The Blue Flower was the last novel of author Penelope Fitzgerald who died in 2000 aged 83. Penelope Fitzgerald only began her very successful writing career when in her late 50’s. Her novels have been received to huge acclaim, being nominated for and then winning The Booker prize, later winning the National Book Critics Circle award for this novel. Previously I have read five of Fitzgerald’s novels – finding them very readable and quite fascinating, yet difficult to fully get a handle on. I remember enjoying The Bookshop, The Golden Child I found odd but loved, The Gate of Angels – was enjoyable but also rather odd, Innocence I think I enjoyed but wasn’t certain I totally “got it” I had in fact forgotten all about that novel, until I came to think about my review of The Blue Flower and glanced through the list of Fitzgerald’s other books. Her Booker winning novel Offshore which I read last year I loved – and it remains my favourite Fitzgerald to date. The Blue Flower I believe is considered by many to be her most accomplished novel. It is – typically for Fitzgerald – quite unusual although enormously readable and brilliantly written, I certainly did enjoy it. I think that I rather like the unexpectedness of much of Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing, although that doesn’t always make it easy reading.
Set in the late eighteenth century Germany, The Blue Flower is based upon the life of Friedrich Von Hardenberg (Fritz) in the years before he became the famous romantic poet and philosopher Novalis.
The eldest son of a large noble family – there are only certain occupations open to Fritz because of his nobility – and Fritz’s father has firm ideas on what will be his future. Fritz’s education takes him to Jena and Leipzig, and then finally his father arranges for him to go to study under magistrate Kreisamtmann Coelestin Just, of Tennstedt to learn office management and administration. While staying in the Just household Fritz develops a touching friendship with his tutor’s niece Karoline with whom he later confides many of his thoughts and feelings. He reads Karoline the beginning of a story – never completed – that contains the image of the blue flower of the novel’s title. It is while here, through Kreisamtmann Just that Fritz is introduced to Herr Rockenthein and meets his twelve year old step-daughter Sophie. Fritz who is already twenty two – falls hopelessly in love with the young girl who is generally considered to be not very lovely and not very clever.
“Fritz was obliged to admit to his brother, that Sophie was not fourteen, but only twelve, and that he hadn’t had a tender hour, only the quarter of an hour he had mentioned, surrounded by other people, standing at the great windows of the Saal at Schloss Gruningen. ”
Fritz’s attachment which remains secret from his parents for some time- is greeted with some amazement by Fritz’s siblings and friends. Although Fritz’s extraordinary passion for Sophie seems preposterous, he remains firm, happy to wait until she is fourteen before they are properly betrothed. The Blue Flower is not a particularly long novel at about 280 pages and yet in it there are a host of memorable characters. This is a novel, but of course these are people who must have lived. Fritz’s brother, Erasmus who at first is horrified by Fritz’s attachment to Sophie, their gentle sister Sidone, are just two members of the large Hardenberg family. I found it easy to really care about these characters – although I can’t say I took to little Sophie, instead my heart went out to poor Karoline Just, disappointed and quietly sad – with those around her oblivious to her pain. Maybe the most memorable and entertaining character however, is Fritz’s younger brother known as the Bernhard. Bernhard is fiercely intelligent precocious child who seems drawn to water.
“In the Hardenberg’s house there was an angel, August Wilhelm Bernhard, fair as wheat. After plain motherly Charlotte, the eldest, pale, wide-eyed Fritz, stumpy little Erasmus, easy-going Karl, open-hearted Sidone, painstaking Anton, came the blonde Bernhard. To his mother the day when he had to put into breeches was terrible. She who hardly ever, if at all, asked anything for herself, implored Fritz. ’Go to him, go to your father, beg him, pray him, to let my Bernhard continue a little longer in his frocks.’ ‘Mother, what can I say, I think Bernhard is six years old.”
Despite little historical detail, Fitzgerald manages to brilliantly capture the times and places of Fritz’s late eighteenth century Germany. The food, customs and complicated society are woven seamlessly into the story. Fitzgerald’s prose is understated and never sentimental and yet the story of Fritz and Sophie becomes quite poignant. Shot through with Penelope Fitzgerald’s wry humour The Blue Flower is an intelligent and unusual novel.