Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novels are famous for their authenticity. In The Beginning of Spring (1988), set in Moscow in 1913, she describes rooms, trams, factories, shop signs and streets until you inhabit the historical city together with her characters.
The Beginning of Spring is about a crisis: Frank Reid’s wife has left him. Frank is the Anglo-Russian owner of a printing press, born in Moscow to English parents and knowing no other home. In early middle age, he finds himself a single father to three young children. The solution to his problems, a mysterious young nanny, Lisa Ivanovna, only brings new tensions and hopes.
Frank’s instability exists alongside Russia’s. He and his children love Russia and have nowhere else to go, but revolutionary farce, weak politics, and unpredictable policing threaten both them and the country. Spring offers promise — but also uncontrolled release. A rapidly-changing Russia, just like Frank’s household, might go in any direction. He wants his children to possess Russian life and language as he has always done, but fears that they won’t.
Perhaps because she was already elderly when she wrote her novels, Penelope Fitzgerald had a patient attitude to history. This brings comfort to Frank as he faces uncertainty. Waiting for news of absent Nellie, he visits the English chaplain’s icy wife. ‘I’m inclined to think sometimes that it’s a pity there’s such a thing as a postal service,’ she says. ‘The pain of waiting for letters which don’t come very much exceeds the pleasure of getting them when they do.’ More philosophically, she goes on: ‘There shouldn’t be such a state of mind as expectation. One gets too dependent on the future.’ One of Frank’s domestic staff consoles him: ‘God has given you patience, to take the place of your former happiness.’
In 1913, Russia’s future, like Frank’s, was up for grabs, and history was a consolation and an anchor rather than a guide. Russia’s history is Frank’s history, writes Fitzgerald, while its ‘future he could scarcely guess at.’ Her novel about Italy in 1955, Innocence (1986), contains a scene at a dinner party where an elderly and ever-patient Count is talking to a pompous young English historian. The Count wonders whether the post-war age has brought an ‘Italian attitude’ — one of ‘unadulterated fatalism’ — to the government of the United States. The historian doesn’t understand: ‘If a government was fatalistic I suppose it wouldn’t make any provision for the future.’ The Count says that the opposite is the case, because ‘Every situation would be regarded as a possible disaster.’ In Frank Reid’s Moscow, meanwhile, it is important to plan for the future, ‘but to see too clearly in Russia is a mistake, leading to loss of confidence.’
Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are filled with perfect details. But what gives them historical life is not the facts. It is the way her characters live in a precise moment in time — the space between the past and the future — waiting patiently or impatiently for what will come.