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Book club: The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

by
04 April 2024

Emily Rhodes reads the novel The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

THE Beginning of Spring, first published in 1988, is a novel to which I often turn at this time of year, as winter loses its grip, days gradually lengthen, and thick coats can be stashed away at last. To me, the English spring never fails to feel welcome, energising, and somewhat overdue. It is a salutary reminder to read of a time and place where this seasonal change has even more impact.

It is Moscow, 1913; Fitzgerald notes with characteristic precision that there are “a hundred and forty days a year of frost”. In the autumn, “statues in the gardens [are] wrapped in straw against the cold,” and “all windows would be impenetrably sealed up.” With the coming of spring, “watching the breaking ice from the bridges was one of Moscow’s favourite occupations” as the river transitions from its four-month existence of being “a high-road”, and the city goes “on wheels again” as taxis replace sledges.

Spring comes to Moscow just when Frank Reid’s wife, Nellie, has left with their three children on a train bound for England. (Frank is English, raised in Russia, and Nellie –— fully English — moved to Moscow with him a few years’ ago.) Soon, Frank receives a call from the stationmaster asking him to collect his deposited children, but Nellie has vanished.

As the children need looking after, Selwyn Crane, managing accountant at Frank’s printing press, suggests that he employ the enigmatic Lisa Ivanova, with “the pale, broad, patient, dreaming Russian face”, as a nanny. Nellie gone, Frank finds himself falling for Lisa. . .

The Beginning of Spring is so much more than this love plot, however. It is crammed with astonishing and evocative scenes: a bear cub let loose in a dining room, “making havoc among glass and silver, dragging at the bottle of vodka which stood in each place, upending them like ninepins and licking desperately at what was spilled”; a student, who has slipped into Frank’s printing press, pulls a gun from his overcoat pocket, “got to his feet and fired twice”; and a night walk from a dacha culminates in an eerie sight: “among the thronging stems of the birch trees [were] what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.”

Fitzgerald takes us into the wonder of Russia — with its bears, dachas, samovars, and ceremonial ikon-blessing — but this is also a land made uncanny by the author’s imagination. We are transported and then wrongfooted, left dizzily marvelling at the author’s skill. Contemporary reviews of Fitzgerald’s work hold the refrain, as voiced by Jan Morris in the Independent, “How is it done?”

© Fanny Dubes/AlamyThe author Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), listed among “the 50 greatest British writers since 1950” by The Times in 2008  

Fitzgerald also has a fine knack for peopling her novels with eccentric characters. Take Selwyn, for instance, “not quite sane-looking”, who wears a peasant’s blouse in tribute to Tolstoy and offers guests “an infusion of the nine herbs of healing” in place of tea. Even cameo roles are brilliantly realised, such as the prospective governess Miss Kinsmann, “dowdy, another of the words that couldn’t be translated into Russian”, and yet an impressively dogged pursuer of Frank through “unsavoury” Moscow streets.

If you enjoy being in the company of misfits, then Fitzgerald’s novels are absolute havens. (After The Beginning of Spring, I would recommend going on to Offshore, her Booker Prize winner, set on the houseboats of Battersea Reach and chock-a-block with life’s jetsam and flotsam.)

Fitzgerald tends to include children among her cast, relishing the alternative perspective that they give on the absurdities of the adult world. In The Beginning of Spring, 13-year-old Dolly seems to have more insight into her mother’s disappearance than her father has, telling him: “I think you asked too much of her,” and “The mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.”

Dolly is witness to the strange scene of the hands among the birch trees, and is profoundly shaken by it. What exactly does she see? Like Dolly, we can really only guess. This is a world of slippery meanings and misreadings, of revelations that act as revolutions as they spin everything that has come before. There is a scene in which the police tell Frank that the night watchman reported hearing shots fired at his printing press. We have just witnessed this, but, when Frank asks “Is he sure he heard them?”, the police captain — receptive to a bribe — replies: “Not altogether sure.” Fitzgerald is adept at keeping her readers feeling “not altogether sure”.

At the novel’s close, while we are busy puzzling over what we’ve seen or not seen, and what has happened (or not happened) offstage, Fitzgerald echoes the effect of a disarming revelation in her description of the annual event of opening the windows. After the winter, for which the inner and outer frames have been sealed shut, now, finally, the putty is scraped off, dead flies are washed away, and frames are shaken unstuck. The exterior sounds flood in, and, like the house, we become aware of just how deaf we have been.

It remains one of my favourite passages from any book: “Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.”


Emily Rhodes is a writer and journalist, whose features and reviews have appeared in publications including the Financial Times, The Spectator, The Guardian, and the TLS.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald is published by HarperCollins at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-00-654370-1.

Listen to Emily Rhodes in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.


THE BEGINNING OF SPRING
— SOME QUESTIONS

  1. Do you think Penelope Fitzgerald succeeds in transporting us to Moscow, 1913? She has such an eye for evocative details, down to the last samovar — are there any that struck you as particularly intriguing?

  2. The author is adept at portraying eccentric characters. Are there any of whom you feel especially fond?

  3. The novel’s action takes place around Easter. What did you think about the Russian traditions surrounding this? Did this religious background affect your reading of the book at all?

  4. What does the presence of the three children add to the book?

  5. What do you make of inhabiting this world where nothing is quite as it seems? How do you feel about Selwyn’s revelations? Had you guessed what was going on, or were you (like me) quite blindsided?

  6. I love returning to this book at this time of year — are there any books that you enjoy re-reading on a regular basis? The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is another perennial favourite of mine!


IN OUR next Book Club on 3 May, we will print extra information about our next book, Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle. It is published by Penguin Books at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-4059-5281-1).


THE BOOK

Disobedient is an enthralling historical novel that retells the turbulent life of the great Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi. As a young artist in Rome in the early 17th century, Artemisia outstrips her brothers and contemporary male artists in talent. Her initial struggle as a painter in a male-dominated society is nothing compared with the dramatic turn of events that occur when a handsome male tutor is employed by her father to teach her linear perspective. Her rage against the trauma that she experiences at the hands of her tutor and the way in which law and society then fail her is expressed through her art. The story centres on her motivation for creating the brutal painting Judith Slaying Holofernes — a critical point, at which her art takes a dark turn.


THE AUTHOR

Born in 1962 and raised in Hampstead, Elizabeth Fremantle started her career as a journalist on women’s magazines, including Vogue UK and Elle UK. Now, she is an acclaimed author, best known for writing historical fiction set in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods. Her bestselling novels include Sisters of Treason, Watch the Lady, and The Girl in the Glass Tower. Her first novel, Queen’s Gambit, was made into a film, Firebrand, in 2023. In 2018, she chaired the judging panel for the HWA Gold Crown, an award for historical novel of the year.

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