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A Reader's Guide

The Gate of Angels

Delights, amuses, disturbs and provokes reflection, in equal measure. —Allan Massie, Scotsman

Cambridge University in 1912 is on the threshold of world-changing discoveries in physics. Young, rational Fred Fairly, a country clergyman’s only son, is a junior fellow at the university’s smallest college, St. Angelicus, closed to women for 500 years. Fred’s experiences with family, colleagues, and the mysterious, beautiful Daisy Saunders, who literally crashes into his life—bring him into a wider world and to some drastic modifications of his diehard beliefs and ambitions.

In this luminous, dexterous novel, Fitzgerald applies her incomparable talent to building a story from apparently irreconcilable strands, from the metaphysical to the religious, with ample mystery, romance, and history thrown in. Atoms and ghosts, angels and villains, certainty and chance, love and jealousy, reason and imagination, all figure prominently in Fitzgerald’s world. And a collision between any two of them can change the course of a life, or of life itself. The Gate of Angels “contains more wit, intelligence and feeling than many novels three times its length” (Michael Ratcliffe).

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and, for every reader, provide a deeper understanding of The Gate of Angels.

1. Fitzgerald has said that she originally wanted to call this novel Mistakes Made by Scientists. In what ways would that title be appropriate? In what ways is The Gate of Angels appropriate?

2. The story opens with a powerful storm that turns people, trees, and even cows topsy-turvy. In what ways does this kind of random disorder, in which people and things go “quite contrary to all their experience,” recur throughout the book?

3. What are some of the differences between Fred’s life in Cambridge and Daisy’s life in south London? What are the opportunities open to men and women in Edwardian England? To what extent does social class shape these opportunities?

4. Fitzgerald has said that the period of her novel, “when the whole controversy about mind and body was really at its height,” is of “very great interest” to her as a novelist and a Christian. What does Fitzgerald make of the conflict between religion and science and that between faith and reason? In what ways might this conflict be different today?

5. Fred and Daisy’s collision with the farmer’s wagon and the resulting new arrangement have parallels with the collisions of atomic particles. What other parallels exist between the new physics and the characters’ lives? 

6. We learn that Fred “felt that luck and chance should have no place in science” or, it is implied, in life. What events and observations lead Fred to change his mind?

7. After James Elder’s departure from Blackfriars, the newspaper headline is “Mystery of ‘Ministering Angel,’” clearly a reference to Daisy. In what ways does the title “Ministering Angel” fit Daisy? What other allusions to angels appear in the novel?

8. In his address to his students, Fred insists that “there is no difference whatever between scientific thought and ordinary thought . . . all thinking is done in precisely the same way . . . don’t, as scientists, believe you are anything extraordinary. Don’t allow yourself for a moment to feel anything like contempt for those whose minds work differently from your own. Their minds in fact don’t work differently from your own . . . The important thing is that a new idea should develop out of what is already there so that it soon becomes an old acquaintance.” In what ways does this statement sum up the novel?

9. How is it appropriate that Daisy Saunders is the first woman ever to enter St. Angelicus? How can we explain the southwest gate’s being left open—for only the third time in five centuries—on this particular evening? What is the significance of the novel’s ending with a chance act of mercy and charity that violates tradition and leads to a romantic reunion of Daisy and Fred?

About the Author

Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel, The Golden Child, in 1977, when she was sixty years old, and since then she has published eight additional novels to increasing praise and prizes. Three of those—The Bookshop (1978), The Beginning of Spring (1988), and The Gate of Angels (1990)—were short-listed for the Booker Prize. She was awarded the Booker Prize for Offshore (1979). She has also written three biographies. Penelope Fitzgerald, who died on April 18th, 2000, is still regarded as "one of [England's] finest and most entertaining novelists...."(The Observer)

Prior to her career as a novelist, Fitzgerald led a varied professional life. In addition to raising three children, she worked as journalist, in the Ministry of Food, at the BBC, and as a teacher. These experiences, as well as her travels, provided a wonderfully rich harvest of settings and characters from which she later crafted her remarkable fictions.

Among her abiding themes are the courage and determination of innocence in the face of sometimes monstrous adversity, the rewards of courageous eccentricity or creative effort, survival in terms of one's own sense of self, and the sometimes tiny sources of both grand achievement and terrible loss.

In addition to having perfected a style graced by wit, keen perception, and mastery of language, Fitzgerald has written a series of "dry, shrewd, sympathetic, and sharply economical books [that] are almost disreputably enjoyable." (New York Times Book Review)

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