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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald — a tragicomic gem about life

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.

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