restricted access “Between the Hither and the Farther Shore”: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore
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“Between the Hither and the Farther Shore”
Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable, Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier; Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce; Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable, Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder Of what men choose to forget. t. s. eliot, dry salvages

There is a growing body of opinion that views Penelope Fitzgerald (1916–2000) as the preeminent English novelist of the late twentieth century, one whose novels in their artistry and grace bear comparison to those of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. This opinion is likely to grow once the biographer Hermione Lee—who has written magisterial biographies not only of Woolf but also of Edith Wharton—publishes her forthcoming authorized biography of Fitzgerald. Yet despite the growing recognition of Fitzgerald’s prominence in our literary heritage, the body of criticism responsive to her writings [End Page 90] still remains small. As Stephanie Harzewski has recently noted in the pages of Contemporary Women’s Writing, “despite Fitzgerald’s numerous accolades, only a handful of scholarly articles—about a half dozen—exist on her work,” and these tend to be less “critical” than “eulogistic.”1 In the following article, focused upon Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1979 Booker Prize–winning novel Offshore, I hope to add to the critical examination through a discussion of the novel’s origin and its themes, especially those of “betwixtness” and numinosity. The latter theme is especially examined in relation to the matter of prayer—as highlighted by both Fitzgerald’s uncle, the Reverend Wilfred L. Knox, in Meditation and Mental Prayer (1927), and the philosopher William James—and the matter of evidencing divinity, as highlighted by the contemporary theologian Paul K. Moser.

Offshore was Fitzgerald’s third novel, following The Golden Child in 1977 and The Bookshop in 1978. At this point she had also written two biographies, first a study of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, published in 1975, and then a family biography of her distinguished father “Evoe” Knox, longtime editor of Punch, and his equally notable brothers Dillwyn, who did instrumental wartime work on breaking the German “Enigma” codes; Wilfred, a Cambridge University Anglo-Catholic priest and worker amidst the London poor; and the most renowned Roman Catholic convert of his epoch, Monsignor Ronald Knox, a popular journalist, detective-fiction author, Oxford University chaplain, and translator of the Bible (The Holy Bible: A Translation from the Latin Vulgate in the Light of the Hebrew and Greek Originals or, as it is better known, the Knox Version). In her first novel, The Golden Child, Fitzgerald paid her respects to this last uncle, Ronald Knox, by working in the genre in which he himself had such success, detective fiction. Despite the urgings of her then publisher, Colin Duckworth, Fitzgerald, in her second novel, moved beyond what she took to be a genre too predicated upon formula (in fact, her uncle had memorably published in 1929 his own “Ten Commandments” of detective fiction),2 and branched out into what she would refer to as her first “straight novel,”3 the story of an aged, [End Page 91] childless widower seeking to make a go of it by opening a bookshop (beset by a poltergeist) in the Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough (modeled upon Southwold, where Fitzgerald herself had lived for a period of time, also finding occupation in the space of a haunted bookshop). The novel proved a critical success, being shortlisted for the Booker Prize; yet, suspecting that her Duckworth editor Colin Haycraft did not truly think well of it, Fitzgerald, in late 1978, approached Richard Ollard, at William Collins Sons and Company, about the possibility of publishing her next novel, Offshore. Ollard was pleased to be asked, as he should have been, for this second straight novel did what the first had not quite done: it won the Booker Prize, transforming Fitzgerald’s literary...