October 11, 2008

The Means of Escape

Penelope Fitzgerald's perfect short story is about imagination. The setting is mid-19th Century Hobart, the scenery is dominated by the church, the rectory and the convict prison house, the story by the encounters between the local community of dignataries led by Alice, the clergyman's daughter, and an escaped convict. In that sense it represents a distillation of the early history of Australia: this is the world that Mr Micawber goes to at the end of the David Copperfield and there his daughter meets Magwitch. The isolation is there- you get the real sense that Alice and her family live at the ends of the earth. I love how Fitzgerald brings this out in the first paragraph- giving you a distilled history of Hobart's church- as if to imply that this is a hamlet isolated from the history of the world. To understand mid-century Hobart, you do not need to know about Peel's repeal of the corn laws, the demise of the slave trade, the American war, the revolution in Belgium or the industrial revolution- but you do need to know about the construction of the local church.

Loneliness breeds the imagination- as does youth. Alice is an intelligent young girl- very conventional as we learn throughout the story. Her world is a lonely one, formed by conversations with her friend Aggie. I found this little paragraph so perfectly apt as a description of Alice that I think I need waste no more words:

They had settled on the age of forty five to go irredeemably cranky. They might start imagining anything they liked then. The whole parish, indeed the whole neighbourhood, thought they were cranky already in any case, not to get settled. Aggie in particular with all the opportunities that came her way in the hotel trade.

The community of course are as Fitzgerald's story points out entirely wrong. But there is something about that paragraph that stands out- it expresses the tragedy of these two young women's lives perfectly but also with its first sentence captures a witty and affectionate attitude to the solitude of their inner worlds which Fitzgerald invites us to share.

Of course imagination leads on to romanticism. When Alice meets the convict in the church late at night- she imagines that she has fallen in love. The twist at the end of the story reveals that Alice's idea of love and what love is are different things- I do not mean to give away here what that twist is- but it reveals Alice's fantasy to be a fantasy. The interesting question about Fitzgerald is whether the revelation hurts Alice: she leaves the question open. But I think if you follow the lineaments of the story, you can see an answer. Fitzgerald is like Austen in that she can describe illusion whilst alluding to reality. Alice's life is dominated by fantasy- but the fantasy has no reality- the question for the reader is what kind of disappointment is worse, the disappointment of the door not opened or the dissapointment of the reality falling short.

This is a fine short story- more happens in it than happens in most novels. What is so amazing about it is the way that it captures the world of early colonisation- the isolation and the way that fuses with teenage girlishness to endow every moment with romantic possibility (and the way that the community, as ever, fails to understand that a longing for romance is not a refusal of life). We are left on the brink of something that happens- again I will not break the suspense- but this is a writer at the peak of her art and what she expresses is timeless.

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