Campaign to Sort Out Penelopes and Elizabeths
The main thing to think about when starting out as a writer is, do something about your name. My theory about why British women writers of the mid 20th century now tend to be underrated and neglected is that they are all called Penelope or Elizabeth, and no one can remember which is which. Muriel Spark was sly enough to have a stand-out name and so is the one who gets talked about.
To right this wrong, I've decided to embark on a campaign of sorting the Penelopes from the Elizabeths, so you don't have to.
1. Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald started writing novels in her late 50s - which is an additional reason why she gets forgotten about, people being generally pretty stupid about distinguishing one academic-looking middle-aged woman from another.
She's best known for her novel Offshore, which won the Booker in 1979, but later wrote more ambitious historical novels such as The Blue Flower, about the 18th century German poet Novalis. You can read a slightly patronising piece about her by Julian Barnes here, or an admiring one by AS Byatt here.
I'd read and not thought much about Offshore long ago, so thought I'd give her short stories a go, in her collection, The Means of Escape.
Conclusion: Odd, unsettling little stories, with settings that zip all over the place from a reclusive composer on a Scottish island to plein air 19th century artists. The one that stands out is The Axe, a funny and genuinely frightening office-based tale, with a Bartleby the Scrivener atmosphere about it. One passage made me make a small squeak out loud on the Tube, it startled me so much.
Not at all what you'd expect from the author of Moon Tiger - but then that was Penelope Lively.