The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower was a surprise. I read historical fiction reluctantly, like a dose of cod-liver oil.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s final novel, considered her masterpiece, is a bildungsroman of protagonist Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenburg (Fritz to his friends and family), better remembered as German Romantic poet Novalis.

Fritz falls in love and is betrothed to Sophie, an apparently insipid, frivolous teenager. Over the course of the novel, Fritz’s family and the reader succumb to Sophie’s charms. A simple story, told without excessive prose but rich with successive degrees of detail.

Fitzgerald’s resists completely the plague of historical fiction: the overindulgent padding of unnecessary historical facts and detail to demonstrate a writer’s skills as a researcher. In five succinct pages Fitzgerald gives us the background we require to decipher the motivation of Fritz’s father (chapter 5: The History of Freiherr Heinrich Von Hardenberg).  In one paragraph Fitzgerald reveals the essence of the Freiherr:

Freiherr von Hardenberg was born in 1738, and while he was still a boy came into properties of Oberwiederstadt on the River Wipper in the county of Mansfeld, and the manor and farm of Schlöben-bei-Jena. During the Seven Years’ War he served, as a loyal subject, in the Hanoverian Legion. After the Peace of Paris he gave up his commission. And he married, but in 1769 there was an epidemic of smallpox in the towns along the Wipper, and his young wife died. The Freiherr nursed the infected and the dying, and those whose families could not afford a grave were buried in the grounds of Oberwiederstadt which, having once been a convent, still had some consecrated earth. He had undergone a profound religious conversion –  but I have not! said Erasmus, as soon as he was old enough to ask about the rows of green mounds so close to the house. ‘I have not – does he ever think of that?’

Though Fitzgerald provides little descriptive detail the characters are each distinctive, constructed carefully through dialogue and action. Fritz’s brother “the Bernhard” deserves a story of his own.

Novalis’s best known work is his prose poem Hymns to the Night.

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