This book is that rare thing: a biography that does not disappoint. Too many lives of public figures offer intrusive speculation under the guise of insight; Hermione Lee, biographer and essayist, has immersed herself in her subject’s life and writings and had produced a work of sympathetic understanding and tact, fully repaying the confidence that Fitzgerald’s two daughters showed when asking her to undertake the biography of their mother’s life.

I confess that I have not (yet) read Fitzgerald’s nine short novels, one of which, Offshore, unexpectedly won the Booker Prize in 1979; that pleasure is to come. Lee’s perceptive discussion on how the early novels provide an oblique commentary on the life serves to increase both my curiosity and my respect for the novelist’s achievements, given the practical difficulties she had to contend with for most of her life. Virginia Woolf famously wrote of women writers needing an income of £500 a year and a room of their own. Far from having an independent income, Fitzgerald had to become the main breadwinner in her family for many years; far from having a room of her own she generally had to make do with sleeping on a sofa in the sitting room (retiring when everyone else had gone to bed) and, in the early days, writing in the lunch hour in the staff room of the tutorial college where she taught.

A member of the high-minded, Anglican middle classes, Fitzgerald was the daughter of Edmund (Evoe) Knox, the eldest of four formidable brothers; they included Ronald, who became a well-known Catholic priest and translator of the Bible, and Dillwyn, a brilliant code-breaker at Bletchley Park during WW2. Lee describes them as “a vicarage family and vicarages were the intellectual power houses of nineteenth century England.” Fitzgerald, who was to write their biography, “The Knox Brothers”, absorbed their influence and outlook on life: in their cleverness, their modesty, their emotional reserve and their mild eccentricity “there was a standard to emulate” which she chose not to evade.

Evoe Knox was a humorous journalist who wrote for and later edited Punch, the weekly satiric magazine. His daughter commented that “Being funny is a hard way to earn a living.” Her early life (she was born in December 1916), though rich in the arts and culture, was spent in a Sussex cottage without electricity, telephone, fridge or washing machine. She watched her mother, an Oxford scholar from the same college, Somerville, where she herself was later to become the senior scholar, struggle with domestic drudgery just as she was later to struggle.

Graduating from Oxford with a congratulatory First, the young Penelope Knox, hopeful, confident and energetic, intended from the start to be a writer. Then in 1942 she met and married an Irish army officer, Desmond Fitzgerald. As Lee suggests drily, “Presumably he was about to have a heroic war and then to become a distinguished lawyer.” It did not work out that way. Like the father of crime writer PD James, Desmond was deeply affected by the War; many friends had died and he had seen appalling sights; after it, he could never bear the sound of fireworks. He tried running a literary journal along with his wife and then practised briefly at the Bar; essentially his professional life was a failure and his wife realized early on that she would have to keep the family afloat.

She did this literally for a time in the early 1960s, when the family – which now included three children “who would be at the heart of her life forever” and whom she was determined would have the same educational opportunities as she had had – ended up living on a leaky barge on the Thames. They had already left Hampstead in a hurry, living beyond their means, and then Southwold, on the Suffolk coast, for the same reason. It was the lowest point of her life: “a 43-year-old wife and mother with an ineffectual husband and next to no income.” Desmond, who was now drinking heavily, was convicted of forging cheques; their home was “rough, cold, grim, wet” according to her daughter Tina (it finally began to sink one morning and had to be towed away); there was little money and their diet was spartan.

Characteristically, Fitzgerald refused to ask her extended family for help; with equal determination she found a permanent income, teaching at different tutoring establishments. Lee writes with understatement, “For very many years teaching was her day job…she was always tired.” Her former pupils, among whom were future writers Marina Warner and Edward St Aubyn, recalled her as a gifted mentor; she made meticulous notes in her fine italic handwriting on the texts she taught, and worked formidably hard. On the subject of her marriage or her husband’s drinking she kept a silence “that was almost impenetrable.” For a time Desmond sold encyclopaedias door to door.

The family was finally re-housed in an ugly council flat where they stayed eleven years, until 1975. Teaching continued while the children began to grow up and leave home. All this time, Lee writes, Fitzgerald craved “beauty and art and fine language and ideas…she went to art galleries and cinemas…she read incessantly and travelled as much as she could.” Desmond finally found low-paid work as a clerk in a travel agency which, conveniently, gave the family reduced fares when travelling abroad. The future novelist refused to be defeated by the difficulties of domestic life, even if she later wrote, “Unfortunate are the adventures which are never narrated.” Her perceptive chronicler gives a moving glimpse of this extraordinary woman: despite everything, “Her spirit, her will, her appetite for life, her interests, her energy were vital and powerful.”

All the time that Fitzgerald was forced into practical tasks rather than fulfil her vocation as a writer she was storing the experiences, if not consciously, for the future. Her teaching notes were illuminating, showing her “thinking intently and deeply about art and writing.” At last “her debts were paid, she had a home, no-one was depending on her and time was short: she was 60.” Desmond died of cancer in 1976; between 1978 and 1982 four novels appeared rapidly – a distinctive style of fiction writing in which “she both kept herself concealed and gave herself away.” More were to follow. Fitzgerald described them as “tragical comedies.” Her biographer calls them “writing salvaged from personal anguish, translated into fiction long after the events.”

This highly original author, yet deeply reserved private woman, confessed in old age (she died in 2000, aged 84) that she wished she had put more of her religious beliefs into her novels. Lee admits, “There are many things she did not want anyone to know about her and which no one will ever know. I find this frustrating, amusing, seductive and admirable.” I agree; now to discover the real Penelope Fitzgerald in her writings.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.