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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Gate of Angels

Penelope Fitzgerald

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To purchase The Gate of Angels

Title: The Gate of Angels
Author: Penelope Fitzgerald
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990
Length: 220 pages
Availability: The Gate of Angels - US
The Gate of Angels - UK
The Gate of Angels - Canada
La porte des anges - France
Das College - Deutschland
Il cancello degli angeli - Italia
La puerta de los ángeles - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neatly done slice of the times, and much more

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 2/1992 Phoebe-Lou Adams
Literary Review . 8/1990 Lynne Truss
Kondon Rev. of Books . 13/9/1990 Peter Campbell
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/3/1992 Louis B. Jones
Sunday Times . 26/8/1990 John Melmoth
The Times A 23/8/1990 Victoria Glendinning
The Washington Post A+ 23/2/1992 Nina King

  From the Reviews:
  • "The writing is steadily entertaining, but the elements of the tale never cohere to any discernible purpose." - Phoebe-Lou Adams, The Atlantic

  • "The book is short and full of activity. The story moves swiftly in unexpected directions. It is inspiring, funny and touching. One cannot write about it without giving away a lot of the plot, which is a pity when the story is so briskly anecdotal. (...) The Gate of Angels has, like others of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, a sudden, open ending in which the trajectory of the plot continues into an uncertain future. This final economy is appropriate in a book which is poetic in the sense that the pleasure it gives comes from compact, uncluttered expression to which readers can add much for themselves." - Peter Campbell, London Review of Books

  • "Ah, but this book is full of unobservables. It's composed of unobservables. (...) Ms. Fitzgerald is usually credited by critics with a skill for "compression," meaning she crams a lot into a relatively slender book. However, it's possible that, instead, what we have here is a slight defect. What seemed in earlier novels compression appears slapdash in this one. Her narration is sometimes such a jumble of abrupt non sequiturs and warp-speed shifts among many characters' points of view that the reader is often confused and must reread certain passages. Then again, maybe heightened concentration is the price a reader must pay for such wit. Much delight comes from flitting around with a mercurial author, an angel" - Louis B. Jones The New York Times Book Review

  • "Having posed the problem of how to bring Fred and Daisy together again, and how to overcome the difficulties of such diverse backgrounds, Fitzgerald appears to lose interest. Their eventual reunion, although a foregone conclusion, is a last-minute business. The novel's elements of high farce require for their resolution the kind of meticulous plotting that Fitzgerald has never had much time for. (...) Physically slight, The Gate of An\gels is nevertheless required to carry a considerable burden of parody and reference. Its 160-odd pages provide a home for an admittedly cursory historical novel, a ghost story, a costume drama and moments of surreal comedy (.....) All of which is jolly good fun, but there are moments when Fitzgerald's distinctive voice is in danger of being drowned out -- and it was that, after all, that we came to hear." - John Melmoth, Sunday Times

  • "This is an achievement -- a metaphysical novel which is entertaining, brief (167 pages), and a love story. It is highly original, yet familiar in the context of clever women's writing -- it is as if this were an Iris Murdoch novel condensed by Alice Thomas Ellis in a blithe and ruthless mood. The book's shortness and spareness, combined with the complexity of its concerns, is a miracle of technique . And in spite of its concentrated quality, there still seem airy spaces in the writing and time for leisurely observations" - Victoria Glendinning, The Times

  • "For three-quarters of the book it is possible to read The Gate of Angels as a charming, quirky romance of lovers from different worlds. (...) This funny, touching, wise novel manages, despite its brevity, to seem leisurely. It is vibrant with wonderful minor characters, ablaze with ideas." - Nina King, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Gate of Angels is set in 1912, with Fred Fairly, a Junior Fellow at the Cambridge college of St Angelicus, having recently been involved in a bicycle accident. Some mystery surrounds it -- while he knows the name of another cyclist who was injured, Daisy Saunders, the fellow she was cycling with can't be found after the accident, and neither can the cart driver who caused it. When Fred came to after the accident he found himself beside Daisy, and was immediately smitten -- but she's soon gone, and he's not sure how to find her.
       Fitzgerald divides her novel into four parts, and the first focuses and fills us in on Fred. The son of a Rector, he had gone on to study at Cambridge, taking the science tripos and getting a First Class degree. It is a time of great advances in physics, with much of the interesting work being done at Cambridge, and this makes for part of the backdrop of the novel. So also Fred moves away from religion: among the novel's episodes is one in which he tells his father that "he was no longer a Christian". (Meanwhile, in Fred's absence, his mother and two younger sisters take up the cause of women's suffrage.)
       Fred had become a Junior Fellow at St Angelicus -- the smallest college at Cambridge, with only six fellows ("all scientists, or mathematicians") and a strict prohibition against women, to the extent that fellows are not allowed to marry and women aren't even allowed to enter the college grounds. One of the issues Fred faces is whether to pursue having a family -- which would mean finding a new position, since he could not marry if he wanted to stay at St Angelicus.
       The second part of the novel introduces Daisy at some length. She is of a different, lower social class than Fred, and after her mother's death went into nursing -- only to be let go because of a misguided attempt to help a patient. She wound up in Cambridge, settling in reasonably well after her cycling mishap, even if she only found a rather lowly position. Eventually, Fred does find her again, and begins courting her.
       Matters come to a head when there is a court case regarding the cycling accident, with both the driver of the cart and the mystery-cyclist identified -- leading to a revelation that Daisy would have preferred to keep secret and which threatens to upend her life yet again.
       The simple love story is the loose frame for Fitzgerald's novel, but in focusing on Fred and Daisy's separate lives she builds up something considerably larger and certainly more far-ranging. It's deftly woven together -- though its leaps can be disorienting, as the narrative careens all about.. Not least, there's a Dr Mathews, Provost of James's, who is often invited to dine at St Angelicus, often bringing along one of the ghost stories that he likes to write for relaxation; one of these is then also reproduced in it entirety and figures prominently in the story.
       The Gate of Angels captures the period in which the story is set exceptionally well, and Fitzgerald expertly uses the times and conditions, from the changing concepts of reality that the discoveries in physics are suggesting to the position of women. Throughout, there are clever asides and observations, revealing scenes -- many concise, some wonderfully expansive, such as one describing Mrs Wayburn, who studied for four years at the Cambridge college of Newnham but now finds herself more or less simply a housewife:

     She looked at the sink, loaded down with all that was necessary when a husband had his daily meals in the house. Like most of her friends, she had prayed not to marry a clergyman, a general practitioner, or a university lecturer without a fellowship. All these (unlike the Army or the Bar) were professions that meant luncheon at home, so that every day (in addition to cups, plates and dishes) demanded toast-racks, egg-cups, egg-cosies, hot water jugs, hot milk strainers, tea-strainers, coffee-strainers, bone egg-spoons, sugar-tongs, mustard-pots manufactured of blue glass inside, metal outside, silver fruit knives (as steel in contact with fruit-juice was known to be poisonous), napkins with differently coloured rings for each person at table, vegetable dishes with handles in the shape of artichokes, gravy boats, dishcovers, fish-forks with which it was difficult to eat fish (but fish-knives were only for vulgarians), muffin dishes which had to be filled with boiling water to keep the muffins at their correct temperature, soup-plates into which the soup was poured from an earthenware container with a lid, cut-glass blancmange dishes, knife-rests for knives, fork-rests for forks, cheese dishes with lids the shape of a piece of cheese, compotiers, ramekins, pipkins, cruets, pots. All of these were not too much (on a clean cloth, too, with the centre fold forming a straight line the whole length of the table) for Mr Wrayburn to expect -- Mrs Wrayburn did not think it unreasonable, and nor did Daisy -- and most of them were in the sink at the moment, waiting, in mute reproach, to be washed and dried.
       The Gate of Angels is deceptively short, with Fitzgerald in fact ranging far and wide. As such, the novel has a somewhat loose feel -- a whirlwind of characters, incidents, and observations -- but there's enough solidity to the whole. There's a nice comic touch to much of it -- not least in the novel's concluding chapter --, and Daisy, in particular, is an impressive character.
       A comedy of manners of those particular times, The Gate of Angels juggles most of its ambitions well -- and certainly packs a lot in. It is good fun -- with lots of clever bits, often very nicely and tightly expressed.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 July 2022

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The Gate of Angels: Reviews: Penelope Fitzgerald: Other books by Penelope Fitzgerald under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Penelope Fitzgerald lived 1916 to 2000.

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© 2022 the complete review

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