“The Blue Flower” by Penelope Fitzgerald

Book Review:

Reviewer : Sandya Narayanswami

When I was a child, I would frequently be overcome by a feeling of something wonderful just around the corner. It could not be grasped or defined, only experienced.  This feeling was triggered by many things: red peony shoots coming up through black soil in spring, certain cloud formations, the quality of light on a clear winter morning.  These things still haunt me and even now, I cannot tell you what they mean, though I am always trying to recapture the feeling.

As a teenager, I read avidly the Victorian fairy stories of Jean Ingelow, Mary de Morgan, and especially George Macdonald.  Macdonald’s “Phantastes” contains several quotes from the German Romantic poet Novalis, Friedrich, Freiherr von Hardenburg.  They have as mysterious a quality as “Phantastes” or MacDonald’s other masterpiece “The Golden Key”.  This thread runs through Victorian literature and finds its culmination in JRR Tolkien’s “Smith of Wootton Major”, with its unsatisfied yearning for Faëry.  We can enter but we may not stay….  The Blue Flower is a symbol Novalis uses in his unfinished novel “Heinrich von Ofterdingen”.  Soon after this period, attempting to better understand myself, I read Jung, the Complete Works, and I still find Jungian analysis helpful.  I also translated Novalis’ poetry, filled with symbols, from French to English.

The Blue Flower is a novel about Novalis and his love for Sophie von Kühn.  Written in 55 short chapters it creates a vivid picture of life in late 18thcentury Saxony.  Novalis is a budding young genius filled with the excitement of intellectual discovery and if anything, a little odd, though loved by all.  His father – The Father in the German style-the book is replete with Germanismus – has designed that he follow a career as an Inspector of salt mines and he dutifully trains for this while at the same time speculating intensely about life.  He sees The Blue Flower in a dream, and experiences a coup-de-foudre on first meeting Sophie von Kühn, a completely uninteresting 13-year-old girl, also living in a large family in Saxony.  She inexplicably becomes his muse, and the entire thing baffles his family.  

I don’t read much fiction and felt some trepidation about the book, but you get sucked in immediately into the story of Fritz and Sophie.

The Blue Flower is never explained.  It is best understood using the language of Jung.  The German Romantics were in tune with symbols of the Unconscious.  Sophie dies young of TB aged 15, and Novalis himself died aged only 28, also of TB, in 1801.  All their brothers and sisters, so vividly realized in the novel, are dead of TB by 1810 and one is left with a great sense of the sadness of lost potential. Novalis published poetry, wrote two unfinished novels, and worked on other projects.  The German Romantics are perhaps best appreciated in one’s twenties, when I first met them, but one is left wondering whether things might have been different had Novalis lived longer.  Germany took the other path.

“Our life is no dream: but it ought to become one and perhaps will”. Novalis

Sandya Narayanswami 2021