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.
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.
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.
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.