The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

I’ve occasionally fantasized about opening a bookshop. Would it not be paradise to spend the working day surrounded by books in their colourful jackets smelling of fresh ink with maybe a little dust thrown in for character? To complete this ideal situation, the clientele should be made up of like-minded, book loving people and off to one corner there would be a little café where patrons could read the first chapter of their purchase, being too impatient to wait until they got home before plunging into their new acquisition. In this novel the principal character, Florence Green, is trying to fulfill such a dream, minus the coffee shop, as a way of both earning her living and of healing from the grief experienced with the death of her husband.  

The author has set this story in the small fictional town of Hardborough, England. It is rural, picturesque and situated next to a marsh and at a short distance there is the sea.   Florence is determined to obtain a property called the Old House as the venue for her bookshop. It is the late 1950’s and there is an atmosphere of post war dreariness in the town. However, for those in Hardborough who care to look with their sensibilities, there is beauty in the variations of light and colour reflected in the surrounding wetlands. There is humour and hope in the town’s quirky inhabitants who demonstrate proportionate amounts of good will and self interest in their daily lives. 

The novel opens with Florence meeting the local bank manager who is candidly sceptical of the feasibility of her plan. Reluctantly he grants Florence the mortgage she is seeking doubting there will be much local demand for books. The story goes on to detail Florence’s struggle to clean up the ancient stone premises she has chosen for her book shop and the obstacles created by her neighbours either through indifference or a certain amount of jealousy when the bookshop starts to shine and pull attention away from other enterprises in the town.

 This book is not much longer than a novella but manages to introduce a half dozen nicely sketched characters that give life to a complex story of a young woman struggling with the task of getting on with her life in a village that has an excessive amount of conflict rumbling under its cobblestones. If I were to highlight the particular qualities that make this a well told story I would mention first its economy of wordsand secondly its pacing of events. It is these features that makes up the craftmanship behind this book. So much is revealed or hinted at in so few words and all this is cleverly done. This is a skill I admire (and if you have read any of my previous postings you will have observed that economy of words is, alas, a virtue I do not possess).

The villain in this novel is Mrs. Violet Gamart. She is part of the local nouveau richeand openly opposes the bookshop because she wants to use its location to set up an art centre.  This is a pet project of hers, one she hopes will enhance her position as a cultural leader in the community and will rival the neighbouring town of Flintmarket that has greater affluence and seems more progressive than Hardborough. Mrs. Gamart is heartlessly manipulative in her efforts to undercut Florence’s little bookshop. She even goes as far as to enlist the help of a nephew who has been elected to parliament. The reader cheers Florence’s perseverance as she becomes the mouse directly in the line fire of Mrs. Gamart’s elephant gun.  

Florence is helped in the shop by a wise, precocious ten-year-old girl named Christine who is not interested in reading books but whose talents lie in organizing and running the business side of the enterprise.  She speaks her own mind; when Florence tells her, she was expecting her older sister to apply for the job and worries that Christine is not strong enough to do the work. Christine counters with the apt comment: “You can’t tell from looking…” She explains that her sister spends all her free time with her boyfriend up in the meadows and then in her own matter of fact way says that she herself is not yet old enough to be interested in adolescent sex and so Florence need not worry about her neglecting the work assigned. Christine is an invaluable asset to the bookshop. She is clever but is not interested in her school work and does not do well in exams. The author paints a gloomy future for her as the middle school exams stream children into either an academic education or training toward menial, manual labour. Penelope Fitzgerald was a teacher and understood the probability of girls like Christine being directed by the education system into a life with few occupational opportunities despite a talent for accounting and the management of business. The other dreary option girls would have beyond unskilled labour would be to marry give birth to and raise a flock of children enduring daily, domestic drudgery throughout all the best years of her life.

The other interesting characters in this book include Edmund Brundish, a reclusive country squire with a lineage going back to the Saxons.  He is a book lover who provides moral support to Florence’s enterprise but no longer has much influence in the community. There is also a local jack of all trades named Raven, who delivers mail on one day and competently performs dental work on horses the next. And there is a noisy poltergeist living in the attic who rattles the place and may even have been more than the product of lively imaginations applied to creaky old beams. I’ll also mention the charming BBC reporter who seems to have been commissioned by Mrs. Gamart to win Florence over to the idea of giving up her bookshop but his charm does not go far.  

       The Hardborough bookshop becomes a success and a focal point for community gatherings especially when Florence sets up a subscription library on the side and even more so when she begins advertising the sensational best seller Lolitaby Vladimir Nabokov.  I knew nothing about subscription libraries before I read this book but it seems it was common at the time in areas where the public libraries did not exist. Shelving would be set aside in the bookstore and clients could subscribe to the library paying a fee in order to have borrowing privileges. I assume the promotional side for the business was that while browsing the library shelves for something to read a title in the book shop might catch the client’s eye that he/she might consider purchasing.

If you read into the life of Penelope Fitzgerald a circumstance that is constantly mentioned is that she did not start publishing until she was sixty. In addition, to the amazement of the literati of the day, she won the Booker prize in 1979 for her novel The Offshore,a story based on her life on a leaky houseboat. She was a dark horse and to the astonishment of all beat out V.S.Naipaul’s,A Bend in the River.The undisguised surprise of many critics bordered on the insulting but the author seems to have weathered the abuse lightly.I am impatient to read more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work because of the enjoyment I experienced in reading The Bookshopand also because I think for anyone who is trying to learn how to write well she is an excellent teacher.