The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald — a tragicomic gem about life

Cover of The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, a gem of a tale about a widow's attempts to open a bookshop

I began watching the film version of The Bookshop with high expectations — a bookshop setting; a heroine who believes books are an essential commodity and a community determined to prove her wrong. What could possibly go awry?

Many things as it turned out. Atmospheric seaside town vistas and first class acting by Bill Nighy (one of my favourites) and Emily Mortimer couldn’t make up for a script that meanders along, seldom rising above the level of gentle humour and subdued drama. Pleasant enough on a wet afternoon, but nothing to get excited about.  

Fortunately the novella written by Penelope Fitzgerald more than made up for what the film lacked. 

Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is a poignant, tragicomic tale of a young widow who sinks her small legacy into the purchase of the dilapidated Old House in the tiny Suffolk town where she’s lived for the last eight years. Florence Green’s plan is to open a bookshop, the previous one having long, long gone out of business.

But the people of of Hardborough-by-the-Sea don’t share Florence’s enthusiasm for breathing new life into a damp-ridden and probably haunted property “built five hundred years ago out of earth, straw, sticks and oak beams”. Even before the ink has dried on the sales contract, the scheme runs into opposition. Hardborough’s leading lady Violet Gamart, has her own ideas for the Old House. It is, she declares, the perfect location for an arts centre that will draw in the summer visitors and cock a snoop at a neighbouring town.

Florence Green might look a pushover; “in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back. But she is not a woman who backs down easily. So she pushes ahead, recruits a very young assistant and throws open the doors.

She enjoys moderate success by forming a lending library, but chiefly by stocking copies of Lolita. But at every turn, obstacles are thrown in her path; a war of attrition in which Mrs Gamat evidently pulls the strings. Florence has few allies apart from the local scoutmaster and the reclusive Edmund Brundish who warns Mrs Gamart to leave his friend alone.

This beautifully observed tale superbly brings to light the bleakness of a fishing town that has seen better days. It’s an insular community whose connections to the outside world have shrunk over the decades.

The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication.

In a town “where everyone could be seen coming over the wide distances and everything seen was discussed,” pettiness and conservatism thrive. There’s a clear social hierarchy with people like Mrs Gamat and her husband, the General, ruling the roost. There’s even a social hierarchy among the books Florence places on her shelves:

The heavy luxurious country-house books, the books about Suffolk churches, the memoirs about statesmen in several volumes, took the place that was rightly theirs by right of birth in the front window. Others, indispensable, but not aristocratic, would occupy the middle shelves. … Back in the shadows went the Stickers, largely philosophy and poetry, which she had little hope of ever seeing the last of.

When the lending library gets underway, those books too must be appropriately classified:

The books available on loan were divided into classes A, B, and C. A were very much in demand, B acceptable, and C frankly old and unwanted. For every A she borrowed, she must take three Bs and a large number of Cs for her subscribers. If she paid more, she could get more As, but also, a mounting pile of Bs and the repellent Cs, and nothing new would be sent until the last consignment was returned.

Florence can keep her own premises in good order but she comes a cropper because she doesn’t fit into the ordered world of Hardborough. When her window display of Lolita proves a big attraction, the jealousy among neighbouring tradespeople leads them to what they believe is a momentous decision: “It was decided not to ask her to join the Inner Wheel of the Hardborough and District Rotary Club.” She becomes in essence, persona non grata in the town.

The Bookshop is a tightly written tale of determination worn down by the small-mindedness of an insular community. It has a melancholic tone, particularly in the final pages, but Fitzgerald livens the mood with passages that give a deliciously acerbic view of the petty attitudes prevalent in Hardborough. The new lending library in particular is the cause of animosity when members discover the only copy of The Life of Queen Mary  has been allocated to a notoriously slow reader.

As a novel about life in a small town in the 1950s, it’s beautifully observed. On the surface it’s a simple tale about opening a bookshop. But beneath that lies a tale of goodness and kindness versus ego, of the outsider versus the establishment and the battle between those who embrace change and those who resist. A gem of a novel that would be bleak if not for Fitzgerald’s subtle, yet pointed, humour.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald: Footnotes

Penelope Fitzgerald was an English novelist, poet, essayist and biographer. She worked for the BBBC during World War 2 and co-edited a magazine with her husband Desmond Fitzgerald in the 1950s. The couple were left in dire financial circumstances when his legal career came to an ignominious end, at times even homeless. Penelope Fitzgerald took various jobs to help provide for her family, including a stint in a bookshop in Southwald, Suffolk which gave her material for the novella The Bookshop.

Though she didn’t begin writing fiction until she turned 60 years old, she went on to be considered one of the best British authors of the late twentieth century. In 2008, The Times included her in a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. Her novel Offshore won the 1979 Booker Prize and three of her other novels, including The Bookshop (published 1978) were shortlisted for the prize.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

15 thoughts on “The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald — a tragicomic gem about life

  • October 8, 2021 at 3:50 pm
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    I loved the film. Went into it thinking there’d be no way they could capture the feel of the book, but I thought they did a remarkable job of that. And they manage to make other POVs comprehensible, even though your heart belongs with the bookshop in the end.

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    • October 11, 2021 at 9:06 am
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      I think I was missing the edge of Fitzgerald’s humour

      Reply
  • October 7, 2021 at 7:09 pm
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    I love this book and also Offshore, not sure I’d want to see the film though, somehow.

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  • October 7, 2021 at 4:17 pm
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    Interesting. I kind of liked the movie better than the book, but it was a good book and I went on to read her novel “The Blue Flower” and now I have her “Offshore” to read as well.

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  • October 7, 2021 at 3:13 pm
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    Oooh, having only this year had a memorable holiday in Southwold how is it I’d not heard of this?! This sounds absolutely marvellous and now I must locate a copy to read, and then perhaps more Fitzgerald books… Hardborough as 1950s Southwold? Now that’s very intriguing! Great review, thanks.

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  • October 7, 2021 at 11:31 am
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    I was excited about the film, too, but couldn’t stay with it. Perhaps I’ll try the book.

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  • October 7, 2021 at 6:57 am
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    I agree, the film is weak but the book is much better.

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    • October 7, 2021 at 10:45 am
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      I’d been so looking forward to watching the film but it was a struggle to get through

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  • October 7, 2021 at 2:34 am
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    I’ve read this and Offshore. Although I mildly enjoyed both, with a definite preference for The Bookshop, I never followed through on my plans to read Fitzgerald’s other novels (I did take an unsuccessful stab at The Blue Flower). I admire Fitzgerald’s skill but somehow she didn’t quite click with me emotionally. Perhaps her humor is a bit too gentle and/or I found the conclusion of The Bookshop a bit too depressing (I was very young and idealistic when I first encountered it!)
    Still, there’s a reason why I frequently re-read or re-visit books over the years, particularly those by good writers who didn’t quite work for me the first time around. It’s interesting to see how frequently my opinion changes over the years! I still have my copy of The Bookshop, which will be an ideal way to spend an afternoon this winter . . . .

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    • October 7, 2021 at 10:46 am
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      I didn’t “get” Offshore at all but now I’m wondering – just like your experience with The Bookshop – whether it might be better second time around

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  • October 6, 2021 at 7:45 pm
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    This sounds great! Adding it to the TBR mountain!

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    • October 6, 2021 at 9:09 pm
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      It’s a very slim book so doesn’t take long to read

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  • October 6, 2021 at 7:26 pm
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    This sounds very good. Definitely going on my list to read someday.

    I have read at least two novels recently where books, reading, bookstores feature prominently: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, and The Thirteenth Tale, which I am in the middle of now. Both of those are longer novels unfortunately but enjoyable reads.

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    • October 6, 2021 at 9:09 pm
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      I have The Thirteenth Tale on my TBR. so many books, so little time :0

      Reply

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