Navigate / search

Remembering Penelope Fitzgerald: “We Can Only Hope It Keeps Going.”

By Alicia Dietrich

The American publication of
The American publication of


Philip Christensen, College Associate Dean for Curriculum Development at Suffolk County Community College, maintained a seven-year correspondence with novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center. Christensen recently donated the letters from their correspondence to the Ransom Center, and in this essay, he shares some of the contents of those exchanges.

Email and social media appear virtually spontaneous, and yet, as Robert McCrum conceded in a recent blog on The Guardian’s website, “a physical correspondence, an exchange of missives, in envelopes, carries more freight than a high speed email.” In 1993, I mailed a letter to British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, care of her publisher, asking if she would read my paper on her uncle Ronald Knox, the once renowned Catholic apologist best remembered today for his “Detective Story Decalogue.” To my surprise, she wrote back, thus beginning a literary correspondence that came to a close, in April 2000, when I received an email, with the subject “Condolences” and a link to her obituary in The New York Times. (Terence Dooley, Fitzgerald’s literary executor and the editor of So I Have Thought of You: the Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, and Hermione Lee, Fitzgerald’s biographer, have kindly given permission to quote from these unpublished letters.)

Fitzgerald corresponded in aerogrammes, those blue papers that fold into their own airmail envelopes, and I recall opening each with surgical precision, for fear of excising her graceful marginalia, in italic hand, along the folds. Surely, Fitzgerald must have found my typescripts diffident and rehearsed, but she never hinted at any disparity, and, after an initial “Penelope Fitzgerald,” she signed her letters “Penelope.”

Penelope, a former tutor, regarded teaching as “some of the hardest work on earth.” Her lessons must have been memorably aphoristic. Of Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” she wrote: “it is a difficult subject, I think, as poor Hamlet must have felt that one traveller at least returned too often,” or, regarding the challenge of understanding the Duke in Measure for Measure: “he does break into octosyllabics at one point, & Shakespeare usually keeps them for actors with magic power.” She agreed that Let Dons Delight was Uncle Ronnie’s best book, and added that his invention of fictional disputations at an imaginary Oxford college, from 1588 to 1938, “carries imitation of the past to the point of second sights.”  When I made a passing reference to Vladimir and Estragon as modern pilgrims, she chided: “Surely, there are no ‘pilgrims’ in Waiting for Godot. Productions over here usually show Vladimir & Estragon as tramps, but as a matter of fact they are clowns, whose relationship to society is quite different.”

Penelope was philosophical about her late celebrity, writing that her reputation “is up now, but it will go down” and, within the context of her short story “The Red Haired Girl,” encouraged me not to give up: “it’s certainly never too late to be a writer.” She was also open about discussing her own work. In one letter, she described laying the foundation, almost literally, of a fictitious college in The Gate of Angels: “I walked all round Cambridge to find a spare piece of ground where another ancient college—a small one—could have been built.” She also commended one of my students for her essay on the same novel: “The references to divine providence I thought were very good because I didn’t mention it in the book but left it to be understood by discerning readers.”

Penelope, who thought her novels too British for Americans, was impressed by their sheer energy. When I wrote about a possible move from New York to Jackson, Mississippi, she replied, “Americans think nothing of tremendous moves, they just pack everything in the car and drive away.” She was also stirred by their good will. In reminiscences years after her visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which had purchased selections of her papers, her memory of nagging financial worries is assuaged by the kindnesses of the university staff: “I went to consult something in the University library, and had to manage on 2 dollars a day, but it was quite possible, if you just had breakfast, and I’ll never forget the patience & courtesy with which I was treated at the Humanities Library.”

As her American readership began to grow, Penelope gave all the credit to Houghton Mifflin, her new American publisher. American publication of The Blue Flower in April 1997 resulted in its wider recognition, including the cover page of The New York Times Book Review and in 1998, the first year of eligibility for non-American writers, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In a letter written shortly thereafter, she so typically deflected the spotlight from herself and onto Christopher Carduff, her American editor: “It was a great encouragement for my wonderful book editor at Houghton Mifflin, who flew to New York with a ready-written speech in his pocket just in case it was necessary, and, lo and behold, it was.”

Twice, Penelope was selected as a judge for the Man Booker Prize, which her novel Offshore received in 1979. Shortly after her second Booker stint, in 1998, she wrote about the weariness following this task: “I have to admit that I’m glad the Booker is over—it’s bad enough having to judge it, but worse still, during the dinner an alternative panel of judges is broadcasting from a cellar beneath your feet and contradicting everything you say.”

Penelope often reflected on “time’s fell hand,” for instance in her memories of The Sole Bay Bookshop, in Southwold, and the inspiration of her second novel, which “has now alas closed its doors.” She was relieved that her father Edmund George Valpy (“Evoe”) Knox, editor of Punch for nearly two decades (1932 to 1949), “didn’t live to see the disappearance of Punch, which would once have seemed hardly believable” or that her Uncle Ronnie, whose unecumenism appeared hopelessly out of place after Vatican II, can be judged, “like the rest of us, only in terms of the time he lived in.” One Advent, she abruptly closed with wishes haunted by the recent death of her brother Rawle: “I’m lucky to be with my family this Christmas, although I was very sad to lose my brother this year. He was an old man & I’m getting to be an old woman,” and, elsewhere, her perfect balance of concession and grace is faultless in her observation of grandchildren at play: “I haven’t been so well lately, but hearing my grandchildren play football (handicapped by the kitten) in the garden just outside my window made me feel better.”

To this day, one of Penelope’s letters remains undelivered, “a catastrophe” she blamed on the “confused postal service.” I remain hopeful this letter, retrieved from some untidy corner at the Royal Mail, will one day miraculously appear, evidence of what the editors of her selected essays confidently call The Afterlife (2000). Penelope once wrote, regarding the Old Vic: “We can only hope it keeps going,” a sentiment she playfully applied to herself. This reminiscence is dedicated to her, with the hope that this conversation will “keep going” for a long time.

Commentary Magazine Archive Donated to Ransom Center

By Elana Estrin

Commentary magazine has donated its archive to the Ransom Center. Founded in November 1945, just months after World War II, Commentary magazine was established to reconnect assimilated American Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader Jewish community and to bring the ideas of young Jewish intellectuals to a wider audience.

According to historian Richard Pells, Professor Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin, “no other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States.”

Throughout its history, Commentary has published significant articles on historical, political, cultural and theological issues in addition to fiction and memoirs. The magazine has a reputation for featuring many of the leading intellectual and cultural figures of the time.

Spanning from 1945 to 1995, the archive consists mainly of editorial correspondence, galleys and other records. The collection contains correspondence with a number of writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center, including Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, in addition to correspondence with S. Y. Agnon, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Tom Wolfe, and A. B. Yehoshua.


Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.


Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research

By Bibiana Gattozzi

Fifteenth-century Dominican Processional featuring square musical notation on 4-line red staves.
Fifteenth-century Dominican Processional featuring square musical notation on 4-line red staves.

Bibiana Gattozzi recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Masters in Musicology. Last year, she was a Teaching Assistant for a Signature Course entitled “Music, Art, and Ritual in Mexican Catholicism.” Designed for first-year undergraduates, Signature Courses are interdisciplinary seminars taught by professors from across the university. Gattozzi took her students to the Ransom Center to view medieval and Renaissance liturgical/musical manuscripts.

After the first few class periods of my semester as a teaching assistant (TA) for a first-year Signature Course at The University of Texas at Austin, I realized that the Harry Ransom Center would provide the ideal opportunity for meeting three of the major goals of the Signature Courses: sparking the academic interest of first-year students toward a particular subject and toward the academic goals of a major research institution; fostering interdisciplinary intellectual curiosity; and introducing students to the resources of the University to encourage the effective and frequent use of these resources.

For this particular course, the students were required to read a scholarly monograph on a Renaissance chant manuscript from Toledo, Spain. Remembering from previous visits to the Center that it contained a collection of liturgical chant manuscripts from the same time period, the other TAs and I proceeded to arrange for our classes to meet at the Ransom Center. This was accomplished swiftly and effectively thanks to the kindness and efficiency of the staff members of the Center who explained the policies for classroom use of archival materials. The Ransom Center’s website and research account system was also very helpful. I was soon delighted to learn the following:

1. The Ransom Center indeed contains an extensive collection of medieval and Renaissance liturgical/musical manuscripts of many different sizes, shapes, and kinds, originating from many different countries (i.e., Italy, Germany, France, Spain) and representing many different states of conservation. It is easy to find and request these items through the online catalog and research account system.

2. Researchers are allowed to request up to 15 items at a time for instructional use in a classroom adjoining the reading room.

3. It is relatively easy to schedule a time with the Center’s staff for using the classroom, and the staff sets up all the items on display beforehand.

4. Explaining course content and sparking the interest of students who have no background in archival research is a simple task through the guided exploration of the Ransom Center’s treasures.

A visit to the Harry Ransom Center allowed students to see the Renaissance liturgical manuscripts in person—including one from Toledo that closely matched the manuscript about which they were reading. University of Texas students and instructors will find the Ransom Center a most precious resource for stimulating intellectual curiosity beyond the content of a course.

Guidance for faculty planning signature course visits to the Ransom Center is available.

Fellows Find: Scholar studies playwright Tom Stoppard’s wit

By William Demastes

Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”
Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”

Bill Demastes of Louisiana State University spent  June 2011 at the Ransom Center on a fellowship reviewing material from various collections, including the Tom Stoppard papers, for his forthcoming book, The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard. Demastes’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Endowment.

When playwright Tom Stoppard’s name comes up in conversation, most people will recognize him (with a little help) as the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and the (co)author of the award-winning movie Shakespeare in Love. People who follow live theater will recognize him as perhaps the most important (certainly the most successful) playwright alive today, a man who over the past five decades has dazzled the stage with such hits as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (his 1960s breakthrough play), Travesties, Jumpers, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Arcadia, and The Coast of Utopia. He is a word master, wit, comic genius, a man who juggles thought with feeling and provides rich entertainments that generate intellectual resonances for his audiences well after the theater goes dark.

I have been working on The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard (Cambridge University Press) for the past few years, increasingly realizing that no one short of Stoppard himself could capture the heart of Stoppard’s theater. When that point finally crystallized in my mind, I determined to come to the Ransom Center, home of the Tom Stoppard papers, looking for Stoppard’s own words to incorporate into my book. Over the month that I spent combing through letters, interviews, essays, and speeches, I found gem after gem. Throughout his writings, Stoppard uses peacocks crossing highways, fairies flitting over ponds, men listening to jazz on a radio, a bookstore, landscape gardening, a coin toss, tales from Wittgenstein and Feynman, a love of slapstick, rock-n-roll, and so much more unlikely material to illuminate such complexities as postmodernism, cognitive psychology, determinism, existentialism, nonlinear dynamics, particle physics, and love. Having so much of Stoppard’s writings in a center dedicated to preserving the written word in all its manifestations has made my job infinitely easier. It is for that that I thank the Ransom Center.

In Memoriam: William B. Todd (1919–2011)

By Richard Oram

William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.
William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.

Not everyone remembers that Harry Ransom was a fisher of minds as well as of rare books and manuscripts. One of his early catches was William B. Todd, an up-and-coming young bibliographer at Harvard’s Houghton Library who had done his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Todd had served with distinction during World War II, receiving two wounds during the Normandy Invasion. In the late 1950s, Ransom saw that Todd might become the bibliographic intelligence behind the Humanities Research Center, then just a vision.

Once in Austin, Bill Todd, who died this past weekend, settled into a comfortable berth in The University of Texas English Department and began exploring the treasures of the Rare Book Department. In partnership with the English scholar D. F. Foxon, he discovered that the turn-of-the-century forger Thomas J. Wise had spent many hours in the British Museum Library removing leaves from copies of seventeenth-century plays. Wise then proceeded to improve his own inferior copies of plays purchased for a shilling or two. He would then have them rebound and ship them off to Chicago, where they were snapped up by his hapless dupe, the financier John Henry Wrenn. Their ultimate destination was Austin once the University acquired the Wrenn Library in 1918. The Todd-Foxon discovery created quite a splash—so much so that the British Museum asked for its “used” leaves back (they were not successful).

Todd made many noteworthy scholarly discoveries and contributed in a variety of ways to the intellectual life of the Harry Ransom Center through his publications (nearly 300 on a dazzling variety of subjects), exhibitions, and advice on acquisitions. Perhaps his greatest contribution was his characteristically thorough and precise examination of the three available copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the annus mirabilis of 1977–78. He undertook this project with his longtime bibliographical partner and wife, Ann Bowden. Together they looked at every significant feature of the Bibles and concluded that the Pforzheimer copy was the one to bring to Austin.

The Todd-Bowden team went on to accomplish labors unthinkable by lesser mortals, such as the first comprehensive bibliographies of the German reprint house Tauchnitz and Sir Walter Scott. Endeavors on these scales were built on world travel, which they both loved, and book collecting (ditto). Their libraries now form part of the collections of the Ransom Center, Lehigh University (Todd’s alma mater), and the British Library. In between their travels and writing, the Todds attended almost every Longhorn football game and entertained extensively. As the comments make clear, the Todds were mentors to a couple of generations of bibliographers and rare book librarians, who will not soon forget them.

Notes from the Undergrad: Student finds passage to past through diary is a journey full of surprises

By Harry Ransom Center

Joe Marshall recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in Plan II Honors. He spent time in the Ransom Center’s reading room as he prepared to choose his senior thesis topic, and he shares that experience here.

Arriving at the Ransom Center, I didn’t have anything particular in mind. I wanted to explore primary materials as one of any number of possible venues for thesis work; my keenest interest was in journals, diaries, and the like. I’d been encouraged by a friend’s experience reading the journal of T. H. White—best known for his book The Once and Future King—during the early years of the London Blitz, when the damage inflicted by Adolf Hitler’s bombs was reaching its terrifying crescendo. My friend told how White thought he was witnessing the birth of Hitler’s “Thousand-year Reich” and the end of England and Western civilization as he knew it. I was fascinated. This was experiencing reality directly through the eyes of another: feeling their feelings, suffering their travails, witnessing their very thoughts as much as one could—or one ever can. So I came in, watched the instructional video, completed the requisite training, and asked to see manuscripts from Journal of My Life in India, 1825–1857 by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Cumming Dewar (1803–1880).

And they gave it to me. I could see and touch, smell and hear (but not taste, crucially) the tiny leather-bound book—the creak of its worn pages—without any of the SWAT gear or hazmat suit I naturally assumed would be necessary. And as I leafed through the surprisingly pristine pages and the tiny script (script!) this meticulous British person had lain down a truly incomprehensible age ago, I came to a stark and sudden realization: this person was not me. They weren’t even a nineteenth-century facsimile of me—a more educated, more analog, but still recognizable permutation of myself.

“Four died a-midships last night” the tiny hand would read. “Spoke with the captain this morning about disembarking for a time in Bengal” the next line would continue, coolly accustomed to the habit people had in that age of, well, dying aboard a tiny wooden ship as it sailed half a world away without GPS or 4G or—perish the thought—even TiVo. I had come to the Ransom Center expecting to inhabit another person, to play around in the thoughts they chose to pen, and to assume their consciousness as one would put on a pair of especially difficult pants. But what I realized was that the gulf of time separating us was so vast and filled with wonder, that I could never truly know them. They (he) was as alien to me as the great gas giants or the terrain of the abysmal deep, except perhaps more so. You can study Jupiter or map the ocean depths, but you can never recreate a person with all the historical context, life experience, and accumulated wisdom of their time. You can only glimpse and hope that glimpse enlightens.

I ended up doing something else entirely for my thesis (something about music and authenticity or some such). But, while it would be clichéd and untrue to say I never forgot, I believe I will always feel the impact of that day’s search. It was too exciting and too unexpected to not worm its way into me—as deep (have I said it?) as the ocean depths.


Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.


The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.