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The Gate of Angels Paperback – April 3, 1998
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Penelope Fitzgerald wanted to call her 1990 novel Mistakes Made by Scientists. On the other hand, she laughingly likened it to a Harlequin doctor-nurse romance. The truth about The Gate of Angels is somewhere in between. The doctor, Fred Fairly, is indeed a young Cambridge scientist, and the nurse, Daisy Saunders, has been ejected from a London hospital. If Fred is to win her love, he must make an appropriately melodramatic sacrifice--leaving the academic sanctum of St. Angelicus, a college where all females, even pussycats, are banished ("though the starlings couldn't altogether be regulated").
Daisy, however, suffers from a very non-Harlequin malady, the sort found only in Fitzgerald: "All her life she had been at a great disadvantage in finding it so much more easy to give than to take. Hating to see anyone in want, she would part without a thought with money or possessions, but she could accept only with the caution of a half-tamed animal." Self-protection is certainly not this young woman's strong suit, but we admire her endurance. At one moment, Fred points out that "women like to live on their imagination." Daisy's response? "It's all they can afford, most of them."
Set in Cambridge and London in 1912, The Gate of Angels, then, is a love story and a novel of ideas. Fred, a rector's son, has abandoned religion for observable truths, whereas the undereducated Daisy is a Christian for whom the truth is entirely relative. The novel's strengths lie in what we have come to expect from Fitzgerald: a blend of the hilarious, the out-of-kilter, and the intellectually and emotionally provocative. She confronts her characters with chaos (theoretical and magical), women's suffrage, and seemingly impossible choices, and we can by no means be assured of a happy outcome. "They looked at each other in despair, and now there seemed to be another law or regulation by which they were obliged to say to each other what they did not mean and to attack what they wished to defend."
Fitzgerald's novel also records the onslaught of the modern on traditions and beliefs it will fail to obliterate entirely: women as second-class citizens and a class-ridden society in which the poor suffer deep financial and moral humiliation. The author sees the present pleasures--Cambridge jousts in which debaters must argue not what they believe but its exact opposite--and is often charmed by them. But under the light surface, she proffers an elegant meditation on body and soul, science and imagination, choice and chance. Her characters, as ever, are originals, and even the minor players are memorable: one of Fred's fellows, the deeply incompetent Skippey, is "loved for his anxiety," because he makes others feel comparatively calm.
Fitzgerald fills all of her period novels with odd, charming, and disturbing facts and descriptions. Some, like the catalog of killing medicines Daisy administers, are strictly researched and wittily conveyed: "Over-prescriptions brought drama to the patients' tedious day. Too much antimony made them faint, too much quinine caused buzzing in the ears, too much salicylic acid brought on delirium..." Others are the product of microscopic observation, that is, imagination. Fred's family home is in hyperfertile Blow Halt, a place where no one thinks to buy vegetables, so free are they for the taking. But within this paradise, his mother and sisters are sewing banners for women's suffrage, and nature launches a quiet threat: "Twigs snapped and dropped from above, sticky threads drifted across from nowhere, there seemed to be something like an assassination, on a small scale, taking place in the tranquil heart of summer." --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
English writer Fitzgerald ( The Beginning of Spring ; Innocence ) displays a grace and wit that put her on equal footing with such better-known peers as Muriel Spark. Her own novel, shortlisted for the 1990 Booker prize, is set in the mannered quaintness of pre-WW I Cambridge, yet it goes far beyond the usual Wodehousean scenario of brittle dialogue and eccentric dons in flapping robes. The eccentric dons are by no means absent, but Fitzgerald's writing has a depth, resonance and delicacy that create a sense of genuine comedy rather than of farce. Fred Fairly, a junior fellow at St. Angelicus College, wakes from a bicycle accident to discover that, owing to the misjudgment of a good Samaritan, he has been put in a sickroom bed next to the young woman with whom he has collided. Having made the acquaintance of mysterious Daisy Saunders in this unlikely way, Fairly promptly falls in love with her, though as a St. Angelicus fellow he has pledged himself to a life of celibacy. One can count on Fitzgerald to resolve his dilemma in an unexpected fashion, and she is true to form as the novel swerves toward its satisfying conclusion.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
Top customer reviews
It's a neo-Victorian (Edwardian?) story told in her usual wry and delicate style but it doesn't have quite the deft touch of The Blue Flower or The Beginning of Spring. I do love the opening scene and can still picture the bicycles as boats battered by the weather.
There are moments of brilliance, I will happily grant, and the baffling characters that are her wont. But this almost-serious academic farce takes a somewhat unfortunate turn to the Romantic. It felt like Fitzgerald fell head-over-heels for one of her characters and performed a last minute rescue in an uncharacteristic fit of blatant authorial intervention.
Fred Fairly, a junior fellow at a fictional Cambridge college, works at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1912, at the dawn of the new science of nuclear physics. The son of an Anglican rector, he has abandoned Christianity in favor of rationalism -- yet he finds himself profoundly affected by a highly irrational occurrence. Following a cycling accident on a country road, he wakes up in bed with a beautiful stranger, and immediately falls in love with her. He cannot explain such love, and Fitzgerald deliberately makes it impossible for him to rationalize the attraction in social terms. For Daisy Saunders, the young woman in question, is a nurse's aide from a poor district of London; there is no way she would be considered a suitable marriage partner for a Cambridge don. But in many ways she is more fully realized than Fred himself is; she certainly has a head on her shoulders and her feet on the ground.
In 1990, when this book was published, Penelope Fitzgerald was in her seventies and had been writing for only fifteen years. Her novels tend to reflect the aesthetic of an earlier era, notably in a balanced prose style one might expect of Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen, coupled with an almost naive view of romantic love. These qualities will come into their own in her final masterpiece THE BLUE FLOWER, in which exquisite style and an idealized romanticism precisely capture the spirit of the German poet Novalis. Here, though, the two are deliberately at odds. Fairly inhabits an ivory palace whose academic courtiers delight in debates that may bear little relationship to their actual feelings. With the pragmatism of poverty, Daisy says what she means and does what she must; Fitzgerald's description of her background might have come from Somerset Maugham's OF HUMAN BONDAGE. The author goes further by erecting an even more ethereal Cambridge within the real one; Fairly's college, St. Angelicus, is imagined as a monastic enclave to which no women are admitted, and he belongs to a contrarian debating society whose members are all required to argue against their firmly-held points of view.
Unfortunately, little is made of Fairly's discipline as a nuclear physicist. Early in the novel, his mentor, a physicist of the old school, predicts the development of quantum mechanics, portraying it as the abandonment of physical rationalism in favor of a vague mathematical faith. It is a brilliantly lucid passage that perfectly captures the theme of the book; I wish that more of it had been on this level. I also wish that the very likeable characters might have interacted on more solid ground -- though if all the ground had been as solid as Daisy's there would be no debate. So this turns out to be more a jeu d'esprit than a novel; but there is an abundance of spirit here, and so much fun.