At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald
By Kerry Fried
Age has indeed withered the proprietress of London's Temple School for
child actors, but custom has yet to stale her infinite, cadging variety.
Freddie--born Frieda Wentworth--is Penelope Fitzgerald's most marvelous
sacred monster, a woman insanely devoted to her art. Over several decades
she has foiled debt collectors, creditors, and bailiffs at every turn.
What matter if Freddie's Covent Garden redoubt is freezing and falling
apart, her own office-cum-bedroom a haven for must and dust, mold and
mothballs? When one would-be financier has the temerity to display a
balance sheet, she orders him to put it away, "in the tone she used
to the local flasher." After all, this force of theatrical nature can
always rely on actors and theaters for desperate, last-minute donations.
On the other hand, it is 1963, and the school is threatened by
others specializing in film and TV training, but so far Freddie is
sticking to her Shakespearean guns.
The Temple's permanent staff consists of an unskilled handyman and
Freddie's assistant and dresser, the possibly malevolent Miss Blewett. Its
acting coaches include a man who's made his career out of understudying
Nana, the dog-nurse in Peter Pan. Needless to say, the students are
not impressed. To further trim expenses, Freddie has hired two new
teachers from Northern Ireland. One, Hannah Graves, is qualified; the
other, Pierce Carroll, decidedly not--but Freddie hires him for other
reasons: "She had heard in his remarks the weak, but pure, voice of
complete honesty. She was not sure that she had ever heard it before, and
thought it would be worth studying as a curiosity." These two
innocents are in academic charge of the young thespians, an egomaniacal,
mostly mendacious lot. (In a stage school, after all, insincerity is a
good thing.) But Freddie's does house one genius: 9-year-old, unknowable
Jonathan Kemp. Even his guinea pig inherits his bad luck, and is soon
devoured by one of the theater district's roving felines. Jonathan seems
destined to be overshadowed by Mattie Stewart (later Stewart Matthews), a
showoff who at least has the grace--even if it is manifested in spurts of
violence--to know himself inferior. Meanwhile, we watch Pierce fall in
love, hopelessly, with his colleague. Alas, he hasn't a chance against the
dissipated actor Boney Lewis, though Hannah tries not to destroy him:
"At the corner, she gave him a hug and a kiss, as one does to a
cousin, or to the inconsolable."
At Freddie's, Penelope Fitzgerald's 1982 parable of the talents,
constantly shifts between such despair and high comedy. Many
Fitzgerald-philes feel that she reached her apex in her three European
Beginning of Spring, and The
Blue Flower. In fact, she had already arrived there with this
perfect novel of ideas, ideals, and oddities.