Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

The Bookshop is a gem of a book: spare but revealing, quirky but unsentimental. Its story is minimal: Florence Green, a widow, decides it is time to “make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.” Her plan is to open a bookshore in the damp East Anglian town of Hardborough where she lives; the site she has chosen is the Old House, a property that has somehow survived over five hundred years and has stood empty for months. For no particularly good reason, Florence’s plan arouses, not so much hostility or outright antagonism, as a kind of discomfort in the town. She has a passive-aggressive rival for the Old House, Mrs Gamart, who declares her interest in establishing an Arts Center in it and tries a number of petty maneuvers for turning Florence out. Eventually, she succeeds. In the meantime, Florence has tried to make the shop, as well as the small lending library she establishes in it, a success, but neither ever really is successful, and in the end Florence has to accept that “the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years did not want a bookshop.” There are no great revelations along the way, but every action and interaction, every person and conversation,  is sharply rendered: this is my first experience reading Fitzgerald but she promptly joins my list of writers who just know, somehow, which words (and how many words) to use and just where to put them so that you are at once surprised and pleased by each sentence. I appreciated Florence, too, who, though not a heroic idealist, displays both resolution and independence of mind in the face of the soggy resistance of the other residents of Hardborough.  ‘It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age,” she tells her banker, “but having done it, I don’t intend to retreat.” When she opens the shop, she plans no celebration, “because she was uncertain who should be asked. The frame of mind, however, is everything. Given that, one can have a very satisfactory party all by oneself.” Reading that line, it struck me as an insight particularly apt for a book lover. She isn’t all by herself in her endeavor, as it turns out: she is joined in the store by 10-year-old Christine Gipping, who comes to  “help out,” and who, in one of the book’s darting moments of humor, raps Mrs Gamart across the knuckles (literally) when she bustles in and interferes with the precedence list at the lending library, which Florence has put under Christine’s charge. Milo North, a minor celebrity in town because he does “something in TV,” is an ally of sorts, until he is enlisted in one of Mrs Gamart’s conspiracies against Florence’s posession of the Old House. And the town’s reclusive intellectual, Edmund  Brundish, writes Florence a letter of support when she opens and advises her, when she asks for his opinion, that she ought to stock Lolita:

I have read Lolita, as you requested. It is a good book, and therefore you should try to sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.

She does order Lolita for the shop, and the window display attracts significant attention–enough that it becomes the grounds of a legal complaint by Mrs Gamart, who claims it provides “a temporary obstruction unreasonable in quantum and duration to the use of the highway.” The epistolary exchange between Florence and her lawyer, Mr Thornton, following Mrs Gamart’s complaint is a treat; it ends with the succinct message, “Coward!” Mrs Gamart’s campaign also eventually draws Edmund Brundish out of hiding: more than anyone else in the novel, he attempts to take a stand on principle. But Florence’s bookshop is not part of a crusade for high culture, and The Bookshop is not a satire about anti-intellectualism or freedom from censorship. It’s just a story about a small community too soggy to take a clear impression from the weight of an outsider’s plans. It’s also a story in which it seems perfectly natural that everyone, Florence included, believes in the “rapper” who haunts the Old House. This is not Sarah Waters territory here, no realm of the gothic or uncanny:

‘Your rapper’s been at my adjustable spanners,’ said the plumber, without rancour, when she came to see how the work was going forward. His tool bag had been upended and scattered; pale blue tiles with a nice design of waterlilies had been flung broadside about the upstairs passage. The bathroom, with its water supply half connected, had the alert air of having witnessed something.

In the end, it’s Florence, not the poltergeist, who is unnatural and unwanted in Hardborough.

9 Comments to Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

  1. June 7, 2010 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Beautiful review – I love Fitzgerald. She respects the graceful depths of reality in her work, which makes her novels seem too quiet to some, but I think she’s just perfect.

  2. June 8, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I hadn’t thought, before, that I wanted to read The Blue Flower, but it (and others of hers) are definitely on my TBR list now.

  3. June 8, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I love The Blue Flower, but I realize that I have never really “sorted” through Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve read all but 2 of her novels, and like them all. Someday I’ll go back and figure out why.

    Her first book, The Golden Child, is little more than a cute mystery. I guess I’ve sorted to that extent.

  4. June 9, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    This one is on my TBR shelf and coming up quickly because I want to read it for the Bibliophilic Books challenge. I’ll have to come back and read your review after I finish it, because I don’t like to read reviews right before I read a book.

  5. July 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Superb review! I’ve just finished reading ‘The Bookshop’ – with great reget, so it was a treat to read your thoughtful, comprehensive post. I, too, think PF’s a superb stylist of enormously telling economy: not a word wasted.
    The ‘rapper’ strikes me as a reminder of the unknown and its power, those spiritual aspects of life that shouldn’t be overlooked and somehow need to be incorporated into mundane existence. And the opening image of the heron and the eel seems like a metaphor for Florence herself: she does take action, but perhaps not forcefully enough. In the end, she is defeated by stronger (because more self-absorbed & less imaginative) characters. Should love to know what you think of her other novels (‘The Blue Flower’ is generally thought to be her best; but I always favoured ‘The Gate of Angels’).
    Merci, Rohan :-)!

  6. July 22, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much, Minnie. I haven’t read any more Fitzgerald yet but am on the hunt, as is my private book scout (everyone should have one!). I like your idea about the ‘rapper,’ though I was particularly intrigued at how very literal and low-key Fitzgerald’s handling of it was. I was almost tempted just to believe in it, rather than to interpret it!

  7. July 23, 2010 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Hello, again, Rohan. Yes, I felt just much as you did about the ‘rapper’: while my initial reaction was to register the feature as a literary device, I was perfectly happy to suspend disbelief and accept it thanks to what you so accurately identify as ‘very literal and low-key handling’. Odd, isn’t it? She is a writer of great subtlety – to such an extent that the reader isn’t always aware of how powerful she is, too.
    Do hope your book scout (wonderful resource!) delivers the goods, and that you enjoy your further exploration of Penelope Fitzgerald.

  8. Amanda's Gravatar Amanda
    March 8, 2013 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Just finished reading this fantastic book and, as above, need to find more Penelpe Fitzgerald stat! I wonder if anyone can interpret Christine’s failure at school for me – do you think Mrs Gamart had something to do with her not being accepted at Grammar (it seems to me that a bit was made of the teacher sending the exams off to the other school)? Also the inspector was obviously tipped off by Mrs Gamart.

    • Sally's Gravatar Sally
      January 14, 2014 at 3:24 am | Permalink

      I loved this book too. Not a word wasted as someone above has said. I will confess I did howl out loud when I reached the ending, I so wanted Florence to triumph over the dreadful Mrs Gamart. Perhaps she did in a way, behaving as she did with such fortitude.
      I have just finished Gate of Angels and enjoyed it immensely. Something about Fitzgerald reminds me of Anthony Trollope. Of course she isn’t nearly as wordy but she slips in stiletto shafts of humour that completely undermine the pomposity of the foe.

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