would give a book like this some authenticity for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she taught at the Italia Conti Stage School during the 1960s, so I’m sure that experience came in handy as inspiration for Freddie’s. As you say, that kind of background gives a sense of authenticity to several details in the book.

      Reply
  4. realthog

    What an enticing review — many thanks. The next time I feel the need for a shot of Penny Fitz G I’ll try to remember to plump for this one, because it definitely sounds to be up my street.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve been trying to space them out, I must admit. They’re all so good! Her first, The Golden Child, feels less polished than the others, but even that has its priceless moments. A wonderful writer indeed.

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a review of this before. It sounds marvelous. I’m pretty sure once I’ve picked up my first Penelope Fitzgerald I won’t want to stop and think it’s very possible, I’ll be reading this one too, sooner or later. I enjoy the setting.
    The hopeless charcaters sound tragic. I think it’s the worst to know one is somehow lacking but cannot change it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t think I’ve seen it reviewed anywhere else either – a pity really, as it’s very good. There was a time a few years back when I could have quite happily binged on the whole lot — historical novels included, and maybe even a biography or two. But then I decided to space them out a little, just to have some more PF to look forward to in the future. I think there’s every chance you will love her too. She does that blend of comedy and tragedy so well, and with a lightness of touch that makes it seem effortless (even though I’m sure it’s not). It’s a common factor in this, Offshore, Human Voices and possibly some of the others too.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    This sounds wonderful. Freddie sounds like such a marvellous character. I haven’t read Human Voices but I loved Offshore so if it is in a similar vein I will love it. I adore that quote about the children. Brilliant review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s brilliant, wonderfully eccentric in the best possible sense. I think you’d have a lot of fun with this book; it’s a good one for a dull and dreary day.

      Reply
  7. Lady Fancifull

    Oh oh oh oh oh. This sounds VERY tempting. I loved Human Voices, I am definitely going to have to explore this one. Thank you Jacqui. The WORLD draws me, and so does Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really liked Human Voices too. If anything, it’s grown in my mind over the last two years – a sign of a very good book, I suspect. In some ways, At Freddie’s is more ‘immediate’ than Voices – more direct, if that makes sense. Either way, I think you’d enjoy it, particularly as you like the sound of the stage school milieu. (She captures the characters’ mannerisms and peccadilloes so brilliantly!)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hooray! That’s one of the things that attracted me to this novel, the stage school/theatrical setting – it’s just perfect for this type of fiction. I can’t recall if you’ve read Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure, but there’s an element of that novel here, especially in the portrayal of the acting world.

      Reply
  8. gertloveday

    I thought I remembered that this has a marvellous ending- just went to have another look at my copy:
    “Meanwhile he went on climbing and jumping, again and again and again into the darkness”.
    Wonderful.

    Reply
  9. Izzy

    Actually, Simon (Stuck in a book) reviewed that novel a few years back. I was already a devoted reader of PF and was looking her up on the Internet for some reason. Simon’s post popped up, and that’s how I discovered the wonderful world of book bloggers which literally changed my life. I’ve just had a look at your previous reviews and you still have Innocence, The Gate of Angels, and The Blue Flower to read, lucky you ! So many pleasures in store for you.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How fortuitous! I can’t quite recall how I stumbled across the book blogging community (possibly via someone I’d been following on Twitter), but I’m with you on the impact. It’s completely revolutionised my reading too, from the way I chose books to the conversations I have about them. Thanks for letting me know about Simon’s review of Freddie’s, something to check out at some point. I can imagine him loving it, especially all the drama stuff!

      Reply
    2. Simon T

      Somehow I didn’t spot your comment before, Izzy, even though I commented just below it – how lovely that that was how you entered the wonderful book blogosphere!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon! It’s the ideal environment, isn’t it? Just perfect for her subtle blend of comedy and tragedy. I loved all the scenes between Hannah and Pierce – classic Fitzgerald with a dash of Elizabeth Taylor for good measure.

      Reply
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