My first Penelope Fitzgerald read…

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is yet another of those lauded middle-brow female novelists from the second half of the twentieth century that I had not yet tackled.

I’ve long been a champion of Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark; I’ve added Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Forster, Edna O’Brien, Penelope Mortimer and not forgetting Barbara Pym to my tried and loved list, but Anita Brookner was not so much to my taste.

Where would Penelope Fitzgerald fall? Given the love for her books around the web, the odds were in her favour.

I wanted a short novel as a palate cleanser between the two horror parodies I’ve recently read, and chose At Freddie’s over The Bookshop and The Blue Flower off my shelf as it was the shortest – possibly a risky thing to do, going for the least well-known of the three…

It’s the 1960s. Freddie’s, in the heart of London’s theatreland, is the familiar name of the Temple Stage School, a theatrical agency masquerading as a school that supplies child actors to the West-End stage in shows from Shakespeare to Peter Pan.

Freddie, the proprietor, is one of those old ladies who knows everyone and won’t take no for an answer – when a theatre manager rings up to complain about a prank one of her charges at played at the theatre – he gets ‘Freddied’:

I’m afraid you’ll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training … you can’t have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor’s joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O’Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I’m not sure how old O’Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you’d better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choir-masters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over … two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I’ll send Miss Blewett round to see then if they’re laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they’re fond of those … I suppose they’d be getting on for thirty now … well, dear, I’ve enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I’ll speak to the senior house manager first … tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.

The Temple School is decrepit, damp, cold, run on a shoe-string with a skeleton staff on Freddie’s reputation alone it seems. Not a lot of teaching goes on. Woven into this short novel are three stories:

Freddie is taking on new staff to teach the children their lessons – the law demands a certain amount of education alongside their stage careers – Miss Hannah Graves and Mr Pierce Carroll are employed cheaply. Hannah has a love for the theatre, although no desire to be an actress – she wants to absorb it. Carroll, meanwhile has no qualifications to teach at all but is a practical sort and Freddie likes the lugubrious man, who will fall for Hannah – but will his love be requited?

We also follow the careers and antics of two of her young charges – Mattie and Jonathan. Mattie is playing Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John opposite a pernickety lead and an experienced older (and drunken) actor. Jonathan, a couple of years younger is Mattie’s friend and follower at Freddie’s – he’ll take over from Mattie in King John when his stint is over. Where Mattie is ebullient, Jonathan is thinking and quiet and only acts when he wants to – a method actor in the making.

The final strand is that of the school itself, its status – a rival school may be setting up, TV (an anathema to Freddie) needs child actors and as always there are financial worries.  Freddie is being courted by an investor, but is resisting, fearing a loss of control.

Things all come to a head around the first performances of King John:

Freddie herself did not go to the first night; she had not been out in the evening since the gala performance of Sleeping Beauty when Covent Garden was reopened after the war. On that occasion, it was remembered, she at looked round at the regal expanse of new Cecil Beaton crimson-striped wallpaper and asked whether there wasn’t a roll or two of it left over. Since then she had attended only matinées and previews.

The short note on the author at the front of my edition, said that Fitzgerald had worked in a theatrical school at one time, and she obviously put that experience into At Freddie’s. She declared that it would be her last autobiographical novel in the Guardian in 2000 Fitzgerald said that she “had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about.” She moved onto historical settings for subsequent novels.

First published in 1982, and set in 1963, At Freddie’s has a surprisingly Dickensian feel to it – the children have more than a hint of Fagin’s gang – with Mattie and Jonathan being the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist respectively. The courtship of Miss Graves by Carroll could almost be that of Pip for Estella – it really doesn’t feel like the 1960s!

Although it has a few poignant moments, it’s very much a broad comedy. I imagined Freddie herself as a rather wizened version of St Trinian’s Miss Fritton but with the chutzpah of Joey Tribbiani’s agent Estelle in Friends, (although Friends came later of course).  She’s an amazing character – totally eccentric and indomitable, Queen of her own little world, but with far-reaching tentacles of influence.  I was going to say apron-strings rather than tentacles, but Freddie doesn’t have a motherly bone in her body.

More than anything else though, this novel feels like a homage to Muriel Spark; the London setting, the backstage machinations, the characters and their dialogue – it’s all there. You could be mistaken for assuming you were reading one of Spark’s pithy black comedies like my favourite, The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Giving us this double glimpse behind the scenes of life behind the scenes in the theatre with a delicious sting in the tail, Fitzgerald, like Spark takes no prisoners. I’m glad to be able to add P.Fitzgerald to the tried and loved list – whither next?  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

At Freddie’sby Penelope Fitzgerald, paperback, 160 pages.




11 thoughts on “My first Penelope Fitzgerald read…

  1. Carol S says:

    Good review but I’m finding myself taking myself taken aback by your ‘label’ of middlebrow. Can anyone define this? I’ve never thought of these fine novelists as middlebrow – to me a belittling term….. Who then is highbrow (also in my mind unpleasant!)?

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I think I’m using the term wrongly – I think of middle-class, often domestic settings rather than literary quality (which all these authors have in spades!) Now having looked it up I see haven’t got it right and it was a way of sneering at ‘readability’ – another much-derided term! Oh dear 😉

      • Denise says:

        I did get what you meant by middle brow, just by looking at the examples. I’d take Spark and Fitzgerald into another category, though. They seem much sharper than the others you mention, who can be a but, um, sorry to say this, turgid and earth (read: middle class) bound occasionally. Spark and Fitzgerald write about different times and political backdrops with more assurance. I’ve not read any of the domestic Fitzgerald, only the historical, and i remember being told it was *good*. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I found it oblique. This sharp, perfectly constructed other world, but I wasn’t quite sure what the point of it was. Although it did feel very high quality.

  2. Carol S says:

    Oh bless you for replying so promptly and clearly, I’ll stop worrying!
    And ‘readability’ is a good thing surely. It is trivial, chocolate boxy writing I don’t care for and that would include the oh so successful Bridget Jones type work. Apologies to those who care for it.

  3. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book) says:

    I loved this novel, and very much enjoyed your review. I would definitely put her in the same category as Spark, particularly with this novel – very sharp and witty. The Bookshop is also brilliant, but rather more poignant and less broad.

    I can attest that middlebrow is a very tricky term, as the first 10,000 words of my thesis deal with trying to define it 🙂 Having written about it so much, and been to conferences on it etc., I can no longer think of it as a derogatory term at all, but I suppose it often still is. And I agree with you that middlebrow often means a focus on domestic lives and the middle-class, but somehow I think the sharpness of Fitzgerald puts her apart. But middlebrow writers can, of course (or maybe not ‘of course’!) also be brilliant stylists.

  4. Carol S says:

    I think the sort of book Simon loves and extols so well, is special and deserves a category of its own. Middlebrow is a tainted term. He rightly points out their brilliant (in its good shiny sense) style. Their social commentary is generally subtle, astute, compassionate, often funny too.
    When I read middlebrow work I get a feeling of indigestion, and of dissatisfaction, my appetite for a good read really disappointed. These ‘other’ works are something else, maybe lighter but great fun and pleasing in many aspects. Worth reading in other words.

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