It’s exciting to discover a new writer. I knew the name  – Penelope Fitzgerald – and I’d seen the film of one of her books, the 2017 The Bookshop starring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy. It was melancholy and in fact very disheartening, being about a woman who tried and failed to set up a bookshop in a small community. The movie tie-in was on sale in the bookshop where I worked, but I wasn’t tempted.

Why did I chose The Gate of Angels for my book group? Not for very admirable reasons. I’d forgotten about the depressing film, It was short. It sounded light, and possibly funny. I liked the title.

And – what a gorgeous surprise – I loved the book… but it drew very mixed responses from the group. One of the two men, who’d actually worked in Cambridge University, also adored it. It is such fun to share wild enthusiam with another reader! The other man read about 30 pages and gave up. Some of the women took their time to think about it (one even re-read it) and thought it worthwhile and somewhat enjoyable. One woman didn’t like it, and another said that life is too short to read a book like this.

Well, it is an odd little novel. Part love story, part mystery, part ghost story, part historical fiction. It’s set in Cambridge, in 1912. Fred Fairly is a scientist and fellow of the uncomfortable, draughty, all-male (not even any female servants or pets allowed) St Angelicus college in Cambridge. He grew up in an uncomfortable and draughty country rectory (so he’s used to discomfort and cold), the son of a vicar. He’s a scientist, an atheist and a cyclist. The adorable heroine, Daisy Saunders, was born and raised in south London, in extreme poverty. She ‘…grew up with the smells of vinegar, gin, coal smoke, paraffin, sulphur, chloride of lime from backstreet factories, and baking bread every morning‘, doing midnight flits to evade the landlord, with her single mother scrabbling to earn a crust. Daisy has pulled herself up by her bootstraps. She was a student nurse…but no longer. She’s resourceful, practical, kind, generous – to a fault – and also rides a bicycle. The two of them meet via a cycling accident.

The course of love does not run at all smoothly, but – spoiler – though the end is suspenseful, doubtful, thrilling, and nearly doesn’t come off … yes,  it’s happy.
But not quite a rom com, despite the ‘meet cute’. Pervasive sexism – including near-constant sexual harassment –  plus class prejudice, inequality and poverty form hurdle after hurdle after unfair hurdle for Daisy. The cloistered and privileged world of the university forms a barrier for Fred, too. He’s socially, sexually and romantically backward. And I couldn’t help being aware that this whole world is about to be shattered by WWI. All those young men…

There was no melancholy, nothing laboured about the social commentary, always a light touch. And the most luscious, witty, beautiful writing.
This is just the first of the many passages I marked to re-read and enjoy again.

The church and Rectory were once imposingly, now unacceptably, at the top of a steep slope. It took it out of you getting up there, if you wanted the Rector to sign a certificate. Elms sheltered the field, young elders and hazels filled the drainage ditches. All that ought to be cleared before winter, if someone could be found to do it. The Herefords chewed, every jaw moving anti-clockwise, as a tendril grows. Round them the grass stood unmoving, hazed over with a shimmering reddish tinge, ready for hay. The bushes too, were motionless, but from the crowded stalks and the dense hedges there came a perpetual furtive humming, whining and rustling which suggested an alarming amount of activity out of sight. Twigs snapped and dropped from above, sticky threads drifted across from nowhere; there seemed to be something like an assassination, on a small scale, taking place in the tranquil heart of summer.

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One Response to THE GATE OF ANGELS

  1. Kate C says:

    This sounds gorgeous. I haven’t read any Penelope Fitzgerald. Have I mixed her up with Penelope Mortimer, Penelope Farmer and Penelope Lively? I will definitely keep an eye out for her books.
    Ooh, they have lots of them at the Athenaeum! OF COURSE THEY DO.

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