Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop

After I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker-winning Offshore, I realized I would have to read every book she published in that short but prolific burst of energy she displayed in the last twenty years of her life.  I still can’t get over it: her first four books in four years (including the Booker winner and a Booker finalist), with the next five coming in the next fifteen years (including two more Booker finalists and one — The Blue Flower — which a Booker judge regrets was never submitted and so was passed up).  The Bookshop (1978) was her second book and her first Booker finalist.  I think I liked it even more than Offshore, which is saying quite a bit.

Like Offshore, The Bookshop is a fine look into a small, somewhat isolated community.  In this case we are in the town of Hardborough, a seaside town in Eastern England that doesn’t have a bookshop.  In 1959, Florence Green is hoping to change that and make a success of one.  In a great display of precision and control, the first couple of paragraphs set up the novel and its theme of survival.

Survival was often considered all that could be asked in the cold and clear East Anglian air.  Kill or cure, the inhabitants thought — either a long old age, or immediate consignment to the salty turf of the churchyard.

As dismal as that sentiment is, one might simply pass over it because Fitzgerald’s writing is dense and, strangely, urgent.  Furthermore, this line is couched in a paragraph about how Mrs. Green is attempting to “make it clear herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right,” since she had been living on the little money her husband left her when he died.  So we come to that passage above thinking — at least I did — that this focus on survival was necessary and, perhaps, noble.  However, through the rest of this short, brilliant novel, Fitzgerald shows that the way this small community survives is through a form of social warfare as sensible as king of the mountain.  Here is one of Fitzgerald’s earliest descriptions of Mrs. Green:

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

Nevertheless, after many sleepless nights of indecision, Mrs. Green purchases Old House, which is, as the name suggests, one of the town’s oldest buildings.  It’s damp and leaky and possibly haunted (a fact which remains in the background, but give Fitzgerald moments to display her humor:  “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 bookshop has its ups and downs, but it is, nevertheless, a moderate success.  And this frightens several of the townspeople.  For one thing, there’s some jealousy from those doing more poorly, like Mr. Deben, who has been trying to sell his fish shop for several years.  Why didn’t Mrs. Green buy his place.  That might have benefited them both.

Certainly she knew that Deben’s wet fish shop was about to close.  Everybody in the town knew when there were likely to be vacant premises, who was in financial straights, who would need larger family accommodation in nine months, and who was about to die.

Basically, Mrs. Green didn’t want Deben’s wet fish shop, and she’s not entirely apologetic (she knows how to hold her own as well).

The biggest threat comes by way of Mrs. Gamart, who, if the town had one, would be part of the reigning aristocracy.  Each summer, when other towns are holding their arts festivals, Mrs. Gamart believes that everyone should support her idea of creating an arts center in Hardborough.  It always comes to nothing because before any steam has built up the other towns’ festivals have ended, and, presumably, Mrs. Gamart goes on to worry about other ways to ensure that she reigns over a respectable, cultured town.

Now that Mrs. Green has purchased Old House, though, which is the perfect place for the arts center, Mrs. Gamart, as charming as ever, begins to turn the wheels on several machines meant to destroy Mrs. Green’s enterprise.

As in Offshore, though the story here is centralized and focused, Fitzgerald allows herself the liberty to take the reader on minor tangents to see the lives in Hardborough.  Each character and each episode is so well developed that this short book contains more than most long books.  And, because by the end Fitzgerald’s community has ceased to be a strange seaside town but is so real, so familiar, we echo Mrs. Green’s question: “What is natural justice?”

7 thoughts on “Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop

  1. leroyhunter says:

    Fine review Trevor. I also loved this one, in fact I read it in one sitting which is something I rarely get the chance to do these days.

    There’s something almost deceptive about Fitzgerald, isn’t there? Shortish novels, an ostensible lack of “big themes”, and she writes so well you’d almost not notice the flow of words. But as you say she reels you in and I’ve found her stuff to be very affecting.

    The Blue Flower is superb (and in need of a reread I think). I also have The Gate of Angels on the shelf, but like you I’m sure eventually I’ll read all her stuff.

  2. Lee Monks says:

    I must get up to speed here. I’ve not managed to catch much in the way of Fitzgerald and this fine review highlights a distinct need to rectify the matter.

  3. Fitzgerald is a favorite for me as well. I find every time I open one of her novels, for the first time or for a reread, it is like settling into a comfortable chair by the fire, knowing that there are hours of worthwhile contemplation ahead. She knows how to describe and develop both people and place — I always feel more like a companion than a reader when I am reading one of her books.

  4. patty weiser says:

    This caught my interest in my favorite used bookstore and is now on my To Be Read Pile. Your review may move it to the top.

  5. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    I just ordered four more of Fitgerald’s books: The Golden Boy, Human Voices, The Beginning of Spring, and The Blue Flower. That leaves me with At Freddie’s, Innocence, and The Gate of Angels, and I’m sure I’ll get to those shortly. They all sound so different from each other, yet they all look quite compact. Looking forward to settling in with her in the long term.

  6. Trevor says:

    Incidentally, reading over this sad situation in the Westchester Library System I thought throughout of The Bookshop. It doesn’t fit together perfectly, but the community battle sounds familiar.

  7. “Each character and each episode is so well developed that this short book contains more than most long books.” Agreed: this was the first of her novels that I read and I expected it to be a quick read based on page-count, but was surprised (happily so) for this very reason you’ve given. I’ve collected her others since and am looking forward to a Fitzgerald binge at some point!

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