The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

the-blue-flower-by-penelope-fitzgeraldGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Published: 1997
Reviewer Rating: fourhalfstars
Book Review by Richard R. Horton

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Penelope Fitzgerald is a rather well-known author in the U.K., having been short-listed for the Booker Prize four times and winning once (for Offshore (1979)).

The Blue Flower is the story of the romance of Friedrich von Hardenberg, later famous as the German Romantic poet-novelist-philosopher Novalis, with a 12-year old girl, Sophie Von Kuhn. The story is told in brief chapters, from the points of view of several characters: Hardenberg himself, a female friend who may fancy herself a rival of Sophie’s, Hardenburg’s sister, Sophie’s sister, and so on. The large cast of characters is wonderfully described, each character briefly and accurately limned, and all treated with humor and affection. In addition, details of how life was lived in 18th century Saxony are casually strewn throughout the book, and a very accurate-feeling picture of everyday life, and more importantly, how everyday people thought, is the result.

The main characters are odd but interesting: Fritz von Hardenberg is a young artist with Romantic attitudes: and at the same time realistically a brother and a son, and also a fairly conscientious apprentice salt-mine inspector. Sophie is a 12-year old girl of very little intelligence, and is unsparingly presented as such (indeed, her character is probably treated with less sympathy than any other in the book.)

As far as I can tell, every character in the book – at least every even moderately prominent character – is historical, though it is hard for me to be sure how closely Fitzgerald’s characterizations resemble the historical record. Knowledge of the historical events depicted here cast a sort of pall over the events of the novel: we know that Sophie will die very young, and von Hardenberg not much later. Novalis first became famous for a series of prose poems written in Sophie’s memory (“Hymns to the Night”), and his major work, the novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, was left uncompleted at his death. Despite this pall, the book is funny, engaging, and beautiful in a delicate-seeming fashion.

Fitzgerald is one of my favorite authors. As I said, she seems to be less well-known in the US than elsewhere: and I’m not quite sure why. She does not seem overtly “English”, for instance. The fine novels Innocence, The Gate of Angels and The Beginning of Spring do seem to be available here. I recommend all her work highly.

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