The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald (Collins, £.12.95).
John Francis Philimore
IT is 1912, in Cambridge and a terrific storm: "the cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their loins were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to sea properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason".
Fred Fairley, a physicist, and Daisy Saunders, a nurse not yet known to him, are involved, on their bicycles, in a crash with a cart. Helping hands take them to the nearest house. She is wearing a wedding ring. They come to in the same bed. Fred's pursuit of Daisy, after this auspicious start, is the simple story of Penelope Fitzgerald's eighth novel. One might carelessly write "deceptively simple", but l think there is no deceit.
The atmosphere of the tale is that of a century waking up. The men, the old, are ineffectual. The master of Fred's college, St Angelicas, is blind. So, in another way, is his professor, Flowerdew, setting his face against the atom "admit the wrong directions, and go back to what can be known through the senses" (this in the year of Wilson's closed chamber photographs leading to the identification of positrons and electrons).
Fred's father, a country clergyman, has taken it for granted that his son will have "no further use for the soul". "All I ask is that you shouldn't talk to me about it," then, without pause, "the women of the house, as perhaps you have seen, for all practical purposes have deserted us".
If Fred marries Daisy he will have to resign his fellowship and join her in the real world — no bad thing suggests Penelope Fitzgerald. Though both the author and her herione are declared Christians it is not clear from this subtle book whether either would have much use for the soul. What seems to be being affirmed is a practical (lovqlife.