Penelope Fitzgerald, by Hermione Lee

Decades before one of the greatest writers of the 20th century published a book, she tried to make ends meet by teaching at a girls’ school in London. The small salary helped keep her family living in a desperately unsafe houseboat on the Thames. One day she appeared in class looking even more distracted than usual. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she said in her self-effacing way, “but my house sank.”

Born to an illustrious family, Penelope Fitzgerald spent most of her life in poverty. She was 60 when she wrote her first novel and didn’t become famous until she was 80. Her novels are slender and comic, reflecting a tragic view of life. Fitzgerald often said that Christian faith lay at the heart of her work and that she wished she were “braver” so she could make it more explicit. In fact her faith is unmistakable, distinctive, and conveyed quite bravely.

In this she was true to the celebrated Knox family. Both of her grandfathers had been bishops; her uncles Ronald and Wilfred, also ministers, wrote best-selling books. Her father, E. V. Knox, was editor of Punch. (In her affectionate biography The Knox Brothers, she characteristically honors them without mentioning herself.) Religious questions brought out their energies and wit. More personal matters, she admitted, they often kept buried.