Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece about Natalia Ginzburg’s Happiness, As Such, a novella about love, happiness and the messy business of family relationships in 20th-century Italy. Innocence – the sixth novel by the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald – taps into similar themes, set as it is in Florence in the mid-1950s. It’s a captivating book – exquisitely written, as one might expect from this most graceful of writers.

Central to the novel is Chiara, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Giancarlo, the head of the once-wealthy Ridolfi family. However, before we dive too far into Chiara’s story, Fitzgerald takes us back in time to the middle of the sixteenth century when all the Ridolfis were midgets as a consequence of a particular genetic condition. At the time, the family go to great lengths to protect their youngest daughter from the knowledge that she might be ‘different’ from other girls by surrounding her with other, similarly-sized individuals. They hire a companion for the girl – a dwarf named Gemma. But when Gemma experiences a sudden spurt of growth, the Ridolfi daughter pities her, viewing her size as a freakish abnormality. As a consequence, she devises a well-intentioned plan to ‘correct’ her companion’s size, one that results in grisly consequences for young Gemma herself…

The moral of this fable is concerned with the inadvertent consequences of our actions – the fact that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we actually end up hurting someone when we had intended to do good.

Moving forward to 1955, the Ridolfis are no longer midgets, the genetic condition having dissipated over the years; however, they do retain a degree of eccentricity, a quality that sometimes manifests itself as naivete, hence the nod to the opening parable.

18yo Chiara has fallen for Salvatore, a Neurologist who hails from a poor family in the south. At thirtyish, Salvatore is considerably older than Chiara, and also quite different in terms of social class and personality. While Salvatore is somewhat prickly and intemperate, Chiara is changeable and alert, demonstrating an intriguing mix of eagerness and diffidence. It’s a somewhat misguided match, something that Salvatore reflects on when he recalls their initial encounter at a concert.

Salvatore, who was not a temperate person, intensely regretted having gone to this particular concert. What irritated him as much as anything else was that his mother had repeatedly predicted that if he went north to practise in Milan or Florence he would be got hold of by some wealthy, fair-haired girl who would fasten on him and marry him before he knew what he was doing. Now, in point of fact this girl was badly dressed and not fair-haired, or anyway only in certain lights, for example in the artificial light of the auditorium and the rainy twilight outside would anyone have called her a blonde. His mind chased itself in a manner utterly forbidden to it, round thoughts as arid as a cinder track. (p. 45)

As the novel unfolds, we follow the couple’s courtship leading up to their marriage – an event that takes place at the vineyard belonging to Chiara’s cousin, Cesare. The relationship between the young lovers seems driven by a series of misalignments – vigorous quarrels ensue, many of which are predicated on false impressions and misjudgements. And yet, despite knowing very little about one another before tying the knot, Chiara and Salvatore clearly love one another – even if they harbour rather different understandings of what constitutes love and happiness.

When Salvatore’s temper rose Chiara became not frightened but reckless, as when driving through the city’s traffic. They knew each other, to be honest, so little, and had so few memories in common (the concert, the limonaia, the wedding) that they had to use them both for attack and defence. They loved each other to the point of pain and could hardly bear to separate each morning. (p. 253)

Alongside Chiara and Salvatore, there are some marvellous secondary characters – most notably, Barney, Chiara’s forthright schoolfriend who hails from England. When called upon by her friend, Barney travels to Florence, subsequently aiding and abetting Chiara in her relationship with Salvatore.

Innocence is not a plot-driven novel, and yet it is wonderfully absorbing, immersing the reader in what feels like a pitch-perfect evocation of 1950s Florence. Naturally Fitzgerald’s prose is exquisite, conveying a strong sense of the Italian culture in the first half of the 20th century, including the differences between the north and the south. In particular, the novel is alive with the sights and sounds of the city, qualities that make it such a pleasure to read.

The wash of tourists and visitors was beginning to recede, leaving behind it the rich fertilizing silt of currency. The shops and small businesses which had faintheartedly shut in the August heat now reopened, those which had stayed open closed and the owners left for the country. Dense piles of hazel-nuts, with their leaves, appeared in the Central Market, and large mushrooms covering the counter with their wrinkled yellow dewlaps, just as earlier that morning they had covered the tree-trunks. Festoons of satchels and fountain pens hung in UPIMs windows. At the last possible moment, the names of the books to be studied in the coming academic year were given out, and the parents went humbly to queue in the scholastic bookshops. These could be considered as beginnings of a kind… (p. 93)

Regular readers of Fitzgerald will recognise many of her signature features. Two vivid, deeply-flawed characters that feel credible and believable; an innate understanding of the foibles of human nature; the beautiful descriptive passages, rich in finely-judged detail; and an air of strangeness or eccentricity that adds a touch of mystery. There’s a wonderful playfulness here too, a seam of dry wit running through the novel, adding humour to the blend of beauty and intelligence. Like the masterful The Beginning of Spring (which I read a few years ago), Innocence feels at once both straightforward and elusive, blending the directness of a love story with the slipperiness of a mystery or allegory. Another captivating novel from this highly accomplished writer.

Innocence is published by Fourth Estate, personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

29 thoughts on “Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. jenniferbeworr

    Greetings, I’m not really a blogger, but keep a Word Press account to keep track of book reviews. I’d like to tweet this Fitzgerald blog and hope you won’t mind my mentioning a small typo before I do. It’s in – “subsequently adding and abetting Chiara”. BTW, “Marina Sofia” is dear real life friend! It has been neat to come across your work through hers. In thanks! Jenny

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you for spotting that, Jenny! I’ve just changed it, so please feel free to tweet away. How lovely to hear you know Marina Sofia so well. She’s one of my favourite bookish friends on here, so I’m glad we’ve been able to connect with her help! Best, Jacqui.

      Reply
  2. Julé Cunningham

    It’s such a wonderfully evoked setting of Florence here and as much as I love ‘The Beginning of Spring’, her Florence feels so much more real than her Russia. Always love your posts on the marvelous Penelope Fitzgerald.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I do find it quite hard to write about Fitzgerald’s books – partly because there is often something elusive about them, a certain magical quality or feeling that seems hard to put into words. Nevertheless, her evocation of time and place never ceases to amaze me, irrespective of the setting! Glad to hear you enjoyed this one too.

      Reply
      1. Julé Cunningham

        I think PF is one of the most difficult of writers to describe, there’s the deceptively simple surface story, but getting to the heart of what she does is like trying to grasp on to a fleeting thought.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! For some reason, this seems to be less well known than some of her others novels, although I’m not quite sure why. It’s certainly very evocative – all the more so for the fact that we can’t travel anywhere in person right now. So, we may as well ‘visit’ Florence vicariously instead!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Those quotes are lovely Jacqui, and convince me I should try her again. I wasn’t entirely taken with her rendering of Russia, but that may just be me! I’d not hear of this one either, and it does sound very evocative!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do think it’s worth you giving her another try. For you, I would suggest either The Bookshop (which is probably my personal favourite) or The Golden Child (which has something of the comedy caper about it). Fitzgerald is so insightful on the petty hierarchies and jealousies that exist in insular groups and organisations, qualities that really come through in her early community-based novels.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it definitely has a lower profile than some of PF’s other novels, and maybe less memorable characters and narrative/plot too. Nevertheless, it’s wonderfully evocative, so I can understand why that aspect would be the one to remain…

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    The wonderful Penelope Mortimer, such an elegant writer. Like others commenting here this particular title has passed me by. Would love to read something set in Florence; was last there thirty years ago.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s quite a long time since I was last there too…maybe twenty years ago? Such a wonderful city for art, architecture and culture. I recall spending hours in the Uffizi alone…

      Reply
  5. Jane

    I haven’t read any Penelope Fitzgerald but mean to put that right and this does sound good especially now that we need some armchair travel. On a different note, do you prefer Bookshop.org to Hive?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re in for a treat with Fitzgerald; she really is the most wonderful writer!

      On the online ordering front…yes, I do favour Bookshop.org over Hive as Bookshop give a far higher percentage of their book sales to independent bookshops than Hive. (For example, independent bookshops that sell books via Bookshop.org receive 30% commission on sales through the platform compared to around 8% for sales via Hive.) As a blogger, I’m not doing it for the money as any sales through my site will be minimal; I’m more interested in it as a way of curating book lists that some of my readers might enjoy!

      https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/JacquiWine

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    One thing that attracts me to Penelope Fitzgerald is the apparent variety in her fiction (this from only reading reviews). However, it looks like it’s going to be Sylvia Townsend Warner first at the moment!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, good point! This is classified as one of her ‘historical’ novels; but even so, it feels quite different from some of her other historical fiction e.g. The Blue Flower which is set in the late 18th Century. And then there are the early, community-based novels, largely inspired by some of Fitzgerald’s own experiences (The Bookshop, Offshore, Human Voices, At Freddie’s etc.). They’ve all got something different to offer despite being united by PF’s perceptive style.

      As for SWT, I shall be very interested to see how you get on with her! I loved Lolly Willowes and the short stories (well, certainly the ones I’ve read so far), but Summer Will Show was a bit of a miss for me. It seems that SWT’s novels all feel quite different from one another, so hopefully you’ll be able to find something that suits!

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    Trust Lively to pull you back a few centuries to make her point. *laughs* She’s one of my MRE authors (mustreadeverything) but I’ve not read this one yet.

    Reply
    1. buriedinprint

      Fitzgerald, I mean. Not Lively. (Though she, too, is on my MRE list! I’ve thought about adding Penelope Mortimer just to make a point. LOL)

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        All the Penelopes! I recall someone saying on Twitter recently that they have a theory about any writer named Penelope being a sure thing as they’ve yet to encounter one who isn’t very good.

        Returning to Innocence for a moment, this Fitzgerald is well worth your time, especially if you’re a fan. I wouldn’t suggest it to readers looking for an entry point with this writer but for a seasoned PF reader such as yourself it ought to hit the spot!

        Reply
  8. Brian Joseph

    Great review.
    I like the fact that you mention that the characters are flawed. Interactions between such characters are often the most interesting.

    I have come to appreciate character studies that are not plot driven more and more as I get a little bit older.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Flawed characters tend to feel more authentic or three-dimensional to me, mainly because it’s those flaws and imperfections in our personalities that make us seem human. I think you’d like Fitzgerald a lot, Brian. She is such a good observer of human nature – right up there with the very best of them I’d say.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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