Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995). A truly wonderful book, based on a true story. It is probably the best work of historical fiction ever written. Full stop.

Although, superficially, I must admit, the story is almost Mills & Boon. Germany in the 1790s, the French Revolution rumbling in the background. Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), aka ‘Novalis’, is a struggling young poet, philosopher and novelist (& impoverished minor aristocrat). He falls in love with the young (very young!) daughter of an unacceptably bourgeois family. In his courtship he is aided, impeded, and exasperated by a superbly rich and varied cast of family members and friends. Gradually, Friedrich wins her affection, her parents’ assent (not too difficult, if their daughter be allowed to grow just a little older), and finally his father’s blessing (very difficult). Fitzgerald’s writing is precise and light and tight. Some of the dialogues (and especially some of the unspoken asides) are laugh-out-loud. The ending broke my heart.

I nearly didn’t read this, highly praised and prized though it is. The German Romantic philosophers and poets can be very heavy going. But Fitzgerald sketches her hero’s philosophical obsessions deftly, almost teasingly, yet without condescension. Only Goethe gets a bit of a kicking. To Karoline, the clever, young housekeeper, Friedrich explains that Goethe’s heroine Mignon (in the Wilhelm Meister stories – no, me neither) ‘dies because the world is not holy enough to contain her’. ‘She dies,’ Karoline tartly replies,’ because Goethe couldn’t think what to do with her next.’

Fitzgerald’s epigraph to the story is a quote from Novalis’ writings: ‘Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history’. Not quite sure what that means, but it sounds good. Like a lot of German Romantic pronouncements.

(Featured image Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash.)