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?”