First published in 1978, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, an award which Fitzgerald would later win for her novel Offshore. The novel recounts the efforts of middle-aged widow Florence Green, ‘in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back’, to open a bookshop in a small coastal town. It’s 1959 in East Anglia but in a town which ‘every fifty years or so […] had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication’, it is not the imminent social change of the 1960s which challenges Florence’s undertaking, but rather local opposition, the political machinations of a social climber, rising damp and a persistent poltergeist.
It’s a short novel, but each character is impeccable drawn, as is Hardborough the town. Fitzgerald’s writing is incredibly tight and the text is lean and fit for purpose. It’s wickedly funny in parts, though the humour is so dry it could catch fire. If I were the kind to write in books, I’d have underlined so many one-liners, the text would most likely have become illegible. When Florence sends a copy of Lolita to the reclusive Mr Brundish, the last remaining descendant of one of the most ancient Suffolk families, in order to obtain his opinion as to whether it might sell well in the town, I laughed out loud. The cast of bookshop customers and their reading demands reminded me too well of not only people I know, but the kind of customer I’ve also been! But if I had to pick a scene that illustrates why I love this book, it would be when Christine, the young schoolgirl assistant who rules Florence’s bookshop, raps the self-inflated Mrs Gamart over the knuckles in punishment for disrupting the orderly system of her lending library. When Florence questions her, Christine is ‘still holding her school ruler, ornamented with a series of Donald Ducks’. How I love that image.
The book changes tone shortly after this incident and, as The Bookshop might be accurately described as a tragi-comedy, there’s really only one outcome for Florence’s bookshop. Before that though, Fitzgerald plays with archetypal tropes, questions of morality, definitions of justice and what it might mean to try, regardless of success or failure.
This book has been on my shelves for several years now, but it was recently dusted off for the inaugural meeting of a new book group. I’ve never really been in a book group before and, despite having studied literature at university for over a decade, the setting and the kind of discussion which evolved around the text were new experiences for me. I’ll admit to a rather over-developed tendency to bring my training in literary theory and criticism to bear on every reading experience, right down to reading the back of the cereal box, and am aware that, on occasion, I have perhaps taken the question of “what’s your favourite book?” far beyond the interest of the casual enquirer. My habit of rambling on is probably augmented by the fact that I work in the field of children’s literature and, infuriatingly, far too many people expect the answer of why I like a certain book to be “because it has pretty pictures”. I think my parents, who fostered and fed my love of reading from a very early age, do sometimes wish I’d just go back to reading books the way I used to as an untrained child. Although my party piece as a four-year-old was to recite by heart the first chapter of The Wind in the Willows to anyone foolish enough to sit still that long, so I’m fairly certain that my parents are mostly glad those days are over. Anyway, I’d given myself a strict talking to before the book group, bit my tongue and don’t think I alienated too many people by insisting that everything must mean something.
The general opinion of the book group was that The Bookshop was a good selection, an amusing read, beautifully written and tightly styled, and easy to build a discussion around. Some people felt a degree of resentment at the restricted span of the novel, that it left them wanting to know more about Florence’s life prior to her decision to open the bookshop or wanting explanations for the appearance and disappearance of some minor characters. For me, the refusal to indulge the reader’s curiosity is the perfect choice; the hint is in the title, is it not? In a story about ‘The Bookshop’, what right or need have we to know more?
I have another one or two of Penelope Fitzgerald’s books in my library, but I’m going to make the effort to track down several more, as I encourage everyone else to do too. In the meantime, here’s a very interesting article from Hermione Lee about the process of writing Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography.
Finally, I suppose something else The Bookshop made me think about was the fortunes of independent bookshops. Hopefully, few bookshop owners experience the challenges that Florence encountered, but there’s no doubt that the challenges which they do face are legion. Other than those I receive as gifts or purchases I make while travelling, for the past few years all my books have been bought in independent bookshops. Yes, I probably pay a slightly higher price for making that choice and I might have to order books more often than pick them off a shelf, but for me, the local bookshop is a very special place. My bookseller knows not only what I like to read, but also, crucially, what I might like to read. She tolerates the way in which my dog likes to appropriate the space in front of her desk and snore away while we chat about bookish things for, no exaggeration, hours. How lovely to get random texts saying “I saw this book and though it might interest you…” or emails with “can you believe this author said that!” in the subject line. And really who else knows that a book with a blurb beginning ‘Three days before their double wedding, Charles Bingley is desperate to have a word with his dear friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, seeking advice of a most delicate nature. Bingley is shocked when Darcy gives him a copy of an ancient, illustrated book of sensual secrets – but it does tell him everything he needs to know‘ should go home with me and me alone? The bookshop, and the bookseller, make me feel a welcome part of a wider community, something which has improved my quality of life no end over the past few years.