Penelope Fitzgerald

The Gate of Angels

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The Gate of Angels Summary

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Set in Cambridge, in 1912, Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1990 novel, The Gate of Angels, speculates on the seen and the unseen, and which, if either, has the upper hand in matters of truth and reality. Nevertheless, the novel is not ponderously philosophical. Funny, it is also a love story. Fred Fairly is a scientist, and Daisy Saunders, a student nurse. When their bicycles collide, the impact produces attraction and uncertainty.

The Gate of Angels opens three weeks after Fred’s fateful collision with Daisy. Back on his bicycle in the midst of an unusually powerful wind, he and his fellow riders resemble “sailors in peril’ as they whoosh into Cambridge. The gusts knock down willow branches, giving nearby cows sudden access to the “weeping leaves.” During their gleeful plundering of the delicacy, their horns become ensnared with boughs and leaves, impairing their vision. Several trip and fall over, but even while upside-down, “they were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.”

Indeed, logic and reason have become Fred’s guiding lights. Although the son of a reverend and raised in a rectory, Fred, age twenty-five, has “no further use for the soul,” or for anything unobservable. He is now a junior fellow in physics at St. Angelicus, a moribund (and fictional) Cambridge college. Pope Benedict XIII established the college in the fifteenth century, and by the terms of its charter, no fellow is allowed to marry, nor is any female permitted to pass through its hallowed gates, of which there are two. One gate is commonly used; the other – the southwest Gate of Angels – has only been opened “twice in the college’s history.”

This is an age of rapid change in the field of physics. Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, and other scientists are engaged in deconstructing the atom into particles and theorizing about electron charges and whatnot. Cambridge is home to illustrious researchers in the “new physics,” but Fred selects Professor Henry Flowerdew as his mentor. Skeptical of anything beyond the grasp of his five senses, Flowerdew refuses to acknowledge the existence of atoms because “atoms are unobservables.” He suspects that efforts to extrapolate knowledge from unobservables will lead to chaos. Moreover, he anticipates Heisenberg’s 1927 “uncertainty principle” by suggesting that subatomic particles will prove too elusive to measure, so physicists will simply judge their behavior random.

Fred agrees with Flowerdew, remarking, “You can only reason from what you can observe.” This statement has religious implications, too: God is unobservable, so Fred no longer believes in God. He feels obliged to return to the rectory to announce his religious renunciation, but his father is not surprised. The Reverend Farley is more chagrined by developments concerning his wife and daughters, who are sewing banners for a suffragist rally.

While Fred is thrilled to be working at the Cavendish Laboratories, his rooms are cold and damp, and he suffers moments of loneliness. Then, like random particles colliding, he and Daisy crash into one another while both are cycling at night on Guestingly Road. An unlit farmer’s cart emerging from a driveway precipitates the accident. Fred and Daisy are tossed together, unconscious, on the road. The cart driver hastily disappears, and a third, unknown cyclist rides away.

When Fred awakens, he is in a nursery, in bed with a beautiful woman. Mrs. Wrayburn had rescued the pair from the road near her home and assumed they were married after noticing the ring on Daisy’s finger. Fred has never been in such intimate circumstances with a woman. He instantly falls in love with Daisy and shortly thereafter, loses consciousness again. When he reawakens, Daisy is gone.

As it happens, twenty-year-old Daisy is not married. However, an attractive woman from a poor family who must support herself, Daisy has met too many men with dishonorable intentions. She began wearing the ring as a deterrent after the roaming hands of employers forced her to quit several clerical jobs. When her mother died, leaving her with no relations, Daisy began training for a nursing career, a profession well suited to her pious and generous nature.

While working at Blackfriars Hospital, Daisy tries to help a suicidal man locate a woman named “Flo” by taking his story to the newspaper. She is fired for her efforts, however, as they amount to a violation of patient confidentiality. Thomas Kelly, the newspaper’s editor and a scoundrel, is partly to blame for Daisy’s dismissal, but she also intrigues him. When she leaves for Cambridge to find another position, Kelly tags along.

Daisy finds work at a sanatorium. After her run-in with Fred, she returns to visit Mrs. Wrayburn, offering to help the beleaguered woman with housework in exchange for lodging. Fred learns of Daisy’s whereabouts and makes haste to the Wrayburn’s house. They take a walk and, after some friendly talk about flowers, Fred impulsively proposes marriage.

While Mrs. Wrayburn warns Daisy against marrying Fred, as it would cost him his fellowship, rumors about the bicycle collision spin out of control. Dr. Matthew, Provost of St. James and a ghost story enthusiast, spreads a tale of fifteenth-century nuns who buried a man alive at the very site of the bicycle crash. As the cart driver and third cyclist have not yet been accounted for, wild speculation ensues that they, too, are now buried there. Finally, a trial is held to get to the bottom of the matter.

Fred, Daisy, and the owner of the farm-cart, George Turner, are called to testify, but it is a surprise witness – Thomas Kelly – who provides the most shocking revelation at the trial. After identifying himself as the third cyclist, Kelly states that he was bicycling with Daisy that evening, and they had booked a hotel room to spend the night together. Aghast, Fred punches Kelly after the trial, for which Daisy admonishes him.

Confused and hurt, Fred confronts Daisy, demanding an explanation. Pride prevents her from saying that she was jobless and desperate at the time, so she simply tells him she is leaving Cambridge. She decides to return to London.

Becoming lost on the way to the train station, Daisy finds herself at the southwest gate of St. Angelicus. Miraculously, and for only the third time in its history, the gate is open. Hearing a cry, Daisy dashes through the gate to discover the college’s Master has collapsed. She tends to him until others arrive. As she goes out the gate, she encounters Fred Fairly.

The Gate of Angels was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.