She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of the finest books I’ve read this year. I fully expect it to be on my end of year list.

It’s a (possibly semi-autobiographical) novel in which the respectably middle-aged Florence Green uses her small funds to open a bookshop in the small seaside town of Hardborough in Suffolk.  It proves a more challenging task than she anticipates.

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Bookshop Fitzgerald

Florence’s first difficulty comes in her choice of location: the long empty Old House. It’s damp, run down and possessed by a poltergeist (more on that later) but worst of all it’s been unofficially earmarked for use as a future arts centre by the implacable and resourceful Mrs Gamart who considers herself the queen of what passes for Hardborough society.

The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though he perhaps alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.

The town’s reaction is not an encouraging one, ranging from resistance on the part of Mrs Gamart and the failing fishmonger who had hoped Florence would buy his shop instead of the Old House, to at best indifference. Even so, Florence is determined to make things work and slowly she starts to do just that. Sales gradually pick up; a lending service is launched and eventually proves a success; Florence starts to get a feel for what’s in local demand.

It all probably sounds rather dull, but actually it’s quite wonderful. Florence to start with is pleasant to spend time with. She’s aware of her own lack of experience but she’s not an idiot. She’s kind and thoughtful and takes an interest in the life of her young ten year old assistant Christine Gipping.

Hardborough itself is skilfully evoked, both in terms of its weather and geography but more importantly in the sense of a small community where everyone is both conscious and jealous of their position and where absolutely everyone knows absolutely everyone else’s business. Well, everyone but Florence that is because she’s not really one of them.

I won’t say too much about what happens, but the catalyst comes at the midpoint of the novel when Florence bravely decides to stock Nabokov’s Lolita on the basis that while it might not be what the locals typically read it is by all accounts a good book and therefore one that a small bookshop should be promoting. She’s right that if she stocks it people will want to read it. In fact people travel to the shop just to buy it. What she doesn’t foresee is the extent to which it will galvanise the residual resentment of Mrs Gamart and some of the other local tradespeople against her.

The Bookshop is a somewhat wistful novel, perhaps fittingly so given Hardborough’s uncertain landscape of mists and marshes. More than that though it’s also often extremely funny. Fitzgerald has a keen eye for an appealing phrase and a sympathetic one for human frailty. I had a good half dozen or more quotes picked out for use at this point in my review. I’ve reluctantly cut it back to these two examples:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

And:

Later middle age, for the upper middle-class in East Suffolk, marked a crisis, after which the majority became water-colourists, and painted landscapes. It would not have mattered so much if they had painted badly, but they all did it quite well. All their pictures looked much the same. Framed, they hung in sitting-rooms, while outside the windows the empty, washed-out, unarranged landscape stretched away to the transparent sky.

I did particularly love Fitzgerald’s depiction of lacklustre local artists and of the retired authors who’re all peddling books about wandering the marshes since there’s nothing much else to write about.

Comic novels are often the saddest and this isn’t an exception. There’s an element of small tragedy to a tale about someone trying to make a living and introduce a little art to their community and being fought bitterly by people with more resources and less compassion. Fitzgerald’s is a world where kindness is often confused with weakness and rarely rewarded, but while the meek may not inherit the Earth it’s clear Fitzgerald prefers their company to those who shall.

One last note on that poltergeist. Today the line between the natural and the supernatural in fiction is pretty rigid and it’s very unusual to have a novel that in every other way is utterly naturalistic include without comment an explicit paranormal element. Why then does Fitzgerald include one here? It’s not a metaphorical poltergeist; it’s as much part of the reality of the book as Mrs Gamart or Christine Gipping or anyone else.

My suspicion, quite unprovable, is that it’s one of the semi-autobiographical elements. There’s actually nothing it does which hasn’t been observed (and explained) in the real world. People do still and definitely did then believe in poltergeists and behaviours we might now attribute to faulty pipes or settling buildings or just plain old secret adolescent mischief were attributed to spirits. More importantly though, it does allow this wonderful line from a local health and safety inspector:

I am advised that under the provisions of the Act the supernatural would be classed with bacon-slicers and other machinery through which young persons must not be exposed to the risk of injury.

As so often I feel I’ve written lots and yet the book’s slipped through my fingers. The place, the situation, the characters, the prose, it all came together for me here. This is a quiet and unassuming book. It’s modest. It makes no claims to speak to the human condition or the state of the nation. It’s just very, very good.

Other reviews

Quite a few, which I thought I’d made note of but seem to have lost. Some I am still aware of are by Jacqui of Jacqui’s Wine Journal here; by Emma of Bookaroundthecorner here and a somewhat less impressed one by John Self of The Asylum here. If there are others I’ve missed as ever please let me know in the comments.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fitzgerald, Penelope, UK fiction

15 responses to “She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.

  1. Can’t say I love the new preview and editing tools on WordPress. I usually try to check for particularly lengthy paragraphs and cut them down a bit to improve readability, but it proved much harder with the new tool to see the post clearly before posting. Anyone else having the same issue?

  2. This sounds like a fabulous read, and the type of story that I like! Great post!

  3. I don’t use the new setup in WordPress – I’m staying oldschool as long as I can.

    As for this book, I’ve heard nothing but good about it and despite my reservations about my first read of Fitzgerald I’m keen to give it a go.

  4. I’ve been hit or miss with Fitzgerald which has been frustrating as I like this novel too.

  5. It is Angela, and I think you might, and thank you!

    Kaggsy, yes, for some reason I didn’t get an option this time. The old backstage tools though were much more user friendly even if not as pretty.

    What was your first Fitzgerald? I liked Offshore but not nearly as much as this.

  6. Guy, that rather reflects Kaggsy’s comment. My impression is they do vary, particularly given she seems fond of precocious child characters (which there’s one here but she’s ten so it’s a bit more credible than in Offshore where they’re practically aliens).

  7. I’m taking an Everyman hardback of 3 of her novels, including this one, on my travels this week, so shall return to this post when I’ve read it.

  8. I’m delighted to see that you enjoyed this novel so much! I think it’s my favourite Fitzgerald to date, although I do have a soft spot for her Russian one, The Beginning of Spring. It’s quite different from The Bookshop, more elusive in some respects. I’ll be interested to see how you find it should you decide to give it a try at some point.

    Back to your review of this…yes, your commentary on her portrayal of this small town community is spot on. I loved all the dynamics between the townsfolk. And you’re right to highlight the balance between funny moments and minor tragedies. I think she’s very skilled when it comes to combining these different tones in such a way that doesn’t feel awkward or clunky. It’s a hard thing to pull off effectively, but she gets it right here – and in Offshore, too.

    Great review as ever, Max. Thanks for the pingback, that’s much appreciated.

  9. Me neither. I’m old school so I just use the original tools through the dashboard.

  10. Great review of a great book. It sounds as though it will be twee but it is anything but. You really capture the humour and despair here. The Bookshop is one of my favourite Fitzgeralds but nothing can touch The Beginning of Spring for me.

  11. If I was to disagree with one thing in your review Max, it would be that the book has most definitely not “slipped through your fingers.” You capture it quite marvellously – love the point that “Comic novels are often the saddest.”

    I read Innocence recently, and her short stories last year – all highly recommended. I haven’t got round to the “middle” novels – Human Voices, At Freddie’s – I will eventually I imagine.

  12. I think your review does justice to the book, Max, which is perhaps my favourite Penelope Fitzgerald book. Lacklustre authors and artists? Count me in! I like the glimpse of yearning…
    I can’t be bothered with the newfangled stuff on WordPress either and post the old-fashioned way.

  13. Looking forward to your thoughts Simon!

    Jacqui, The Beginning of Spring will probably be my next, though no idea when. I think you’re right that combining tones is one of her great strengths.

    Alastair, I found my way back to the old tools. They’re trying to port everyone over and I got briefly caught by it.

    Banff, yes, I was nervous of making it sound twee since as you say it really isn’t. Another vote for Beginning I see.

    Ian, I think good books always slip a bit through our fingers, and so they should. If one can fully capture a book in a blog post it’s probably not that interesting. Glad I got some sense of it though. Innocence isn’t one that know. I think comedy and sadness do rather go together, though that isn’t the most original of observations I admit.

    Marina, thank you! The stuff with the paintings filling her shop and the tedious local novels was brilliant. I loved the pushy local artist who takes every refusal to engage as encouragement…

  14. Terence Dooley

    This is from my preface to the new Spanish edition of The Bookshop:

    it seems The Bookshop really had a poltergeist or rapper. Mrs. Neame wrote to Penelope: ‘all the old hands in Southwold know of this poltergeist which is supposed to roam up and down the high street.’ Penelope’s successor as assistant to Mrs. Neame used to call out ‘Good Night old fellow’ to it when she locked up the shop at night. My wife, Tina, Penelope’s daughter, and one of the models for Christine Gipping in the novel, half-remembers an eerie incident in the backroom of the bookshop, and Penelope spoke of it in a BBC interview with Humphrey Carpenter:

    HC: You’re good on ghosts. There’s a wonderful ghost in your novel The Bookshop, a rapper, a poltergeist, which you heard yourself.
    PF: Yes but please: poltergeists are not the same as ghosts. (laughter) You have to believe in a poltergeist once you have been in any sort of situation with them, because they can’t really be contradicted. I mean this poltergeist used to throw the books on the ground… upstairs there was a small bathroom, took all the tiles off and flung them on the ground…. and the drop in temperature is very noticeable.
    Where I was, down in Southwold, there was a ghost down at the ferry. It was somebody who’d missed the last ferry a long time ago with her little boy. And there was another one of a dog just across the water towards Aldeburgh* and I never mentioned having seen these to my children or anyone else for a long time. Then it turned out that everybody had, and by that I think that you can know a ghost.
    A poltergeist is just a terrible… a hideous nuisance, a horrible thing, very frightening. Ghosts aren’t frightening.

  15. Terence, that’s fantastic. Thank you very much. It did feel from life so that makes a great deal of sense.

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