Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel in 1977 and won the Booker prize with Offshore in 1979, aged 63. Not since Daniel Defoe (No 2 in this series) has a writer, and self-styled outsider, enjoyed such a remarkable late flowering of imaginative creativity. Before she died, at 83, in 2000, Fitzgerald had published nine novels in about 20 years. In the US, The Blue Flower (1995) is her best-known book, but The Beginning of Spring is probably her masterpiece. Like many of the greatest novels in this series, its peculiar magic almost defies analysis. The closer you get to it, the more elusive its mystery and technique. It remains a brilliant miniature, spanning just a few weeks in 1913, a short book with a sly and gentle sensibility, that somehow comprehends a whole world, and many lives.

Frank Reid, from a Salford printing family, has grown up in czarist Russia in the dangerous decades before the revolution. When the novel opens (the first line is like a stage direction: “In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days”), Frank’s English wife, Nellie, has inexplicably left her husband and gone back to England. This is the breakup that now dominates Frank’s life, much as the impending revolution hangs over imperial Russia.

Frank, inveterately English, is stoic in his distress. The printing business must carry on; his young children must be cared for; he must await Nellie’s return – and the end of winter. Fitzgerald is an instinctively humorous writer whose intuition of life’s tragedies never oppresses her delight in the human comedy. When Lisa Ivanovna, with her “pale, broad, patient, dreaming Russian face”, joins the Reid household to help out, Frank falls hopelessly in love. But then, a Russian enigma who is not what she seems, Lisa mysteriously disappears. With all of Frank’s future suddenly up in the air again, spring has come. “A horse-and-cab pulled up outside,” Fitzgerald concludes, with one final, tantalising revelation still up her sleeve.

The audacity of The Beginning of Spring, and its greatness, is its cheerful willingness to trespass on a literary terrain already made famous, and familiar, through the works of Turgenev, Chekhov and even late Tolstoy. With extraordinary and lyrical brevity, Fitzgerald creates a whole world, but from the inside out, so that all her English and Russian characters become united and universal in a shared humanity.

A note on the text

According to Hermione Lee, whose Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London, 2013) is an indispensable guide, the author worked on the novel that was to have been called “The Greenhouse” throughout 1986 and 1987.

The idea, she later said, “first came to me from a friend of mine who was Swiss but had been brought up in Russia… they had a greenhouse and stayed in Moscow all through the first world war, the Bolshevik revolution, arrival of Lenin… and all this time [were] allowed fuel (coal, wood, birch bark, newspaper) because Russian officials have [a] passion for flowers”. What appealed to Fitzgerald was “a sort of noble absurdity in carrying on in unlikely circumstances”.

She was also very interested in the period 1912-13, just before the first world war. It was, she said, “a time of very great hope… of the coming of the 20th century, hopes of a New Life, a new world, the New Woman, a new relationship between the artist and the craftsman”. Needless to say, almost all this historical background is ruthlessly subordinated to the tale Fitzgerald eventually tells, a story that finds its course by indirections, comic asides and odd scenes like an interlude with a bear. Fitzgerald’s Russia is both completely authentic, yet firmly located deep in her imagination.

In fact, Fitzgerald only made one trip to Russia (in 1975), but the experience stayed with her and she supplemented her memories with Baedeker’s Russia 1914 and the Russian supplements of the Times. She also researched railway stations, train timetables, merchants’ houses, ministries, churches, birch trees, dachas and mushrooms, and came to know exactly what was involved in the running of a small printing house in pre-revolutionary Moscow.

When she had finished, Fitzgerald toyed with calling the novel “Nellie and Lisa”, but was dissuaded by her editor Stuart Proffitt at Harper Collins in London, who offered “The Coming of Spring”, a phrase that his author swiftly improved upon.

It was, she would say later, her favourite book, and she liked to tease by telling some admirers that she had never been to Russia in her life, and others by saying she’d often been there. Proffitt remembers the mischievous way in which Fitzgerald projected versions of herself on friends and acquaintances. Her work is similarly multifaceted, with a fascination for the world’s flotsam and jetsam – the oddball, the outcast and the marginal.

The reviews for The Beginning of Spring were good: “marvellous, intelligent and beautifully crafted” (Daily Telegraph), “one of the outstanding novels of the year” (Times Literary Supplement); “a complete success” (Guardian); and “a tour de force” (London Review of Books). Jan Morris, writing in the Independent, captured the novel’s essential magic: “How is it done?” wrote Morris. “How could she know so much about the minutiae of dacha housekeeping or the rituals of hand-printing craft, or the habits of Moscow nightwatchmen, or the nature of the entertainment at the Merchants’ Club? The plot may be inexplicit, but it is told with a virtuouso storyteller’s technique, is illuminated by classic moments of comedy and keeps one guessing from the first page to the very last line.”

The Beginning of Spring was shortlisted for the Booker (she had already won with Offshore), but it lost out to Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.

Penelope Fitzgerald died in 2000. An edition of her letters, So I Have Thought of You, edited by Terence Dooley (London, 2008), is the perfect complement to her nine novels.

Three more from Penelope Fitzgerald

Offshore (1979); At Freddie’s (1982); The Blue Flower (1995).