Surviving Winter: The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
By Morven Stewart
27th January 2022
With the cold air of winter feeling increasingly ever-present in recent months, loneliness and isolation reaches a peak, and for many this is the hardest season to live through. But for readers seeking a novel which resonates with the hardships of winter, look no further than Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. Despite what the title may suggest, the novel is set in the harsh Russian winter, as the characters navigate the frigid cold of the harshest part of the year, waiting for Spring to arrive. For our protagonist Frank Reid, the ice of winter lives inside of him, as he processes his wife Nelly’s unexplained abandonment of Frank and their children. For Frank, he looks to ‘spring’, not only as a means of survival for his family, but as the possible return of his wife, where his troubles may finally rest.
Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) began her writing career later in life, publishing her first novel, Golden Child, at age 60. She began writing when many would have stopped: in the ‘winter’ of her years. Her focus has remained on historical novels, in which she creates time capsules of an era long-passed. Shortlisted for the 1988 Booker Prize, The Beginning of Spring is not Fitzgerald’s most popular, nor her best-remembered novel. However, those who speak of it do so highly. Fitzgerald’s strength in this work arises from the characters she creates which, as readers, make us feel we can emotionally connect with each of them and their plights. Frank is pulled in many directions, as he must balance his work in a print shop, look after his children, and cope with the loss of his wife.
The people Frank meets are all shrouded in their own unhappiness, yet they find solace in each other’s company. This solidarity pushes Frank to move on from his wife and focus on enjoying and appreciating what he still has in his life. The journey is not easy - he is betrayed and disappointed by those he considers friends and those meant to help him – yet the reader recognises that despite their actions, they are just as lost as Frank. In the closing passage of the book, Frank discovers that his romantic interest had used him to get out of Russia, yet he knows that the love between them was genuine, recognising that people can lie and betray as she did, yet do so without malice. The characters in The Beginning of Spring are ultimately flawed, but Fitzgerald reminds us that ‘flawed’ doesn’t mean they’re incapable of good.
The real skill present in Fitzgerald’s work is her ability to create a meaningful story that is set in both a time and a place she has not experienced. Her male protagonist is so unlike her, yet he connects not only with her writing style, but with all who read it. It is her engagement with universal concepts that makes this novel so meaningful. Despite the cold and grey overtones present in both the landscape and the central characters, there is an overarching optimism. The unforgiving Moscow which Fitzgerald portrays is not without its gems of beauty, and no matter what Frank suffers, he soldiers on with the journey to spring and the return of his wife. What Frank learns is that he can achieve happiness without his wife’s return. As the novel ends and the snow begins to melt, Frank is content in spring without his wife. Her absence is present throughout the entire text, yet only one sentence is devoted to her return, closing Frank’s journey with a ‘spring’ that survived inside him throughout an unforgiving winter.