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.”
Throughout 1940, as Hitler’s armies spread over continental Europe and the US held back from involvement, Britain appeared to be alone in its opposition to Nazi invasion despite bombs raining down on its infrastructure and cities. The still fledgling BBC, founded as the British Broadcasting Company in October 1922, saw itself as a beacon of hope, proud of its independence even as it worked with government in the national interest. The author tells us that “as an institution they could not tell a lie, they were unique in the contrivances of gods and men since the Oracle of Delphi,” and so
remained loyal to the truth, even when they stretched it a little to spare the feelings of their employees.Chapter 6
This – the principle of telling the truth – is one of the themes of Human Voices, the novel’s title itself taken from the phrase that the broadcasters’ remit was “scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost […] for the sake of the few that made their mark.” But even as the staff had truth as their guiding light they still told half-truths to each other and each even concealed truths from their own selves.
The author foregrounds four main characters, two men and two women. Sam Brooks, Recorded Programmes Director, is a perfectionist, an engineer in charge of recording and preserving voices and sounds, who surrounds himself with a coterie of female assistants generally known as the Seraglio. He is Epimetheus to Jeff Haggard’s Prometheus, the Director of Programme Planning and therefore responsible for future transmissions as Brooks preserves the past.
We get to know two of the female assistants in the Seraglio in some depth, the half-French Lise Bernard (who, disappearing part way through the narrative, hides a truth about herself) and Annie Asra, daughter of a deceased piano tuner, who is more inclined to speak her mind and thus ruffle some feathers. The interaction as the individuals in this quartet reveal or conceal truths from each other is the apparent mainstay of Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, but the author herself is not above concealing and revealing as we observe the toing and froing in the BBC’s flagship, Broadcasting House.
And here is where a parallel with Shakespeare’s last play, hinted at but not explicit till the last chapter, looms large within the novel. Over the entrance of the building is placed a sculpture of Prospero and Ariel by the controversial artist Eric Gill, who in fact died in 1940. When Fitzgerald wrote this novel revelations regarding Gill’s sexual abuse had not been made public but he was already a known philanderer. Fitzgerald – knowingly, I believe – mixed in themes from Gill’s womanising, Prospero’s creating illusions in The Tempest, Miranda’s innocence combined with forthrightness, and the notion of Broadcasting House as an urban ocean liner (albeit with the “wrong” windows) subject to the tempest that was the Blitz. Meanwhile, as BH is itself threatened by parachute bombs, announcers wrestle with the problem of pronouncing their official name of “aerial torpedoes”.
The strength of much of Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing comes when she reveals a lot by saying relatively little, often by way of humour or a striking simile. “On the telephone [Haggard’s] voice dropped even lower, like a voice’s shadow” captures this character perfectly. Brook’s obsession as a recording engineer is transferring patterns, perfecting the skill of transforming sound “from air to wax, the kind of thing which through all the preceding centuries has been possible only to the bees.” Annie – perhaps modelled by Fitzgerald on herself – declares “perfect pitch is something you’re born with, like a sense of humour.”
Above all, this novel is a revelatory portrait of the BBC, its personnel and its workings during the war from an insider, expressed from a laconic more than a sardonic perspective; as with portraits it represents a moment in time rather than a complete narrative, a middle with no declared beginning, still less an end. I found it surprisingly moving despite not conforming to initial expectations.
For all its faults and its falling victim to political machinations in recent years the BBC has not only survived to mark its centenary in 2022 but has retained some adherence to its founding principles of informing, educating and entertaining. Whether it survives to celebrate its bicentenary with the same ideals remains to be seen.