In 1997, three years before her death, Penelope Fitzgerald asked her American publisher, Chris Carduff, who had offered to send her any books she wanted, for a copy of Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher. An account of a 30,000-mile journey around the continent by two naturalists, it was originally published in 1955 and was being reissued in memory of Peterson, who had recently died. Fitzgerald wanted it, however, for the sake of his co-author, who had been her cousin. 'I've so often driven about with him,' she told Carduff, 'with the zoo's first Chinese panda in the back of his car, together with a supply of bamboo shoots.' (Fisher, she explained, was working at London Zoo.) After five hundred pages of her letters the reader is, if not exactly used to this sort of thing, then perfectly prepared for it. The eruption of the startling, the comic and the inexplicable, into a life that Fitzgerald was often at pains to portray as humdrum, gives her correspondence its character and makes these letters, written mostly to family and friends on small occasion or none and with no eye on posterity, completely compelling.
LRB 25 September 2008 | PDF Download