The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald (Mariner Books, 1988)
Reviewed by Steve Harris
Over the last year or so, I've read a number of Penelope Fitzgerald's novels. Each novel is a marvel of perfection: perfect sentences, clarity, believable characters, realistic historical settings. “The Beginning of Spring” is more of the same, and is perhaps my favorite Fitzgerald book to date. In the novel, Fitzgerald appears to be paying homage to her Tolstoyan roots, with a cast of English characters living in Moscow on the eve of the First Wold War. The novel opens with printer Frank Reid discovering that his wife, Nellie, has left him. Frank is the ultimate rational man, who juggles the care of his three children, along with running his print shop, amidst a variety of Russian figures, and all their idiosyncracies. But Frank has to some extent gone “native,” and negotiates himself through the shoals of bribing police officials, ranting students, and flaming dancing bears. It is the mystical side of Holy Rus he seems to be missing. His book keeper, Selwyn Crane (a follower of Tolstoy) has also gone native, but to a much deeper degree, adopting the role of wandering holy man. His counsels to Frank smack of Alec Guinness as Jedi wise man, but with a shameful secret. While Frank sends daily letters Nellie, via his brother-in-law in England, Crane, introduces a potential new governess in the strange and beautiful Lisa Ivanova, to take the place of his missing wife.
Fitzgerald likes to introduce the absurdity of love into her novels in a way that is very similar to Iris Murdoch (but without the mythological trappings), and she likes to place Love within historical contexts, usually with the role of the sexes as historically understood. The marriage between Frank and Nellie may not have been one of love, but it is one of need. Fitzgerald is at her wry best when she has Frank and Nellie making love on the eve of their wedding. Nellie is upset that she will go to the altar without the knowledge that the women of the town always say they wish they “knew” before going to the altar. As they both stand before the wedding bed, Nellie looks with disgust at the various underthings she will have to wear:
On the white bed some white draper's goods have been laid out, and they turn out to be petticoat, a chemise, drawers and corsets.
“I'm not wearing these. I've given up wearing them. From now on I'm going to go about unbraced, like Arts and Crafts women.”
“Well, it's always beaten me how women can stand them,” said Frank.
“Don't think I'm going to pay for them, though. They can go back to Gage's.”
“They make ridges on the flesh, you know, even with a patent fastener. You'll find I don't have any ridges.”
She began to undress. “I'm twenty-six.”
“You keep telling me that, Nellie.”
Frank attends to the details of daily living without a wife, but the quiet presence of Lisa begins to unnerve him. Whereas Nellie was all nervous energy, unsure of herself in a rapidly changing world, Lisa has a stillness and calm about her that at times seems somewhat bovine. But the children like her, and so does Frank. When Nellie's brother visits, Frank finally blurts out his love for Lisa. The effect is much like ice breaking free, or shoots thrusting up from the earth. The play off of the Tolstoy novel “Resurrection” is deliberate here. But Crane's hopes for Frank, and Lisa, are more for a harmony that is both spiritual and physical. And Frank, as rational man, can do little better than pawing at Lisa's breasts, as he struggles with his own emotions. Lisa, submissive, but timeless, is made love to, before leaving with the children for the family dacha at Lent. It is there that the oldest child Dolly accompanies Lisa into a birch forest to observe one of the more lovely and beautiful scenes I've read in some time: human figures embracing birch trees by the moonlight, and the hint of some sort of understanding link that exists between Lisa and these tree folk. In the end, things turn out all right, at least in the temporary sense, but one is aware of the coming storm, and that lives will never be the same. But there is a consolation that Dolly, who used to be praised for her level-headedness, now calls herself Darya. Perhaps a spiritual seed from the east has been planted in the western soul, just before the Guns of August, 1914.