Beeb and blitz #BBC100
15th October 1940 bomb damage, Broadcasting House © BBC

Human Voices
by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Preface by Hermione Lee, 2013,
introduction by Mark Damazer, 2014. 
4th Estate, 2014 (1980).

“I prithee, | Remember I have done thee worthy service; | Told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, served | Without or grudge or grumblings…”

The Tempest, I ii

If a novel can be termed ‘worthy’ it suggests that it deserves respect for its particular qualities, though not necessarily that it’s admirable or invites fondness. But describing it as ‘worthwhile’ implies that investment in terms of time, effort and consideration, and maybe even emotion, is its own reward.

How then to judge a story that, while supposedly merely focusing on a year in the life of a national institution and a handful of individuals working there, seems to address eternal human concerns such as what constitutes untruths, selfishness, injustice, and love, and which forty years after its publication (and itself forty years after the events it describes) remains not just relevant but as urgent as ever?

However fictional the novel’s characters patently are, the fact that the author actually worked at the BBC during the year in question gives the narrative the ring of authenticity. The closing references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest serve then as a metaphor for how fiction may reflect reality despite being, as Prospero says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

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