‘At Freddie’s’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

While I enjoy books of all shapes and sizes I am especially fond of the really fat or the really thin: big, plump chunky books are great because it means I can spend an extended period of time in the same place, really getting to know the scenery and characters, but little thin ones are also excellent because, while I will race through them in a couple of hours, they are usually so heavily concentrated that I will find myself thinking about them and unpacking them for days afterwards, an amount of time disproportionate to their small stature.  Given my enjoyment of novellas, I’m not sure how I managed to take as long as I have done to discover Penelope Fitzgerald, who (looking at the size of the books that I have by her sat on my shelves) appears to have specialised in this sort of thing.  Feeling in the mood for something less wrist-straining after finishing my enormous hardback edition of The Crimson Petal and the White, I selected a Fitzgerald at random from the pile and so ended up reading At Freddie’s.

Freddie’s is the name by which the theatre school officially known as the Temple Stage School is referred to by anyone in the know in the 1960′s.  Dilapidated and old fashioned, it is kept running by the machinations, scheming and sheer force of will of Freddie, the proprietress.  However, but money is needed and times are changing and Freddie must choose either to change with them or remain true to what she knows.

Penelope Fitzgerald has a very light touch.  In the hands of a different author this could have been a rather obvious, plot-driven novel in which the children of the school and the famous ex-pupils rally round to save the stage school, presided over by an aged and eccentric Freddie, but Fitzgerald transforms it into something far more subtle about the characters and about the theatre for which the plot is merely a vehicle. 

She has an uncanny ability to pin characters down with a few phrases.  I knew exactly what the gloomy Irish teacher was like from just the following description:

He had no ability to make himself seem better or other than he was.  He could only be himself, and that not very successfully.  Meeting Carroll for a second time, even in his green suit, one wouldn’t recall having seen him before.  (p. 21)

Who hasn’t wandered out of a job interview feeling like that at some point in their life?  It is sharp observations and precise characterisations like this that make the book so enjoyable. 

Equally as important as any character in the book is the presence of the theatre itself.  Fitzgerald writes about this with wit and humour, and displays both a genuine affection for the stage as well as an awareness of the reality of the work which goes on behind that.  At Freddie’s acknowledges the rise of film and television as the dominant form of entertainment and does so with a practical manner which does not excessively romanticise the idea of the stage, something which seems quite rare in theatre books.  It displays an equal equanimity towards the disparity between true talent and fame and riches.

I’ve enjoyed my first foray into the works of Penelope Fitzgerald and will be reaching for more whenever I next feel the need for a small but satisfying novella.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald.  Published by Flamingo, 1997, pp. 160.  Originally published in 1982.

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