The Bourgeois Gentilhomme was one of many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to each other

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

I’ve long had a vague desire to live on a boat. As a child I went on canal boat holidays with my father’s side of the family. I remember chugging gently down English waterways, visiting tiny villages, sunshine and calm water. I don’t know if that’s what it was actually like of course. Memories of childhood holidays aren’t particularly reliable, mine are hazy snapshots at best. That’s what it was like now though, whether it’s what it was like that then or not.

There’s something profoundly romantic about the idea of living on a boat, either that or something desperate. It’s a choice of those two because you either want to do it because despite the inconvenience and impracticality the idea just plain appeals, or you have to do it because you can’t afford an alternative.

Fitzgerald did live on a boat for a while. She writes from knowledge, and it shows. This is a short novel, around 180 pages, and not a lot happens. It’s a portrait in miniature of people living not quite ashore, people who’ve drifted out of the mainstream, fragile people.


The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

It’s 1961, the sixties before they became the sixties. Nenna lives on a houseboat off Chelsea with her two young children, barely getting by. Her marriage has broken down, though perhaps not irretrievably, but for now at least she’s isolated and vulnerable, torn with self-recriminations and an internal narrative that mercilessly interrogates her own failings.

That sounds bleak, but it isn’t because for all she’s on the margins she’s not alone. Her neighbours on the river include Richard, retired ex-Navy and leader of their little community who lives with his exasperated traditionally middle class wife who just wants a nice house in the country; Maurice, a rent boy who’s also Nenna’s closest friend; Willis, an artist in his 60s specialising in maritime portraits that have gone distinctly out of fashion; there are others. The exact members of the community ebb and flow, but what they have in common is that none of them quite fit the larger and brasher world onshore. As Maurice says to Nenna:

You know very well that we’re two of the same kind, Nenna. It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard who can’t give up being half in the Navy, Willis who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead …’ He stopped before describing himself, if, indeed, he had been going to do so.

There’s barely a plot. Willis wants to sell his boat, but it’s in terrible condition and if he’s to succeed he’ll need some help from the others covering up how bad it is, which is a fairly big ask. Nenna wants to get her husband back, to bring him to live on the boat with her, but he’s a deeply conventional man who blames her for the failure of their marriage (as does she in her low moments). Maurice is being forced by a local gangster to store stolen goods on his boat, putting him at risk of arrest if he complies and violence if he doesn’t. Any of those situations could be spun out into a rich and rewarding story if an author wanted to, but that’s not what Fitzgerald’s about here. Instead her interest is in the people themselves, their situations are products of their characters.

In his brilliant foreword Alan Hollinghurst describes Offshore as “tragi-farce”, and I can’t better that. It’s a sad novel in many ways, with gentle people being bruised by a world that isn’t really made with them in mind, but it’s written with a warmth and humour that makes it often very funny.  It opens with a meeting of the various boatowners, each addressed by the name of their boat (Richard, or Lord Jim I should say since that’s his boat, is a stickler for doing things the right way). There’s the Dreadnought, the Rochester, the Grace, and there’s the Maurice which used to be called the Dondeschipolschuygen IV until Maurice, realising that’s what everyone would have to call him, promptly changed its name.

It’s funny too because it’s so well observed, and because by and large people are funny, life is funny, despite (perhaps because) it’s often so terribly serious. Here Willis, the artist, takes Nenna’s children on a trip to the Tate:

Once at the Tate, they usually had time only to look at the sea and river pieces, the Turners and the Whistlers. Willis praised these with the mingled pride and humility of an inheritor, however distant. To Tilda, however, the fine pictures were only extensions of her life on board. It struck her as odd, for example, that Turner, if he spent so much time on Chelsea Reach, shouldn’t have known that a seagull always alights on the highest point. Well aware that she was in a public place, she tried to modify her voice; only then Willis didn’t always hear, and she had to try again a good deal louder. ‘Did Whistler do that one?’ The attendant watched her, hoping that she would get a little closer to the picture, so that he could relieve the boredom of his long day by telling her to stand back.

The children are perhaps the least realistic part of the novel (though in fairness I don’t think the novel is aiming for strict realism, it knows it’s fiction). Martha is eleven, “small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings”. She’s all too aware that her own maturity has already eclipsed her parents, and unlike her mother she sees “no need for fictions”. Tilda is six, a child of the river who sits far up on her mother’s boat’s mast daydreaming. “Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness.”

Neither Martha nor Tilda attend school. It doesn’t seem to matter, both are spectacularly precocious, the only real adults in the book. In Martha’s case you could make a fair argument that children of parents who’re struggling to cope often are forced to mature ahead of time, but that’s I think missing the point. The children are a contrast to the adults, Martha engaging with the world and Tilda creating her own. They’re coping, succeeding even, which is more than anyone else is managing to do. It’s when they grow up that all that might change.

What shone for me here is Fitzgerald’s empathy and quiet precision. She can capture a character in a sentence, like when Nenna’s husband accuses her of having lost his squash rackets:

 ‘You mislaid them deliberately?’

‘I don’t do anything deliberately.’

Or when Richard is described as “the kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning.” She doesn’t judge her characters, doesn’t turn them into playthings for our amusement as say Nabokov does. This is a book filled with compassion, with characters who care for each other where almost nobody else cares for them, and written by an author who at times seems almost as if she’d like to reach into her own book to help them. Take this example, where Nenna finally meets up with her husband but they fall back into a terrible row:

And now the quarrel was under its own impetus, and once again a trial seemed to be in progress, with both of them as accusers, but both figuring also as investigators of the lowest description, wretched hirelings, turning over the stones to find where the filth lay buried. The squash racquets, the Pope’s pronouncements, whose fault it had been their first night together, an afternoon really, but not much good in either case, the squash racquets again, the money spent on Grace. And the marriage that was being described was different from the one they had known, indeed bore almost no resemblance to it, and there was no-one to tell them this.

Offshore is a quiet book, unshowy. Its charms are small ones, delicate moments of observation or humour. It was published in 1979, long after the period it describes, so the characters live not just in a physical hinterland but a temporal one too, offshore in time as well as space. It’s a time when Britain is starting to change, when austerity is making way for a new prosperity. The certainties that men like Richard lived by are on their way out, but by 1979 it must have been plain that the world that came next was no kinder to those who didn’t quite fit.

I’ve already bought another Fitzgerald, her The Bookshop. I’m looking forward to it. Offshore isn’t the kind of novel I typically like, it’s a bit polite, arguably a bit Hampstead, but it’s well written and as ever in the end that’s what counts. It reminds me a bit of Anita Brookner, another novelist who could be described as perhaps too polite, too Hampstead, but again an author who could definitely write.

Given it won the Booker it’s not surprising that Offshore has been fairly widely reviewed. Here‘s themookseandthegripes on it, with a good discussion in the comments (I note Guy Savage didn’t take to it so much); here‘s Kimbofo on it, good as ever; and here‘s a typically good piece by Sam Jordison of the Guardian on his Booker blog which I highly recommend reading for some background on the novel’s apparently rather conroversial Booker win. Finally, here‘s an excerpt of Alan Hollinghurst’s blisteringly good foreword as published in The Telegraph.


Filed under Booker, Fitzgerald, Penelope

25 responses to “The Bourgeois Gentilhomme was one of many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to each other

  1. I read my first Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring, earlier this year and liked it a lot. As you say, there is a quiet precision to her writing, as if she doesn’t feel the need to show off or add any superfluous flourishes. And yet there’s so much contained within that final quote in your review. I really like the sound of this one, Max, but it might have to wait as The Bookshop and The Gate of Angels are sitting on my tbr shelves.

  2. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on The Bookshop. I read it a couple of years ago and was very impressed with Fitzgerald and her ability to create such a simple but affecting story in little more than 100 pages.

  3. I was going to jump in and say I didn’t care for this one, but then I saw the comment. I much preferred the Bookshop. Also read The Beginning of Spring, but the Bookshop is still my favourite of the three.

  4. I’ve forgotten that review Jacqui, I’ll have to go back and read it (again?). Nothing superfluous, I agree, but lots contained there nonetheless.

    Literary, it’ll be a little while but yes, do you have a link to your review? I’d be curious to see it?

    Guy, do you recall why you didn’t like it? Was it anything I touched on above?

  5. An excellent review, Max. I can only second your thoughts — Offshore may be a bit of trifle, but it is so well done that it remains firmly fixed in my memory.

  6. Glad you commented Kevin, I searched yours but couldn’t find a review. Did you not do one, because I did see that Kimbofo got it from your recommendation.

    A well done trifle is fair I think. I have though a fondness sometimes for trifles, certainly more of a fondness than I do for vast capital N major novels which I can at times find a bit wearying.

  7. I’ve read all but a couple of Fitzgerald’s novels – not sure why I haven’t read them all – so I encourage more reading of here. Yes, yes, yes.

    A couple of points of disagreement. First, I think she shows off plenty. There is more than one way to show off. She is something of a writer’s writer – other writers like to pull her apart. What she does is plenty tricky.

    Second, I do not understand the idea that she does not judge her characters or manipulate them. Maybe you mean she does not judge them negatively? In The Bookshop she judges an entire town quite harshly.

    Those children, those kinds of children, are recurring features in Fitzgerald. Not in every book, but see, for example, At Freddie’s for a slew of them. Strange children.

  8. On the judging point it was a reference purely to this novel, I haven’t read The Bookshop. I didn’t have a sense of her condemning them, of her despising their weakness. I contrasted with Nabokov because wonderful as he is I think there’s sometimes a certain cruelty to his writing.

    I would have thought negatively always implied when you talk of someone judging someone else. I’ve never heard that used in a positive context, but I did mean negatively.

    On showiness, I’m certainly not saying it’s not tricky, but it’s not tricky on a surface level. it takes huge skill to write a quiet novel, a novel in which nothing much happens, but there’s no showy linguistic tricks of the sort you might get say in a Lawrence Norfolk novel or an Ann Quin novel.

    Hollinghurst makes the same point on the children. I think there is definitely an element of intentionality, int hat they stand in comparison to the adults, but I certainly don’t write out that she perhaps just isn’t terribly good at creating persuasive children. Still, if she isn’t she turns that weakness at least in part to a success, but not so much a success I didn’t think it still worth mentioning as an issue (Kimbofo picks up on that too).

    Thanks for the comment, I always welcome disagreement. Have you reviewed any of hers at yours?

  9. I have only written about Fitzgerald in the context of an essay she wrote about Margaret Oliphant. And it seems in another post I called the last line of The Bookshop an especially good closing line.

  10. Here you go, Max:

    There’s a strange, rather eerie child in The Beginning of Spring, too. Dolly, aged ten, seems wise beyond her years.

  11. Col

    I read a couple of Penelope Fitzgerald novels last year on the back of a talk by Andrew Miller who used her prose to illustrate points about writing. Offshore wouldn’t have sounded like my kind of book before I’d read them – but I will definitely look for it now. The Bookshop was one of two I read – and I really enjoyed it.

  12. I read this before I started blogging, so there is no review on my blog. I will say that it was my first Fitzgerald and it did inspire me to read every one of her works that I could get my hands on.
    I too was and am very impressed with Firzgerald as a writers’ writer whose ability to use the language is perhaps her major strength. I don’t mean “trifle” as a criticism, but a description (I’d use the same term for A Month In The Country which I hold in equally high esteem).
    I also agree with your observation about the adult-like nature of the children in this novel. From my perspective, Fitzgerald used them almost as surrogates for the reader — they have fully-developed observational abilities but (like the reader) sometimes lack the breadth of knowledge and context to be able to apply those abilities completely.

  13. My French mind had to adjust from the title to the actual content of your review. When I see Bourgeois Gentilhomme, it conjures up images of Molière, costumes and farce. Why did you pick this quote for the title of your post? I know it’s a quote from the book but why this one.

    I’ve never read her but she sounds really good. Due to the title, I’m more tempted by The Bookshop. I’ve seen in the comments it’s quite good.

  14. leroyhunter

    I’ve read most of her novels and she’s a very fine writer. Deceptive, I think. There is a qualitative difference between these earlier books (of which I agree The Bookshop is the best) and the “historical” stories she then turned to, culminating in the luminous The Blue Flower. Those “strange” children feature in other books – in The Beginning of Spring, there is a marvellous (and horrific) scene involving a gang of kids and a bear. I’m not sure they’re all that un-realistic – exaggerated for effect, maybe. There’s something of the way Richard Hughes treats the children in High Wind in Jamaica, and tinges of some of Saki’s unworldly, provocative junior protagonists. They are a deliberate contrast, almost a challenge to the oh-so-important business that the adults are invariably tangled up with.

    It’s easy but I think unfair to dismiss her as a writer of “trifles”. Thinking about her books immediately makes me want to reread them, or more specifically get my unread one (Innocence) off the shelf. I hope you try some more by her (they are all short books).

  15. Thanks Tom, and thanks for the comment anyway. Disagreement always welcome.

    Thanks Jacqui, I’ll leave a comment at yours.

    Col, I suspect my reaction is fairly similar. Based on pure description I don’t think I’d have read her. It was hearing her discussed by others that got my attention.

    Kevin, I think the surrogates point is spot on, as I said it didn’t feel to me that I was expected to take the children as an attempt at realism, they were clearly doing something beyond that.

    Thanks for the explanation re trifle, I get what you mean now. Looking back at what I wrote I see I talked about the book’s charms being “small ones”, which I think was probably a similar thought.

  16. Emma, it’s a shop name, and to a British reader a rather pretentious one because of its associations which are entirely unmerited. I liked the quote as for me it captured a sense of keeping up appearances, but only barely and with a distinct air of seediness creeping in.

    The Bookshop might well be a better starting point. I picked this one I think because of Kevin’s praise of it and Trevor’s, but there’s no magic to it as a first choice. The Bookshop sounds like it’s better though, which may or may not be a reason to read it first (I often prefer not to start with the best).

    Leroy, very fine, deceptive, both good ways of putting it. I’ve been reading some Saki recently oddly enough, it’s an interesting point of comparison and not one that had occurred to me (I don’t know the Hughes).

    I will try more. She’s also got me wanting to (re)read some Brookner, and to try overdue writers such as Barbara Pym who I suspect is wildly different. Time though, time is always the issue…

  17. I am sure this is a minority opinion, maybe a very small minority, but I would pick Human Voices as the best of the earlier books. It is based on Fitzgerald’s experience working at the BBC during the Blitz.

    Perhaps I just find the “life during wartime” setting so interesting. But I think there are some more literary surprises in the book as well.

  18. I’ve no idea how minority an opinion it is, but I’ll check it out. It does sound interesting.

    Have you read Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude?

  19. No. Very tempting. Maybe someday Wuthering Expectations will slowly convert into a “literature of WWII” blog.

  20. The Hamilton’s great. Very much worth reading.

  21. Thanks, I’ll take a look!

  22. Pingback: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald | JacquiWine's Journal

  23. I just realised that I’ve used the same ‘barge dwellers’ quote in my review. Oh well…

  24. I always find it a comfort when I pick the same quote as another blogger. It suggests that if I have got the book utterly wrong, I’m at least not entirely alone in doing so…

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