In old age, Penelope began to sketch out notes for a novel called “Why (or ‘How’) We Were Very Young.” The setting is Oxford in the 1930s, and the main characters are to be J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien lectured to her on Anglo-Saxon and “Middle English,” with occasional readings from The Hobbit (published in 1937). She disliked him for his misogyny and used to refer to the “odious Tolkien.” C. S. Lewis was “darkly red-faced and black-gowned,” talking from the minute he entered the room, “the indispensable teacher, about whom all we personally knew was that he was pipe- and beer-loving, lived outside Oxford, and made a ‘thing’ of disliking the twentieth century. When T. S. Eliot came to read ‘The Waste Land’ to the Poetry Society, Lewis was not there.” Yet her notes sympathetically and comically reconstruct what their lives must have been like.
From Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which deserves all the accolades it has received. Partly because Lee is just a good biographer, and partly because Fitzgerald’s life is better material for a biography than the back-of-the-book notes on her life (or her self-curated public persona) would indicate.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s potential “Inklings novel” (which obviously could have gone a number of directions) really would have been fantastic though. We got The Gate of Angels instead, which is not a bad consolation prize, but … I mean, come on. Both Lewis and Tolkien are, in a number of ways, the sorts of can’t-quite-cope-with-the-world male characters that appear so frequently in Fitzgerald’s novels. It gets me thinking about a contemporary author I could imagine writing an Inklings novel I might actually like to read. A.S. Byatt had Lewis as a tutor as well, I think, but she wouldn’t do a great job with this. Francis Spufford maybe, or Sarah Perry, but their books would be very different than Fitzgerald’s.