Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Blue Flower

Rate this book
The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking?

Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, ‘The Blue Flower’ is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.

320 pages, Paperback

First published September 21, 1995

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Penelope Fitzgerald

57 books628 followers
Penelope Fitzgerald was an English novelist, poet, essayist and biographer. In 2008, The Times included her in a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945". In 2012, The Observer named her final novel, The Blue Flower, as one of "the ten best historical novels".

Fitzgerald was the author of nine novels. Her novel Offshore was the winner of the Booker Prize. A further three novels — The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels — also made the shortlist.

She was educated at Wycombe Abbey and Somerville College, Oxford university, from which she graduated in 1938 with a congratulatory First.

She was the granddaughter of Edward Lee Hicks

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
1,091 (19%)
4 stars
1,671 (29%)
3 stars
1,845 (32%)
2 stars
770 (13%)
1 star
283 (5%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 854 reviews
Profile Image for Ilse.
458 reviews2,964 followers
March 22, 2021
The dream of the blue flower

What means something to us, that we can name.

People in distress are selfish beyond belief.

You must know that people are only interested in their own dreams.

The Blue Flower is a delectably rich, multi-layered novel, as some of the excellent reviews (see here, here, here, here and here) elucidate, revealing the variegated angles and sides from which the reader could approach the novel, making it clear this is the kind of novel that gets even more rewarding reading it at least twice. One can read it for the delightful cast of characters (particularly some of the women, The Mandelsloh and Karoline Just), or revel in the resplendent descriptions and savoury details (the annual washday, the Christmas tree and celebration), or explore in more depth the philosophical ideas and thoughts of German Romanticism which Fitzgerald weaves into the narrative, or muse over the kernels of aphoristic wisdom glowing in the brief sentences, or why not, pore over the symbolic meaning of the blue flower and Fitzgerald’s view on it – and that all packed in a slender 226 pages.

This was my second foray into Penelope Fitzgerald’s work (first was The Bookshop) and again I was impressed what a dainty and brilliant writer she was. While I often struggle somewhat with historical novels The Blue Flower drew me in effortlessly, not once I heard that grating little inner voice questioning its verisimilitude or uttering uneasiness about the blurring of fact and imagination which at times keeps me from wholly enjoying historic fiction. Fitzgerald takes the reader with her in a gem of a time capsule, not of the sweepingly epic kind, but by short scenic fragments, wit in balance with seriousness, playfully executed.

The whole atmosphere Fitzgerald paints and the material and intellectual landscape she creates felt as real as the bruise from bumping into the table when trying to do three things a time. Not that I was won over immediately. At first, just like his circle of friends and family, I found it hard to imagine and accept what seemed to me the unlikely and incomprehensible sudden infatuation the 22 year old Fritz von Hardenberg (later known as the poet Novalis, 1772-1801) developed for the 12 year old Sophie von Kühn, his ‘Philosophy’. Gradually however I noticed my reservations had simply melted away, Fitzgerald had been subtly altering my initial impressions about her, which weren’t very flattering. And so by her writerly imagination, Fitzgerald’s novel epitomizes Novalis own take on imagination (as far as I understood it from Rüdiger Safranski): imagination is a perceptible vital power in life which not only gives wings to one’s own sense of life by creating a new, subjective reality but also acts like a magnet on the outside world, taking out something from the other person that they actually have in them. Through the imagination you change and elevate yourself and the other.

(Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning, 1808)

Emotionally affecting as the tale turned out to be, I surprised myself I was able to hold the tears back at the bleak ending – at least until I had finished the afterword, written in a modus somewhat reminding me of the finale of Six feet under. The brevity of many of these lives.

In hindsight The Blue Flower was a highlight of last reading year (and a perfect Christmas read) so I have my eyes firmly set on a revisit once I have managed to read Safranski’s Romanticism: A German Affair; I’ll also make an attempt to read Hymns to the Night and Henry von Ofterdingen.

Julian Barnes wrote a wonderful tribute to Penelope Fitzgerald in his Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story which you can also read here. It was a sheer pleasure to return to his insights after reading her again.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,119 reviews3,977 followers
November 5, 2017
Oh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer, Offshore (see my review HERE) and that AS Byatt called this "a masterpiece". I'm baffled.

The prose is plodding - even though it's portraying a poet: short, banal sentence, after short banal sentence. I found the characters, setting and plot hard to imagine, care about or believe in - even though it's based on real life. I forced myself to finish it, thinking there must be something worthwhile to come. I failed to find it. I was just bored. And irritated.

True Story

This is a fictionalised account, but it seems to be fairly close to the facts, and some of the diary entries quoted here, are genuine historical documents.

It's set in a noble, pious, Protestant family in Germany, in the late 1700s. It concerns Fritz, who later became a famous romantic and philosophical poet known as Novalis. This book covers the slightly earlier period, around the time he succumbed to a coup de foudre over twelve-year old Sophie. Given the period, it's all very chaste; nothing like Lolita (see my review HERE), which is a far more disturbing book, but is beautifully written, and hence powerful and compelling. So no, nothing like this.


Fritz attends university in several towns, studying a variety of subjects and dabbling in philosophy. He meets various people.

Afterwards, he trains to be a salt mine inspector like his father. He meets more people, including Sophie's family. He is welcomed, and spends a lot of time there. It's another large family, but utterly different from his own. Goethe makes an appearance and gives his opinion on the relationship.

The French Revolution is going on in the background. Some are slightly fearful; others vaguely support it.

The brief afterword made me laugh: it was like a satirical summary of a typical operatic plot. Even less appropriately, it reminded me of a scene in comedy sci-fi show, Red Dwarf:

The Blue Flower

What a pretty image. It's the title of a novel Fritz starts to write about "unspeakable longings" for such a flower.

This may be another reason the book didn't "wow" me. Blue is my favourite colour, but I wasn't sufficiently awed by the exoticism of a blue flower. It may not be the most common hue, but blue flowers have always featured prominently in my life. Spring is marked by walks to the beech woods to see carpets of bluebells; my mother pots blue hyacinths each year to give to family and friends; my granny grew delphiniums and hydrangeas in profusion, and in more recent years, nearby fields are filled with linseed flowers (so much nicer than the garish yellow of rapeseed).

He first reads his poem to Karoline, saying he wrote it for her. Then he reads it to Sophie, as if it's for her. The "test" for both is to understand its deep meaning.

Sophie is puzzled:"'Do you not know yourself?' she asked doubtfully." to which he says "Sometimes I think I do".

The two people who are claimed to understand it are Sophie's doctor, and Fritz's younger, precocious brother, The Bernhard, though I can't say I warmed to The Bernhard's interpretation.

The Christmas Reckoning

This was an intriguing and slightly alarming idea.
"The mother spoke to her daughters, the father to his sons, and told them first what had displeased, then what had pleased most in their conduct during the past year. In addition, the young Hardenbergs were asked to make a clean breast of anything that they should have told their parents, but had not."

Believabality and Inconsistency

Love is not rational, and sudden infatuation even less so, but if a poet cannot convey the reasons for his passion for a child who is not especially pretty, intelligent or interested, how can the reader believe it?

Fritz's family is large and noble, but poor (nobility are banned from many jobs). Later on, money seems less tight, it's not clear how or why.

He was a sickly and apparently backward child, but then turned into a genius, though there's little evidence of that, in his poetry or vague philosophical musings. He does call Sophie "my Philosophy", though, and also "my spirit's guide".

We're told that as a the child of a large family he keeps a diary rather than talk to himself, then ten pages later... he's talking to himself a lot.

The number and ages of children didn't stack up (Fritz's mother is said to have given birth eight times and later to have eleven children, but no mention of twins, and The Bernhard starts off aged six but is almost adult a few short years later).


Despite the generally leaden prose, there are some nice turns of phrase:

• A shy matriarch “seeming of less substance even than the shadows... no more than a shred.”

• “a short, unfinished young man.”

• “How heavy a child is when it gives up responsibility.”

• A man still feels his older brother “appeared to have been sent into the world primarily to irritate him”.

• “Earth and air were often indistinguishable in the autumn mist, and morning seemed to pass into afternoon without discernible mid-day.”

• “Erasmus would... enroll in the school of forestry, a wholesome open-air life for which so far he had shown no inclination whatsoever.”

• “Jollity is as relentless as piety.”

• “If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.”

• At the fair, “A fine young woman still, what a pity she has no affianced to treat her to a pig's nostril!"

• Mining “is not a violation of Nature's secrets, but a release.”

• In a music room, “the airy space faithfully carried every note, balanced it, and let it fall reluctantly.”

• “the remorseless perseverance of the truly pleasure-loving.”

• “Even in his garden-house, melancholy caught him by the sleeve.”


A quirk, which was unfamiliar to me, was the naming. Sophie is often called Sophgen, Fritz's parents as the Freifrau and the Freiherr, and many others are referred to as "the [something]". When many of the characters are thin, an extra veil doesn't help.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
779 reviews
March 6, 2021
As my final foray into Penelope Fitzgerald's novels, The Blue Flower was a complete success. I came to it armed with absolute faith in Fitzgerald's writing talent so I had no doubts at all that the setting in 1790s Germany would feel authentic—I've already seen how well she handles historical themes and settings in her other books. Indeed the world of the story felt so extraordinarily real that I even imagined I was reading it in German. I don't fully understand how that magic worked—but it did. It may have been something to do with the way definite articles were sometimes attached to people's titles and names as in the German style, eg, 'the Freiherr' or 'the Bernhard'. That little trick, which other readers might find annoying, plus the precision of the sentences, allowed me to hear the words spoken in my head in the clipped tones of a German speaker.
The large cast of characters, some of whom appear only a couple of times in the short narrative didn't faze me either. Penelope Fitzgerald is very good at sketching a character with a few quick strokes and making them seem entirely credible. And there were enough of them present in every scene to make me not miss the ones who were absent. The fifty-five chapters, all very short, are like a set of 18th century engravings come to life, detailed domestic settings showing women feeding babies while children mill around and men are seen leaving the room hastily—or else flirting with the daughters of the house. And although Fitzgerald places the abilities of some of the women characters in stark contrast to the less practical male characters, it doesn't feel polemical but presented simply the way life is.
That there was something very subtle at the heart of the novel, something almost impossible to see, didn't surprise me either. There's been such an elusive element in each of her novels, and I often didn't see it at first glance. In this story, the elusive element is revealed in the title but hidden in the text so you start out in possession of it but later find yourself searching for it. I doubted its existence for a while but eventually I came to see the Blue Flower as a matter of faith. I didn't need to see it to believe in it. When it comes to Penelope Fitzgerald, I am no doubting Thomas.
March 21, 2021
This was an overgrown novella. I think that actually Dostoevsky would have done this theme more justice as it reminds me of The Idiot in some ways - the girl's innocence and faux maturity perhaps. Thing is if I am going to read about some man's infatuation (can't really call it love, can you?) for a 12 year old girl, which is pedophilia of thought if not action, I want that aspect of it explored. Obviously I wasn't going to get the depth of Nabokov with his distasefully wonderful Lolita but this was just too flimsy. Poets, philosophers and all is maya doesn't do it for me.

Two stars because it was just ok. An extra half a star for an attempt at tackling a grand theme, even if ultimately it didn't go anywhere.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,549 reviews1,824 followers
May 9, 2019
This is my favourite of the three Fitzgerald novels that I've read. In common with Gate of Angels and The Beginning of Spring a wealth of research has gone into this novel.

Our reasons for liking a novel are often subjective and completely unreasonable. And I do love this novel which for me has the sound-feeling of an early piano playing Mozart sonatas, early Beethoven, and here and there something by one of Old Bach's many musical sons. Am I too biased by the memory of a pizza eaten at Jena waiting for a train one hot summer's day many year's ago - without a doubt. So in my case the place and time of the setting and the intellectual firmament of the characters overlap, and this gives me some happiness. It is the end of the Enlightenment and the shattering of the Ancien Regime (at least in mainland Europe) that provides the intellectual background for this novel about Novalis. Glancing up and down my bookshelves it is a period that captivates me.

But it is not just about the intellectual stuff. Romanticism and romance run up against day to day life ('"Here among the table-linen, I am disturbed by Fritz Hardenburg's young sister," thought Dietmahler. "This is the sort of thing I meant to avoid."') It later turns out that she forgets him. Optimism is defeated by realities as chance fails to create happy couples . The scene is a small one, but a perfect foot in the middle of the puddle of our expectations, eyes do not meet across a crowded room, there will be no happily ever after, instead just a double helping of life all round.

It is a novel with a distinct sense of place from Jena to Weissenfels, places were you might well hear 'Come, we're Saxons. We can make a good dinner, even if our hearts are breaking' before sitting to eat your fill. The combination of place and time means that Goethe even gets to make a cameo appearance (though not at the meal-table, but then he was no Saxon by birth).

It is a bleak novel. Which considering the plot is driven by Fritz Hardenberg falling in love with a girl of twelve when he was twenty-two is not surprising (but this isn't a Lolita story set at the end of the eighteenth-century), the bleakness comes from the typical cause of bleakness in early nineteenth century lives, but cough, cough, this is too much of a spoiler, cough. The novels final note is not resigned so much as bitter. The fruit never ripened but withered on the branch.
Profile Image for Alexandra Turney.
Author 1 book23 followers
February 18, 2009
A gorgeous, elliptical book, which I was drawn to by its subject (eighteenth century German philosopher and poet becomes obsessed with unattractive twelve year old girl). I fell in love with The Blue Flower just like Fritz - later known as Novalis - did with Sophie, only the book's positive qualities are slightly more obvious. It's beautifully written, understated, and perhaps more touching than you would expect. Fitzgerald never demands that you like her characters, and there's no sentimentality, but you care about the von Hardenburgs (and Sophie) anyway, because they're so strangely endearing. How can you read this book and not want the Bernhard as your younger brother?

If you approach it like a more conventional novel, then you'll probably be disappointed, because the pace of the narrative is quite unusual, and occasionally the focus seems odd - most novelists would struggle to keep the reader's interest with chapters on salt-mining. But somehow, it works. The description's so minimal, and Fitzgerald evokes a society in a sentence with more success than most other writers could manage in a chapter. "How does she do it?", asks A. S. Byatt. Well, I don't know. But as someone interested in writing, I'm sure I'll find myself re-reading this, in the hope that it becomes slightly less enigmatic. I think any aspiring writer could benefit from The Blue Flower, not only as a rewarding novel in its own right, but as proof that you don't need long-winded descriptions to convey settings and characters. Or, indeed, to make the reader feel so inexpicably attached to your characters that the Afterword leaves them feeling devastated.
Profile Image for Laura .
363 reviews134 followers
December 30, 2019
I've had this on my 'Currently Reading' shelf for ever and ever! I think I was put off by the late 18th century setting and the focus on the poet, Novalis - neither of which are my interest areas, but I've read - 5 or 6 of Fitzgerald's now - and each and every one is Brilliant this one included.

This is clearly an historical fiction novel - the author has done her research - making sure that dates, places, people and known events all tally. If she had focussed exclusively on this I would have been bored, but the real focus of the novel is the von Hardenberg family, of which Fredrick was the eldest son. He took the name Novalis from an old family name meaning 'clearer of the land', although I can only guess that Fritz (his nickname) would have intended more a cleaning of the soul. I know nothing about Novalis - not having read anything by him - but I enjoyed Fitzgerald's novel.

I started this book after a reading slump - which for me is highly unusual. I read the first page of this and sighed with relief knowing I was in safe hands. I felt the same listening to my piano teacher perform - I could sit back and enjoy knowing there weren't going to be any bloopers. Just so with Fitzgerald.

I said this was researched, and historical fiction, and thus unlike the others I have read, but it has definitive Fitzgerald hallmarks; the precocious child - in this case six year old Bernhard - who is always referred to as "the" Bernhard - never explained why. There is a funny/sad little scene towards the beginning where the child almost drowns and Fritz rescues him - thus establishing or defining the special bond between the two. And I will reprint the scene here because it reminds me in various ways of "Offshore". The Bernhard has been told off by his older sister Sidonie -for opening the bag of their visitor and the small boy runs off. Fritz flies after him, knowing that he will go to the river.

The empty barges laid up for repair were moored at their station on the opposite bank. Fritz pelted over the bridge. Everyone saw him, coat flying. Had the Freiherr no servants to send? The barges wallowed on their mooring ropes, grating against each other, strake against strake. From the quayside Fritz jumped down about four feet or so onto the nearest deck. There was a scurrying, as though of an animal larger than a dog.
'I will never come back,' Bernhard called.
The child ran across the deck, and then, afraid to risk the drop onto the next boat, climbed over the gunwale and then stayed there hanging on with both hands, scrabbling with his boots for a foothold. Fritz caught hold of him by the wrists and at the same moment the whole line of barges made one of their unaccountable shifts, heaving grossly towards each other, so that the Bernhard, still hanging was trapped and squeezed. A pitiful cough and a burst of tears and blood were forced out of him like air out of a balloon.

There is some difficulty in pulling the child up, and the two argue about the fact that the Bernhard is a dead weight and not helping. It continues:

'Make an effort, do you want to drown?'
'What would it matter if I did?' squeaked the Bernhard. 'You once said that death was not significant, but only a change of condition.'
'Drat you, you've no business to understand that,' Fritz shouted in his ear.

And there you have it - the six year old who has an inherent affinity with his elder brother who manages to become one of the notables of European philosophy and literature. In the novel Fritz tells a short story to several of the people who understand him - a cousin Karoline and his sister Sidonie - and of course the Bernhard sneaks a look when no one is around, and offers his own wise counsel at the end of the book.

The main story however, concerns Fritz's unusual love affair with the twelve year old Sophie, beloved daughter of a wealthy family in Grüningen - several days journey from the von Hardenberg's who live in the town of Weissenfels - a real place. I looked up all the place names on Google and started to fill in my sparse knowledge of this particular part of middle Germany - the areas of Saxony and Thuringia also known as Mitteldeutschland - which means central Germany. Famous towns such Liepzig, Halle and Jena are mentioned because Fritz is sent to the universities there. He is to be trained as a salt inspector. Jena is of particular importance because it is where Sophie is taken when she needs an operation. This university town is known for its concentration of medical doctors and has multiple boarding houses which thrive on the business of the sick; arriving to receive their treatments. I liked this aspect of the book - it re-creates how people lived - paying attention to those practical details of daily life when there weren't any of the conveniences we now take for granted.

On one occasion Fritz's father refuses to send him money for a horse, and Fritz without complaint walks the thirty-two miles back to the family home at Weissenfels. This is one of several incidents in the book that highlights the differences between the von Hardenbergs, and that of Sophie's family - the Kühns. The von Hardenbenbergs are landed gentry with several estates slowly rotting into the ground and barely a penny to cover everyday expenses, whereas as the Kühns are rich - materially if not spiritually - the money coming from the wife's inheritances.

This becomes a richly layered novel with many details of late 18th century life - the difficulties of travel, the impoverished nature of medical knowledge, but at the same time it focuses on the well established facts which was that Germany at this time was at the forefront of developments in all fields of knowledge - Fitzgerald refers to the family meeting Göethe; Fritz sees the great man Schiller, other names occur in - Friederike's daybook - she is a married sister of Sophie's. Here is an extract from July 1796 when they are staying at Jena.

Hardenberg's friend Friedrich Schlegel (I think he is not yet a professor) visited us yesterday evening. He too is on the point of some journey or other. I received him by myself. Sophie had gone out with Frau Winkler, to see a military parade. God knows I myself have seen my bellyful of them. But as soon as the pain goes away a little, my beloved little sister is ready to find everything amusing. She is then almost herself.

Well, Friedrich Schlegel. He is a philosopher and a historian. I was not at all put off by his melancholy gaze. He said to me, 'Frau Leutnant, your sister, Fräulein von Kühn, tries to make her mind work in the same way that Hardenberg's does, as one might try to teach a half-tame bird to sing like a human being. She won't succeed, and the ideas she had before, such as they were, are now in disarray and she hardly knows what to put in their place.'

I asked him, 'Have you ever met my sister, Herr Schlegel?'

He replied, 'Not as yet, but I believe she is an instance of a certain easily-recognisable type.'
I said, 'She is my sister.'

Friedericke like nearly all the women in Fitzgerald's book is both tough, strong and intelligent and like Sidonie and Karoline and various others, takes on responsibilities and tasks that would rarely be asked of any young 20 something year old today. But there again this is one of Fitzgerald's themes - women saving the day. At the end when Sophie is dying Fritz cannot bare to stay with her and it is the sister, the Mandelsloh as Friedericke is referred to, who must lie to the dying child.

I can't resist including some of this last conversation:

'If you stayed here you would not be wanted as a nurse,' the Mandelsloh replied. 'You would be wanted as a liar.'
Fritz raised his heavy head.
'What then should I say?'
'God help us, from day to day you would have to say to her - "You look a little better this morning Söphgen. Yes, I think a little better. Soon you will be able to go out into the garden. Nothing is needed but some warmer weather."'
. . .

After a moment Fritz cried out, 'I could not lie to her, any more than I could lie to myself.'
'I don't know to what extent a poet lies to himself.'
'She is my spirit's guide. She knows that.'
The Mandelsloh did not answer.
'Shall I stay?'
Still she said nothing, and Fritz went abruptly out of the room. Where will he go? the Mandelsloh wondered. That is so much simpler for a man. If a woman has something that is not easy to decide, where can she go to be alone?'

So, there you have it - Fitzgerald refuting the ideas of the Great Thinkers and raising the timeless questions of practicality and the roles placed upon women - their inevitable ties to family, children and the responsibilities of both.

This novel is awesome - because our author recreates a whole specific era, of a very particular time and area in central Germany and then places into this setting such a real-life mixture of two very different families. I think there are nine children in Fritz's family and just as many in Sophie's and many of these characters are drawn into the central story. Fritz's brother Erasmus, cannot understand his elder brother's strange enchantment with Sophie, in fact no one can - but she represents a simplicity and naturalness which seems to have been slowly squeezed out of the intense thinking and developments of this Great Era in Germany, not just Germany but the whole of European culture. The story ends with a couple of pages of factual details about what happens to the von Hardenberg family. And the 'Blue Flower' is the story Novalis wrote, which only the Bernhard was able to understand.
Profile Image for Jean-Luke.
Author 1 book384 followers
April 19, 2021
As with A Pale View of Hills, I had to read it twice in order to truly appreciate it, and I doubt I'll ever be able to stop appreciating it--

Leave it to Penelope Fitzgerald to remind me that by the time the French Revolution came along, Robinson Crusoe had already been in print for 70 years. Well, duh. Right? But I had never thought of one in terms of the other. Which means Marie Antoinette might have read it--could she read English?--had she taken an interest in English novels.

The Blue Flower is the antithesis of the historical fiction novel. Not 500 pages long (I thought it could even have done with a trim), not filled with the sometimes tiresome minutiae (though not lacking in historical detail) that we've been brainwashed into expecting from historical fiction. Burnt carrot powder to make the coffee supply last longer? Once a year washing day? If you're not quite as well off you might only own 89 shirts. Fairly thin plot-wise, but that isn't why most people read her books. I have never read anything written by Novalis, and knew nothing about him or his life, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,487 reviews12.8k followers
December 24, 2016
The Blue Flower is another of the books my dear old dad got me at Christmas and, like the other one I read, What a Life! by JB Priestley, it is a stone cold turkey! I’m not sure what my pa asked for when he went into the bookstore, but I’m pretty sure it was “I want to bore my son like he’s never been bored before - what books do you suggest?”

The novel looks at the short life of Novalis, an obscure late 18th century German Romantic philosopher/poet and his relationship with his 14 year old betrothed, Sophie. On the edge of your seat yet? But wait, there’s more! Novalis is also administrator of a salt mine and then Sophia dies at 15 of a brain tumour or something. Novalis dies shortly after aged 28.

Yeah, that sounds like something I’d be interested in... grumble. Don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this guy or wanting to read about this era but whatever - thanks dad!

I’m really not sure what Penelope Fitzgerald was going for in this book. Novalis and Sophie’s story isn’t very exciting and I’m not sure what writing about it was meant to elicit in me. I suppose it’s a bit scandalous today that a twentysomething was interested in a child for his bride but it was acceptable back in the 18th century. Why was he so obsessed with Sophie - was he just a pedo albeit mentally (he never actually sleeps with her)? No clue.

I also didn’t really understand much about Novalis’ work or its relevance to Western culture. He kept calling Sophie his “philosophy” but I never really got what that meant or what his work and art was about. Then again I was nodding off every other paragraph! This 282 page book took nearly a month for me to get through because it’s so easy to put down - the pacing is so slow and plodding!

It’s also annoying that the book has a lot of untranslated German, which I don’t speak, and the characters and places have long German names and titles. A common sentence went along these lines:

“Johanturmhiem went to Turineingemain for the Polaintenurgin. Werntingethenineign was talking to Desingtineoiengiengn about the Kolieingeinteininininin’s Tuinhugjnguun at which the Versingintineugh was very much Gerugugunaeughuhunniinginging.”

Say whaaaaaaaat?!

A lot of the characters were very flat - I got a rough idea of who Sophie and Novalis were but everyone else was a blank - and everyone speaks in the same voice. I suppose it was mildly interesting (in comparison to the rest of the novel) towards the end when Sophia was dying, or maybe that was just my excitement at nearing the end of this dreary muck!

This novel is like someone mildly dramatised a Wikipedia entry on Novalis. Read The Blue Flower if you want to feel the mental anguish young Sophie was going through.

Gah… there are 8 more books on the Christmas pile! Oh no - is that Proust?! (Goes looking for noose)
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books787 followers
May 17, 2018
I feel The Blue Flower, similar to the ‘historical’ half of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, isn’t (and wasn’t intended to be) so-called historical fiction. Both writers use the frame of the life of a real person to hang their themes on; though the characterization, usually through thought, is vivid. Plot is not foremost, though the details of The Blue Flower are accurate (as far as I can tell); the research had to be extensive and is worn lightly. Due to its style I felt a distance, which may be intentional.

The style is different from The Bookshop (the only other Fitzgerald novel I've read so far), except in that her humor is terse and easily missed, as is her deflection. Each short chapter ends with a line or thought that propelled me to read on, yet at times I had no trouble putting the book down near the start of a consecutive chapter.

The book’s opening is memorable, with a visitor’s view of the family on clothes-washing day and then the rescuing of a brother by the main character Fritz (on a day beyond the novel's scope he will be known as the poet Novalis). We are then thrust back in time after just a few short chapters. By the time the book gets back to the ‘beginning’, I’d assumed we were done with that time/place and with the visitor, and I’d been wondering what its and his point were. I wish we’d gotten back sooner: when we do, it’s a bit awkward and confusing.

The two mothers are fertile, yet inert. A niece and (older) sisters are the caretakers. The men hang their own interpretations on the framework of the women. The women mostly keep their thoughts to themselves. When one speaks up, she asks a question: Do you know my sister? (She does not say this to Fritz, though it would apply to him as well.) The question is unanswered, but the reader knows.

Fritz’s story of the blue flower is read twice by him, to two different females, and then repeated in part and with slight differences a third time as a brother’s reimagining. The story of the blue flower now seems to belong, and easily, to someone else. The dreamer does not know what his dream means and, sadly, is disappointed when another doesn’t know either. He silently judges that lack in one, but excuses the same in another. Once again, the woman is burdened with the man’s expectation and I started to believe that this is Fitzgerald’s main theme.

The dialogue between the brothers and their sister Sidonie (probably my favorite character) is delightful. I have a soft spot for that kind of thing as it reminds me of my own siblings. I’ve seen such varying opinions of this book, and I feel so ambivalent toward it, I’m forced to believe it’s one of those that you get out of it what you already have.
Profile Image for Vicky "phenkos".
144 reviews96 followers
April 12, 2019
3.5 stars.

This is my third Penelope Fitzgerald. The focus of the book is the early life of Fritz von Hardenberg – better known as the German Romantic poet Novalis – and especially his infatuation for 12-year-old Sophie whom he meets during an official visit he pays as apprentice engineer to the household of her stepfather, von Rochenthien.

The book begins by offering us a closer look at the Hardenberg family: the weak and easily-distracted mother, the capable elder sister, the boisterous, independent-minded youngest brother. The father makes his appearance a little bit later; a born-again Christian (or the equivalent in 18th century Germany), and a member of the nobility but without funds or connections, von Hardenberg rules the household with an iron fist but, though not much loved, he is not hated either. He is, of course, offended at the news of the French Revolution, and finds the idea a civil suit against the King of France brought by his own people scandalous, so he forbids newspapers at home.

Young Fritz couldn’t be more different. He is amiable and sociable, a poet and philosopher at heart, with a love for nature and ideas. He is certainly not the type to become a Salt Mine Inspector, the profession his father intends for him, but interestingly, he takes that into his stride when the time comes, and becomes a model apprentice without sacrificing his love for poetry or philosophy. While an apprentice, he gets to know his tutor’s niece, Karoline, and it seems that an idyll is on the cards. Karoline is an intelligent and tactful woman, able to appreciate Fritz’s poetry and personality. Alas, this was not meant to be. During a visit to the Rockenthiens, something happens to Fritz that he is unable to explain or resist. In fact, the apparition he encounters is so intense that he tells his tutor ‘Something happened to me,’ looking dazed and disoriented.

The apparition is 12-year-old Sophie – a child who does not seem to possess either unusual intelligence or exquisite beauty. Yet, Fritz spends the rest of his time at the Rockenthiens’ trying to win her attention, and hopefully a promise, that she’s not indifferent to him. He will come back to the house again and again, hoping to earn Sophie’s love, and later, as Sophie gets older, her agreement to marry him.

It’s a mystery to me why Sophie inspires so much love (or is ‘infatuation’ the right word here?) not only from Fritz but from another Hardenberg brother as well, even though this brother initially tries to dissuade Fritz from his folly. She seems to have a command over men which the novel, unfortunately, doesn’t shed light on. It was this aspect of the book that I found disappointing. What is it about Sophie that makes young men fall in love head over heels with her? She can hardly write, she doesn’t appear to have intellectual interests, or indeed anything to share with Fritz. Fritz himself can’t understand what’s the matter with him.

”I can’t comprehend her, I can’t get the measure of her. I love something that I do not understand. She has got me, but she is not at all sure she wants me.”

It might help here if we looked at the romantic ideal of women. Says Fritz:

”I think, indeed, that women have a better grasp on the whole business of life than we men have. We are morally better than they are, but they can reach perfection, we can’t. And that is in spite of the fact that they particularise, we generalise.”

The revered Goethe, who pays a visit to young Sophie during her stay at Jena says to Fritz's brother:

”I think I know what you wanted to ask me. You wonder whether Fräulein von Kühn, when she is restored to health, will be a true source of happiness to your bother. Probably you feel that there is not an equality of understanding between them. But rest assured, it is not her understanding that we love in a young girl. We love her beauty, her innocence, her trust in us, her airs and graces, her God knows what – but we don’t love her for her understanding – nor, I am sure, does Hardenberg.”

I would have loved if the book had explored this theme in more depth. Is this irresistible attraction that Fritz experiences love or something else? How might it play out in the context of marriage and a long co-habitation? Might Fritz regret allowing himself to be carried away by his feelings? Of course, that is a complex question for a Romantic, for whom feelings are guides to a more fundamental reality. I really wish Fitzgerald had used this book to explore these questions.

What we do get is a vivid (and, I believe, accurate) depiction of the intellectual atmosphere in Germany (which was at the time divided into several principalities). The famed Jena, a university town where the better-known Romantics resided, is beautifully portrayed. We get to know a lot about student life, which was not much different then from what it is today: a lot of drunkenness and intellectual curiosity, despicable lodgings, and a fervour for life that is the hallmark of youth. The Schlegels make an appearance, as does Fichte’s philosophy. Fitzgerald is at her best here: filling in the characters and conveying a sense of life as it must have been at the turn of the century (this is late 1700s). Strong female characters (Karoline, Sophie’s elder sister) provide the counterpoint to Sophie. It is not impossible, after all, that Fitzgerald did want to write the feminist novel, not by proclaiming a thesis about Sophie (and Fritz’s infatuation), but through tacit comparison with the other female characters.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,777 reviews1,264 followers
March 11, 2019
My thanks to Jonathan for pointing out a rather superior literary treatment of blue flowers


I read this book as part of the 2019 Mookse Madness Tournament and also from intrigue – Penelope Fitzgerald (perhaps appropriately for an author who only began her literary career at 58) is an author I only discovered at 48 and enjoyed each of “Offshore”, “Gate of Angels” and “The Bookshop” – however this is a book of hers which seems to divide opinion, generally lauded by fellow authors and critics as one of the great historic novels (and definitely Fitzgerald’s masterpiece) but generating somewhere between dislike and indifference in most of the Fitzgerald fans I know on Goodreads.

Fitzgerald is an author where I always anticipate with delight spending time in her company – one can imagine her as a fascinating companion for a dinner party, and when reading her books I think of myself as to be a guest inside her writing.

And this book – a biographical tale of the young German/Saxon poet and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg (“Fritz”) from the ages of around 22-25, and his love for Sophie (von Kühn) from age 12 to her death at 15 contains much – in perhaps may be the culmination - of what I have come to love in Fitzgerald’s writing, in particular her ability in only a few words to conjour up a place, a character, a feeling. Here in a book which over less than 300 pages has 55 chapters, the book is really a series of scenes/vignettes and her economy of description (often with no real preamble) comes to the fore:

Take for example this description of a Christmas tree

“Inside the library, the myriad fiery shining points of light threw vast shadows of the fir branches onto the high walls and even across the ceiling. In the warmth the room breathed even more deeply, more resinously, more greenly”

Or a painter seeing his own vision and talent going to waste

“making a living by selling sepia drawings of distant prospects and bends in the river with reliably grazing cattle”

Or the capture of the entire inner life of Fritz’s mother in three brief paragraphs in three separate chapters.

Her thoughts when her brother comes to visit her equally proud and argumentative husband

“The Freifrau felt trapped between the two of them, like a powder of thinly ground mill between the millstones”

Her reflections on her own role in the budding reputation of her son

“When Fritz had been born, sickly and stupid, she had been given the blame and had accepted it. When after months of low fever he had become tall and thin, and they said a genius, she had not been given any credit and had not expected any

And her sudden and unrealised impulse when Fritz asks her advice before seeing his father for his permission to be betrothed to Sophie:

“An extraordinary notion came to the Freifrau Auguste that she might take advantage of the moment, which in its half darkness and fragrance seemed ti her to almost sacred, to talk to her eldest son about herself. All that she had to say could be put quite shortly, she was forty-five and she did not see how she was going to get through the rest of her life.”

A long standing official in the salt mines who

“consulted the ledgers only to see that they confirmed the dates and figures he had given. “They would not dare do otherwise” thought Fritz

However Fitzgerald has invited another guest – Fritz (who later adopted the pen name Novalis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novalis) – and unfortunately he comes to dominate the dinner party.

And unfortunately the actions, speeches and rather misguided attempts to tie mathematics and science to poetry/philosophy of Fritz and the often similar tone taken by the omniscient narrator, rather ruining Fitzgerald’s dinner invitation.

Earlier in the book, the aforementioned painter (who compares himself to a poet) joins Sophie’s family (and her older and very down to earth sister) for a meal

“I am glancing round the table and assessing the presence, or absence, of true soul in the countenance of everyone here” [said Hoffman]

“Ach.. I should not think you are often asked out to dinner twice”

And ultimately that is the failing of this novel – normally when reading a novel with biographical details of an artist or their works (for example “Playing Possum”, “Now, Now, Louison”, “Winter”, “Summer” just to pick a few recent examples) I am drawn to research the subject more.

I will not be inviting Novalis to my reading table twice.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,738 reviews1,468 followers
June 10, 2018
The Blue Flower -- the winner of the American National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997.

I struggled with The Blue Flower from start to finish.

It seems to be based on extensive research, but I personally do not have the knowledge to know if all we are told is true. The problem is that the research s-h-o-w-s! In my view, historical details should be imperceptibly woven into a story; they should not dominate. Nor should they be used excessively. I shall site two examples--we are told that the central character is studying literature on salt mine management. Is it necessary to list the titles of the several volumes read? They all sound approximately the same! IF they must be listed, they would more appropriately have been given in a note. A second example is the inclusion of existing diary entries. Yet these entries are insipid, bland and say little. Details have value, only if they are made interesting!

Places in Germany are spoken of, but they are not drawn so we see them. Even more importantly, the same is true of the people. The characters are flat. I neither like them nor dislike them. They mean nothing to me. When one of them dies, I felt not a pang in my heart!

The prose is NOT tantalizing, not in the least; there is no beauty in it whatsoever. Does that make sense in a book about a romantic poet? Dialogs are stilted. Sentences have a staccato flow—rigid and abrupt with often one word replacing a complete sentence.

What could be a possible explanation for why the writing is as it is? What shows, what comes to the fore, is the German penchant for order and form. This reads almost as a text book, NOT as a book about love and passion. We are delivered an essay on German life in Saxony at the end of the 1700s. In making this a book of historical fiction, the author has crammed in an excess of historical facts that replicate the era accurately, but drown out the people, the most vital element of all stories.

The book is about George Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772-1801) who later became the famed philosophical poet of Early German Romanticism, Novalis. Fritz, as he was called by family and friends, was the oldest son of an aristocratic, pious Protestant family. The book covers only the years from 1790 to 1797, so we follow him from the age of eighteen to twenty-five. A short epilog follows taking the characters to their respective deaths.

During the years covered, Fritz was studying and preparing to take over the family’s salt mining business. Then at twenty-two he falls in love with Sophie von Kühn (1782-1797), ten years his junior. He fell for her at first sight; she was a mere twelve. When she became thirteen they were engaged. She was not of his social standing, scarcely educated and plain. What he saw in her was a mystery and remains a mystery to those who pick up this book too. The love affair is chaste. Little passion is visible.

The title of the novel refers to a blue flower in a story begun by Fritz. He reads what he has written first to one female acquaintance and then to Sophie. He asks both what the blue flower signifies. Neither seem to know, but scarcely does he. Two are said to understand what it stands for—Sophie’s doctor and Fritz’ younger brother, the Bernhard. Why Bernhard and several others have “the” placed in front of their names remains a mystery too! Bernhard is a strangely precocious young lad. He says the flower is ”recognizing your own fate and realizing it as familiar.” The story does not offer an answer to what is meant. Readers are to consider this question, but in my view not enough material is given to analyze the question properly.

The audiobook is read by Thomas Judd. At the beginning many names and places are thrown at you. Narrators should be told that the beginning of audiobooks should be read at a slower pace. Only when you know who everybody is should the speed be increased. I have given the narration two stars. Much is read too quickly. Only by the end, when I wanted the novel to end as soon as possible and I knew who everybody was, was the narration OK. The words are spoken clearly and the German properly pronounced, so two stars is appropriate.

Quotes of Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis):

"Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason."

"The artist belongs to his work, not the work to the artist."

I do like these quotes, but the novel fails to reveal to me the man who wrote the lines. The novel leaves the poet at the age of twenty-five. Either Penelope Fitzgerald has failed to capture him properly or he had not yet matured into the philosopher poet he was to become.

Books I have read by Penelope Fitzgerald:
*The Bookshop 4 stars
*Offshore 3 stars
*The Blue Flower 1 star
Profile Image for Paul Sánchez Keighley.
150 reviews92 followers
December 31, 2018
Penelope Fitzgerald cannot write unlike herself.

The Blue Flower is a historical novel based on the youth of 18th-century poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known by his pen name Novalis. Fitzgerald shares, in an uncharacteristic author’s note, that she drew much information from a German edition of Novalis’ complete works, diaries and letters. I say uncharacteristic because her novels are always brimming with fascinating historical detail one wonders from where she produced, and yet she never felt the need to reveal her sources before.

Anyway, I went into this book wanting Fitzgerald to tell me one of her stories filled with her characters and her ideas, but was instead disappointed to find she set out to tell Novalis’ story with fictionalised historical characters and backed with Fichte’s ideas. What I’m trying to say is Fitzgerald seems to have tried to detach herself as much as possible from this text, to create a timeless work of art independent from herself, and as a result it feels cold, voyeuristic and peculiar.

The first act was a Clusterfick that read more like the first draught of a novelised history book than a historical novel. Characters and locations succeed one another with dizzying speed while Fitzgerald clumsily lops unconnected historical titbits at the reader that at best feel copied verbatim from an encyclopaedia, completely making you lose the thread of the story. I was afraid that if things continued this way I wouldn’t make it to the end. But the novel eventually finds its feet and from then on prances merrily forward at an enjoyable pace.

My biggest problem with this book is that it has no sense of place. The story idly drifts to and fro between Jena and… wait, let me look it up… Gr… Grüningen, and… *sigh*... Tennstedt, languid as a corpse in a river, and paying the destinations it floats by much the same attention. The East-Anglian town of Hardborough, in The Bookshop, was both a name and a place - I remember it like a town I visited in person. The same goes for the Cambridge college of St Angelicus in The Gate of Angels. Here the locations are mere names, as bare as the outlines of buildings in Lars von Trier’s Dogville.

Speaking of names, there's lots of them, including some known ones: Goethe, Fichte, Schlegel make an appearance (even Moses Mendelssohn is mentioned - that was a bit of a surprise). Fichte’s philosophy, a big influence on Novalis’ worldview, heavily underpins the story’s tone and themes, albeit hamfistedly at times:
‘Gentlemen! Look at the washbasket! Let your thought be the washbasket! Have you thought the washbasket? Now then, gentlemen, let your thought be on that that thought the washbasket!’


I quite like how things that happen to certain characters in the book foreshadow events that would happen to them later in life, in moments not touched upon in the novel. That’s cool. I also like the way Fitzgerald fictionalised certain characters - the Bernhardt was quite mysterious and unsettling, and the Mandelsloh was a fantastic feminist character, putting all the dreamy incompetent men around her in their place with no-nonsense common-sense wisdom.

Every now and then the unexpected adjectives and delicate turns of phrase I’ve come to expect from Fitzgerald would turn up. But I feel like in this novel she leaned a bit too heavily on another characteristic of her prose: understatement.

Quick aside, I found a passage where two characters are interpreting a text about a man that visits someone’s house and is received by the wife. I thought their remarks captured Fitzgerald’s writing in a nutshell:
‘Let me read it through once to myself.’ Then she asked, ‘What did the young woman look like?’
‘That doesn’t matter. What matters is that she opened the door.’

Done well, this understated writing is tense and exciting, adding hidden depths to every sentence. In excess, it wrings all emotion out of the text. The brutally understated nature of this book leaves us with an ensemble of indistinguishable characters floating in names with no place who all talk like aliens trying to imitate human speech. The dialogues aren’t so much so as strange lists of paroxysms and non sequiturs.

In short, it’s not without its merits, but it could have been much, much better.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,196 reviews9,482 followers
March 12, 2009
In its first chapters this novel sprays a fine tangy mist over your face, like coming across the sea after many months inland. Hoopla! We're in for some fun. But - after a while this novel becomes the so-amusing toy whose batteries keep it chirping and beeping long after it should have glided behind the chest of drawers of oblivion. Our smile has faded. And finally this novel is like your elderly female relative who has a superstitious horror of naming anything directly, and will use every last possible circumlocution, and whose conversation, I'm sorry to report, revolves dispiritingly around and about and in and through the dozen people she's ever known in her long life, and the five places she's ever been.

Poor Penelope
We still hear her late at night
Whirring helplessly

Profile Image for Libby.
80 reviews77 followers
March 1, 2008
This is a strange and beautiful short novel, which revolves around the young poet Friedrich Von Hardenberg's (the 18th century German poet Novalis) inexplicable love for the somewhat slow, not particularly lovely 12-year-old Sophie Von Kuhn, who would become his fiancee. The novel's genius lies in its complete lack of interest in explaining/examining the WHY of Hardenberg's love. This is not a love story or a romance. It is an observation of the sort of ineffable human forces that produce not only love, but also its companion, art.

In this small book what goes unsaid, unseen, and unheard is just as important as what we, as readers, do have immediate access to; it is an object lesson in the writer's art of strategic omission.

Fitzgerald makes many other interesting (and in my opinion, successful) choices: the novel has its own ordering logic, but does not feel compelled to observe the laws of linear chronology; the chapters are mere slivers of storytelling, each with its precise, almost aphoristic title; the language is at times odd and elliptical, and so on, and so forth.

Utterly captivating, and not quite sensical, much like the relationship at the novel's center.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,211 followers
January 6, 2019
Revisited for the 2019 Mookse Madness after originally reading in 2013.

Despite winning the Booker Prize and being shortlisted three more times, the brilliant Penelope Fitzgerald was, for much of her career, treated condescendingly by (mostly male) literary critics.

Indeed her Booker win, for Offshore, was greeted with some critical bemusement, even by the jury themselves who had argued long and hard between two other books. As one judge later admitted:
We'd spent the entire afternoon at loggerheads, settling at the last minute by a single vote for William Golding's Darkness Visible, by which time the atmosphere had grown so heated that I said I'd sooner resign than have any part in a panel that picked a minor Golding over a major imaginative breakthrough by Naipaul. So we compromised by giving the prize to everybody's second choice.

So when Fitzgerald, with The Blue Flower, produced a book of more obvious literary pretension, it was an excuse for critics who had previously disdained her work to finally, reluctantly, admit her brilliance by acclaiming this one (although, showing unusual good taste, the Booker judges overlooked it). It also brought her belated fame in the US, where her previous novels had been overlooked,

Which perhaps explains why this, my least favourite of her novels, is also oddly her most critically acclaimed work.

To me Fitzgerald at her best is distinguished by her wonderfully compact prose and her brilliant use of the one line description of character and place (the church had, in fact, been carelessly burnt down during the celebrations of 1925, when the Sugar Beet Subsidy Act had been passed to describe the rural Suffolk locale of Offshore is perhaps my favourite line in literary history). In her earlier novels, in typically only around 150 pages she manages to sketch a story, create an evocative sense of place, introduce us to some memorably baffling characters and explore a number of powerful themes. Against that, her novels can suffers from, to the reader at least, oblique developments, but ultimately even that is a function of Fitzgerald's brevity and an integral part of her charm.

Blue Flower is a more expansive novel (280 pages in my edition) and much the weaker for it.

Fitzgerald herself divided her novels into two. The first 5 novels were based on her personal experiences:
The Golden Child (1977)
The Bookshop (1978)
Offshore (1979)
Human Voices (1980)
At Freddie's (1982)

and the last four novels had more historic settings:
Innocence (1986)
The Beginning of Spring (1988)
The Gate of Angels (1990)
The Blue Flower (1995)

As Fitzgerald herself noted (after writing the first two of these later works):

I have tried, in describing these books of mine, to say something about my life. In my last two novels I have taken a journey outside of myself. Innocence takes place in Italy in the late 1950s. The Beginning of Spring in Moscow in 1913. Most writers, including the greatest, feel the need to do something like this sooner or later. The temptation comes to take what seems almost like a vacation in another country and above all in another time. V. S. Prichett, however, has pointed out that “a professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and become almost nothing.” This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions—I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?

I have yet to read Innocence, but The Gate of Angels and The Beginning of Spring, meet her benchmark and while wonderfully evocative of the time and place where they are set, are not adversely burdened by historic fidelity.

With The Blue Flower, based not just on a setting but on a historical, and famous, figure, this lightness of touch is missing with rather too much by the way of replication of the actual biography of the poet Novalis and his circle. As she told AS Byatt she had even "read the records of the salt mines from cover to cover in German,”

My other issue with The Blue Flower, one more of personal taste, is the voice. Her subject is a young romantic poet and the novel’s narration is in what I can only hope is a satire of poetic pretentiousness (the concept of the Blue Flower included), a voice that soon grates. If historical fiction succeeds when it incentivises the reader to seek out more, outside the novel, about the subject, then this one certainly failed on me.

However as redeeming features, the character of Karoline, a rather more suitable match to the poet, was more reminiscent of vintage Fitzgerald.

And The Blue Flower is a good example of what Javier Cercas calls a blind spot novel (The Blind Spot: An Essay on the Novel). The historical question at the heart of the novel is what attracted Novalis to a, by all accounts not particularly beautiful and certainly intellectually uninteresting, and under-age 12 year old girl. And it is a question the novel, quite deliberately, fails to answer, although it hints the truth lies in Novalis’s obsession with the symbolic and mysterious Blue Flower.

Overall I would certainly recommend readers to start with other Fitzgerald novels: this is for completists only. 2.5 stars - only 3 in tribute to the author.
Profile Image for Beni Morse.
14 reviews
November 8, 2010

Every single sentence is purposeful and unimprovable. It evokes the world of 18th-century Germany with such vividness and authority and ease, while feeling nothing like a historical novel.

I can't think of a book that achieves a more beautiful balance between gravity and lightness, poetry and philosohy. The Blue Flower is eseentially about the nature of love and why we sometimes (often?) choose such odd candidates as the objects of our deepest affection.
Profile Image for Ingrid.
1,211 reviews51 followers
July 20, 2019
3.5 stars
I admit it, I fell for the beautiful cover. When I read that the book was about Novalis and that it was Penelope Fitzgerald's last book I decided to buy it. The story as such was interesting, but I didn't find the writing style very easy.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,232 reviews1,016 followers
May 24, 2015
I picked up this book because it had a pretty cover. I noticed it had a blurb on the front from A.S. Byatt, whom I rather like, and it also noted that the author, Fitzgerald, was a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. So I looked at the back cover, and saw that it was a historical novel about the early life of the German Romantic poet Novalis - which was quite a coincidence, since I'd just that month been reading about Novalis and looking at some of his poetry online. So I grabbed it!

However, at first I couldn't get into the book, and as I read through it, it began to actively annoy me.
Fitzgerald obviously did a lot of research for the book, reading Novalis' letters, writings, documents from the time period... (late 18th-century).
Unfortunately, rather than working these period details subtly into the narrative, she just bluntly inserts random facts into the text, even when they don't really serve a purpose in the story. It's distracting, and struck me as poor writing technique.
Her personal, 20th-century opinion on everything also shines through - and it's not a positive opinion. In my opinion, the 'job' of historical fiction is to take the reader into the time and place described, and to make the reader see things from the characters' point of view. Instead, we find out that Penelope Fitzgerald thinks that people in 18th-century Germany ate disgusting cuisine, were unhygenic, penurious - and for some reason she seems to think they were always freezing cold, even though Germany has a mild climate and particularly nice summers. I'm sorry, but if the characters would think that a pig's nostril was a delicacy, I want to FEEL that it's a delicacy while I'm reading the book. I don't care if the author personally thinks it's gross. By the end of the book, I wondered why she even chose to write about these people, since her opinion of not only their culture and lifestyle - but of them personally - was so low.

Fritz (Novalis) is portrayed as faintly ridiculous and a cad, and his love interest, the young Sophie, as air-headed and ugly. Both of their families come across as caricatures - one of the ridiculously strict and religious variety, and one of the jolly yet greedy and grasping type... I can certainly appreciate books where the characters are all unlikable - but I didn't get the impression that these people really were, historically, that bad - just that Fitzgerald personally regards them with a kind of snide contempt. There's no one in the novel that the reader gets to even really, feel that you know, due to the distancing style of the writing. Fitzgerald uses an odd style of referring to people using an article: "The Bernhard," "The Mandelsloh." Even if this was a custom at the time (I don't know if it was - it's not a modern German usage), such a construction should be saved for dialogue, not when the author is talking about her characters.

I couldn't believe the multiple pages of rave reviews printed inside the front of the book - I really didn't think it was impressive in any way.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews638 followers
January 15, 2019
I think I had the opposite reaction to this book to many of my Goodreads friends. A Google search for reviews show a lot of gushing praise (“Beautiful masterpiece”, “Her finest and most demanding book”, “A model of what historical fiction can be at its best”). By contrast, many of my GR friends find this a disappointment and prefer several, if not all, of Fitzgerald’s other books to this one. I have to confess this is the first Fitzgerald book I have read, so I have no points of comparison.

So, there’s definitely something going on. Critically acclaimed, but a bit of an on-off reaction from “ordinary” readers.

It is a book in which German Idealism seems to play an important role. And I don’t know much about that! We are reading part of the life story of Friedrich von Hardenburg, better known to history as Novalis. The story concentrates on his early life, before he became Novalis, and tells the tale of his love for Sophie. The fact that Sophie is only 12 years old does not seem to bother him.

That’s really all the “plot” is. Based on detailed research, it gives us a version of this part of von Hardenburg’s life. It is full of period detail which may be where the “model of historical fiction” comes in (but see below). And this detail is contrasted with some of the more abstract ideas of the German Idealism philosophy. Von Hardenburg is heavily influenced by Johann Gottlieb Fichte. One of Fichte’s key ideas was that objects do not possess properties in and of themselves, only what the person perceiving those objects discovers. This has major implications for the relative reality of things. It means, for example, that von Hardenburg’s Blue Flower in his story, Sophie herself (or perhaps, more accurately, von Hardenburg’s love for Sophie) and then Karoline’s imagined lover can all, in some ways, be considered equal because they are perceived as real by von Hardenburg.

I’m thinking out loud here, which is normally a bad idea, so it might not make a lot of sense.

But the juxtaposition of the banal and the philosophical is an interesting component of the book.

The book’s structure is also very interesting. It is told in fragments and many of those fragments are left incomplete. For example, without giving too much away, Fritz (as he is known through most of the book) witnesses a duel in which someone loses two fingers. He rushes both fingers and swordsman to the hospital (fingers carried in an unconventional way). But we never learn what happened next. This gives parts of the book an almost dream-like quality, a sense that much more is happening than we are seeing. I didn’t get this at the start and thought I was not enjoying the book. But then I started to see it and my enjoyment increased accordingly.

I’m not normally a great fan of historical fiction. It’s not my “go to genre” although I have read some good examples. However, on finishing The Blue Flower, I do feel that it has a lot more to offer than a simple “historical fiction” novel. And this, in truth, may actually be where the claim above that this is a model of what historical fiction can be comes from. Some of the characters drove me mad (the Bernhard, for example - I didn’t take to him at all) and I didn’t always get the writing style. But it grew on me and, as it grew, it opened up (like a flower, I guess) to become a book with ideas about philosophy, about music, about poetry as well as a book that might well be considered to be ahead of its time in terms of its structure and narrative style.

It is with some surprise, after nearly abandoning it at the 100 page mark, that I find myself giving this 4 stars.
Profile Image for Emma.
913 reviews870 followers
December 15, 2019
I had to power through this for class, but this book was just not my cup of tea. I found it quite slow and mostly boring. I was not interested in the storyline whatsoever and in my opinion the characters were quite dull. I was hoping to get more information about The Blue Flower, but this was not the case at all. The information provided was pretty superficial and not at all insightful.
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,127 reviews104 followers
January 31, 2023
I have had Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1995 The Blue Flower (about Friedrich von Hardenberg, about German late 18th/early 19th century poet and philosopher Novalis, his life and how he became one of the most recognised faces of German Romanticism) on my to-read list for quite some time. But I have indeed also been quite majorly hesitant with regard go even starting a perusal since a number of my Goodreads friends (and all of them friends who tend to think like I do with regard to in particular historical fiction) have really and obviously not at all enjoyed The Blue Flower. And indeed, I now absolutely know that my hesitations and misgivings have been more than justified. For after basically feeling totally textually frustrated with regard to Penelope Fitzgerald’s stilted and to and for me almost unreadable choice of printed words and with any kind of potential reading joy being totally erased by the author’s mode of literary expression, I have after about one hundred odd pages of personal reading hell decided to count my proverbial losses and to label The Blue Flower as yet another example of in my opinion quite palpably poorly written fiction where in particular stylistically, I simply had to stop the inflicted reading torture and to quit with The Blue Flower once and for all.

But furthermore, I am also rather majorly finding myself kind of wondering whether Penelope Fitzgerald might in fact be trying in The Blue Flower to artificially attempt to emulate Novalis’ own writing style. For especially with regard to Fitzgerald’s personally annoying and grating cadence and rhythm, The Blue Flower also really painfully reminds me of Novalis’ novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which I totally and utterly despised having to read for my Second Comprehensive Exam. And albeit that I of course did not really have the option of abandoning Heinrich von Ofterdingen as a book I could not finish when I was preparing for my comps, since there were more than likely going to be questions about Heinrich von Ofterdingen on the exam, I do indeed and fortunately have this option now with regard to The Blue Flower (and I am taking full advantage and am also rating The Blue Flower and in particular Penelope Fitzgerald’s penmanship with but one star and equally letting my Goodreads friends who have found The Blue Flower frustrating and not really readable, let alone enjoyable know that they were and are absolutely right).

Finally, I also have noticed that Penelope Fitzgerald seems to textually in The Blue Flower have no issues finding it acceptable that Friedrich von Hardenberg, that a man in his early twenties would fall madly in love with his twelve year old cousin Sophie von Kühn. And since I have always found Novalis’ relationship with Sophie and that they were actually engaged to be married as rather pedophilic in scope and feel, that The Blue Flower portrays this a something quite natural and even really positive and beautiful, this certainly is yet another reason for me to label The Blue Flower as a DNF and to give only one star as a rating.
Profile Image for Jonathan Pool.
538 reviews99 followers
January 4, 2019
Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower is a prize winning book that has been voted one of the great works of the historical fiction genre. Some of Fitzgerald’s fans rate it as among her very best (it was her last novel). It’s very different to The Bookshopfor example, and for the variety and range of subject matter in her novels I think Fitzgerald must be commended.

My personal reaction to the book is that it is a good book, but not a great one.

Historical fiction is just about my favourite type of writing; the reading experience enhanced by the chance to go online and carry out my own research:
An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the period depicted.
In this respect I found The Blue Flower to be an exemplary novel of its kind. The opening sequence, describing washing day at a large, noble, household, transports the reader to the period in question. This imagination of life at microcosmic level, behind the scenes, is beautifully written, and evocative of the era.
The Blue Flower uses language in a way specifically designed to capture the style of Germany and the c.18th.
At first this comes across as a bit formal, even stuffy, but it necessarily captures the flavour of the time.  It does sometimes make the read a bit wooden, though, and the characters can appear stand- offish.
Younger brother Bernhard is “the Bernhard”. Sophie’s sister, Friederike, is referred to as Frau Leutnant Mandelsloh (her husbands military rank and surname), or simply as the Mandelsloh. Coelestin Just  is Kreisamtmann Coelestin Just Of Tennsteft

My reservations about The Blue Flower are twofold.
First, much of the story told, of Friedrich (Fritz) Von Hardenberg (subsequently aka Novalis) is so true to the reality of his life, that it’s pretty well straight biography.
I prefer my historical fiction to incorporate a bit more artistic licence, and rather more obscure references to lesser known facts about the primary subject. The names of the majority of the characters are completely unchanged. (Coelstin Just,Sophie Von Kuhn, Fichte, Schlegel brothers).

My second reservation concerns the artistic movement of which Novalis is acknowledged to be the founder- German romanticism of the late c.18th. Grasping the full meaning of the philosophical concepts often proved too elusive for me. German romanticism in the c.18th was an anti Enlightenment movement, and one which championed Order. There are subtle, and often incomprehensible differences in the interpretation of its message among the main thinkers (Fichte especially) of the time.

At the heart of the book is the eponymous “Blue Flower”.
This is intriguing.
 Fritz:”What is the meaning of the Blue Flower?”
Karoline: the young man has to go away from home to find it. He only wants to see it, he does not want to possess it. It cannot be poetry, he knows what that is already. It can’t be happiness, he wouldn’t need a stranger to tell him what that is”

Penelope Fitzgerald is suitably elusive, and as vague as her protagonist, in trying to put into words the essence of the metaphor represented by the Blue Flower.
Further research indicates that there exists an almost sublime state of grace which avows that there is an attainable, intensely personal, realisation of emotional contentedness. It’s different for each one of us, and we might not find it.

Fitzgerald unambiguously directs the reader in the realisation that The Blue Flower is not a Shakespearean Romeo & Juliet story of unconventional love. Sophie and Fritz’s relation to one another is at the core of the story, but the inevitable failure of their unconsummated relationship is not the key to the pursuit of the Blue Flower.
Fitzgerald herself refers to a Blue Flower in other novels (notably The Bookshop); Fitzgerald's speaking to her biographer, Hermione Lee,  said “ the Blue Flower is what you want of life...even if there’s no possibility of reaching it, you must never give up”

For Fritz, Sophie, is repeatedly referred to as “my Philosophy". How do the beliefs of German romanticism connect with the true story of Hardenberg’s actual life, and with Fitzgerald’s direct insertion of the Blue Flower symbolism in the dialogue with Fritz and Sophie and Karolin?

My own view is that the modern equivalent is the concept of the “soul mate”. This was originally a Platonic idea and it goes much further than sexual attraction. Soul mates were drawn to one another to fulfil a particular mission.
Fritz’s relationship with Sophie might not be the be all, and end all, of The Blue Flower ideal, but it is a constituent part. It doesn’t seem to be reciprocated or even recognised by Sophie, but the entanglement of Erasmus in the bigger picture  is the best example of where Fitzgerald has taken biography, and philosophy, and created an interesting fictionalised imagination of how Sophie Von Kuhn might have been the perfect recipient of Hardenberg’s attentions, in order for him to attain a complete self.

Returning to the historical elements of the novel, the c.18th century setting is a time just after The Seven Years War; a sprawling war across Europe , sometimes referred to as World War 0 (zero). Fitzgerald’s characters allude to the revolutionary events in France at the end of the century, with nicely understated foreboding.
There are shades of Tolstoy’s Napoleonic War and Peace as the relentless drain of the wartime, with consequent family penury provides the backdrop. 
Medical ‘science’ is basic, as evidenced by the unfortunate Sophie who undergoes operations that are notable for the woeful arrogance of the surgeons, and technically primitive methods employed to try to effect a cure. It is noted that a career in medicine is likely to be in demand,  “as bone setter or wound- doctor”; this too reflecting the permanent nature of war, and battle.
Fritz advocates the latest medical thinking “Brownismus”. This might be slightly less painful than being subjected to “bleeding”, but it is of little surprise that life expectancy was poor, and Novalis himself was a victim of tuberculosis and died aged twenty eight.

My admiration for Penelope Fitzgerald's work has increased as a consequence of reading The Blue Flower. My desire to find out more about Novalis, and the German Romantics of the late c.18th has not, alas, been further stimulated. Excellent writer, several strikingly authentic images, but wrong subject matter for me.
Profile Image for Rob Baker.
259 reviews1 follower
September 25, 2022
Disjointed writing and storytelling make this book hard to follow at times, and the emotional distance kept between reader and the characters makes the former care very little about the latter.

There’s a storyline here, but it’s too barebones and fragmented to elicit any real intellectual or emotional involvement on the reader’s part.

I wonder what Fitzgerald hoped to accomplish by telling the story of this man (apparently a somewhat respected and influential writer in his time) and his family who actually lived in Germany in the late 1700s/early 1800s.

After finishing the novel, I don’t feel I know anything of import about him, his writing, or his beliefs. There’s an afterward that tells about the deaths of some of the main characters and I found myself unmoved except in a vague, “it’s sad when anyone dies even if they’re characters in a book”, kind of way. That’s not a good sign after spending 225 pages with them!

There is a generous amount of wit in Fitzgerald’s writing voice, which, along with the occasional interesting detail about how daily life was lived back then, at least broke up the tedium of the rest of the novel.
Profile Image for Ian Laird.
297 reviews59 followers
August 12, 2017
This is a sad story about a doomed love and short lives. But it is a bit of a misfire if the central premise, the love story, does not work.

Penelope Fitzgerald was a gifted writer who could make something out of very little and in unlikely circumstances. With the The Bookshop she made a memorable story out of a middle-aged woman starting a bookshop in a disused, damp (a telling detail) building in a small English rural town against formidable opposition. Here she attempts something more ambitious. She seeks to flesh out the noble ardour of a real life historical figure (Fritz von Hardenberg aka the philosopher poet Novalis) in late eighteenth century Germany.

Von Hardenberg epitomises a central dichotomy: a poet and philosopher who yet understands financial necessity as he assiduously applies himself to become a revenue collector from the salt mines.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life wrote a depressingly brilliant appreciation of The Blue Flower in the Independent of 1 November 2013, in which she speaks of the work as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. She makes an eloquent case, but does not persuade me. Perhaps the fact that this book has generated such widely varied reactions from Goodreads reviewers, suggest that ‘masterpiece’ can be as elusive as the blue flower.
Profile Image for Daisy.
193 reviews68 followers
March 1, 2021
I enjoyed being part of the chaotic, loving Von Hardenberg clan for the brief duration of this book. The mature resourceful Sidonie, the jovial Erasmus, the idiosyncratic the Bernard (who is not the family dog, but for the first part of the novel the youngest member) and of course the main character of the book - Fritz.
Fritz goes on to become the poet known as Novalis (probably more renowned for his infatuation with a twelve year old than his poetry today) but in The Blue Flower he is a recent graduate who dreams of being a poet while carrying out his filial duties training to be a salt mine surveyor. He believes in the interconnectedness of everything, that humans can only know themselves through their interaction with nature and that love is a sense of relationship and sympathy between all beings in the world. This romantic view of the world puts him at odds with many in his family and he is viewed as being 'simple' in his younger years. Being a pragmatist Fritz applies himself to learning the art of the surveyor for the good of his family and it is while he is apprentice that he falls in love with the twelve year old Sophie. He decides within 15 minutes of setting eyes on her that he will wait the four years until he can marry her, he has found the living embodiment of his philosophy (he calls her his philosophy throughout the book) the other identity that will complete him. She is dark to his fair, she is not as beautiful as he is handsome, she comes from a lower-class family is uninterested in learning and somewhat uncouth whereas he lives in his thoughts, is restrained and from old nobility yet she has a beguiling quality that captivates all who meet her - including Fitz's brother Erasmus who is charmed on his visit to tell her of the impossibility of her relationship with Fritz.
I shall not ruin the rest of the book which is a joy to read and brought a greater depth of understanding to his poetry.

Profile Image for Joy D.
1,902 reviews220 followers
March 20, 2023
Historical fiction based on a small segment of the life of German philosopher Friedrich (Fritz) von Hardenberg (1772 – 1801), later known as the poet Novalis, a real person. Fritz, at age twenty, becomes infatuated with twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn whom he calls his “Philosophy.” He ignores the affections of a beautiful intelligent woman, preferring the child, seeing her as one he can mold as he sees her in his mind. Sophie is from a different social class, so Fritz has an uphill battle to convince his family to allow the engagement.

It is beautifully written, evoking a sense of time and place (Saxony in the 1790s). Readers gets a taste of the medical practices, fashions, family routines, and courting practices of the time. It references the influences of French Revolution and other notable events and people of the period. The characters, particularly the von Hardenberg family members, are wonderful. I especially enjoyed the depiction of Fritz’s mischievous and precocious little brother, whom they call “the Bernhard.” It includes humor and charm, as well as an ill-fated love story. It is an excellent example of what historical fiction can convey in the hands of a talented author.
Profile Image for José.
400 reviews26 followers
December 12, 2020
Es una biografía novelada de la vida de Novalis antes de ser un poeta famoso. El barco parece naufragar mientras va transcurriendo su travesía. El viaje se vuelve monótono.
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,558 followers
January 22, 2016
Lovely, odd piece of historical fiction packed with memorable characters whose seemingly minor actions congeal into a sweeping representation of the late eighteenth century. While Novalis's romance with a young girl is certainly the emotional core of the novel, I'll remember his siblings and the wonderful Karoline for just as long. Fitzgerald, whose late blooming career is fascinating in and of itself, has a very light touch and a clear affection for the source material, which is presented seamlessly. You wouldn't think from the description that this a breezy read, but it flies on by.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 854 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.