20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penelope Fitzgerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 156 pages; 2006.

A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond
life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

A book about a bookshop seems hard to resist, right?

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop — first published in 1978 — has languished in my TBR for years, but I was only encouraged to read it after I watched the film adaptation last week (it’s streaming on SBS on Demand for anyone in Australia who fancies checking it out). Unfortunately, the film was a bit on the dull side (despite great performances from Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy), so I wanted to find out whether the book was better.

And it was.

While the film is faithful to the novel in terms of dialogue, characters and plot, it somehow fails to capture the subtle humour and the little digs at busybodies and those who wish to keep a good woman down, as it were.

And it also neglects to even mention the supernatural element of the storyline in which the lead character, Florence Green, is pestered by a poltergeist (or “rapper” as the locals call it)^^. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that might distract from the main storyline, which is a bittersweet tale about a widow who opens a bookshop against the wishes of the community “elite” who would rather an arts centre was established in the town.

A comedy of manners

Set in East Anglia, in 1959, the book is essentially a comedy of manners. It’s about petty-minded villagers who rail against Florence’s plan to open a bookshop in the small town of Hardborough on the coast — although it’s never made entirely clear why they think it is so objectionable.

Florence is kind-hearted but she’s also determined to do her own thing. (And maybe that’s why the locals are so against a bookshop being set up — women, after all, should be home makers and looking after children, but Florence is widowed and child free and she has a dream she wants to fulfil.)

She buys the Old House — “built five hundred years ago out of earth, straw, sticks and oak beams” — which has been vacant for years and is rumoured to be haunted by a poltergeist.

The noise upstairs stopped for a moment and then broke out again, this time downstairs and apparently just outside the window, which shook violently. It seemed to be on the point of bursting inwards. Their teacups shook and spun in the saucers. There was a wild rattling as though handful after handful of gravel or shingle was being thrown by an idiot against the glass.

Florence isn’t put off by this. She ignores the noise and the unexpected occurrences and gets on with the business of opening her shop, which also includes a lending library. She hires a local school girl, the forthright 10-year-old Christine, who helps out after class even though she doesn’t like books and isn’t particularly studious. Her working class parents, it seems, need the money.

The relationship between the older woman and her young charge is one of the sweeter elements of the book. Florence tolerates Christine’s rudeness and her sharp manner and tries to help her study for her 11-plus exam which will determine whether she goes to a grammar school or a technical school.

Other relationships develop over the course of the book. A strange older man by the name of Mr Brundish becomes a loyal customer and helps Florence decide whether she should stock the controversial Lolita to sell to the inhabitants of Hardborough. “They won’t understand it,” he tells her, “but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” She orders 250 copies.

By contrast, the charming (read slightly sleazy) Milo North, who commutes to London where he works at the BBC, is often on her case. When they meet at a grand party for the first time he asks her whether she is “well advised to undertake the running of a business” and claims that he will never visit her shop. He’s on the side of Mrs Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough”, who wants the Old House to be used as an arts centre for chamber music, lectures and art displays even though the building had been on the market for six months and no one but Florence had expressed an interest in buying it.

A successful business

Despite the local animosity and the challenges that confront Florence, including from her own solicitor and the opening of a rival store in a nearby town, the business is a relative success, and the story, while not exactly light-hearted, has a vein of gentle comedy running throughout it.

‘I don’t know why I bought these,’ Florence reflected after one of these visits. ‘Why did I take them? No one used force. No one advised me.’ She was looking at 200 Chinese book-markers, handpainted on silk. The stork for longevity, the plum-blossom for happiness. Her weakness for beauty had betrayed her. It was inconceivable that anyone else in Hardborough should want them. But Christine was consoling: the visitors would buy them – come the summer, they didn’t know what to spend their money on.

Sadly, there are greater unseen forces at work which put Florence’s livelihood at risk and the novel, for all it’s comic moments, nuanced observations and evocative descriptions of the Suffolk landscape, ends on a terribly sad note.

I enjoyed its commentary on class and ambition, courage and optimism, and think it’s probably the kind of story that benefits from a close second reading. The introduction to my edition, by novelist David Nicholls, is worth reading (but only after you have finished the book), as is the preface by Hermione Lee, who has written a biography about the author.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. The winner that year was Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.

^^ Update 20 August: Apparently the supernatural element wasn’t ignored, I just did not notice it when I watched the film.

This is my 17th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback so long ago that I can’t remember the date, but I also have it on Kindle, which is how I read it for the purposes of this review.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, London, Penelope Fitzgerald, Publisher, Setting

‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald


Fiction – paperback; 4th Estate; 181 pages; 2009.

Don’t let the slim size of this book fool you. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which won the Booker Prize upon publication in 1979, packs so much into its economic prose that I often had to re-read entire pages because I’d overlooked an important detail crucial to the rest of the storyline.

The book, which is set in 1961, tells the story of a motley crew of residents in a houseboat community on the Thames. Here, in the shadow of Battersea Power Station (which was still operational then, and not the derelict grade II* listed building we now know — and love), we meet a handful of core characters: Richard, a former navy man, who loves living on the river and keeps everything shipshape; Maurice, the male prostitute, who stores stolen goods for his mysterious friend Harry; Willis, a 65-year-old maritime artist, who is desperate to sell his leaking boat so he can live on dry land; and Nenna, an expat Canadian, with two young girls, whose husband refuses to live on a boat.

While there’s not much plot (Fitzgerald’s strength is in characterisation and scene-setting), the story mainly hinges on Nenna’s attempt to get her husband back, because she needs someone to fold maps for her and “turn over the Times so the pages lie flat”.

That dry humour runs throughout the novel, which is rich with comic moments. Even before you’ve got a handle on the story, Fitzgerald is making you laugh out loud. I had my first chuckle on page 3 when we discover that Maurice changed the name of his boat when he first moved to the Reach, because he realised that residents were addressed by the name of their craft — for example, Lord Jim, Rochester, Dunkirk — “and that he himself would accordingly be known as Dondeschiepolschuygen IV, which was described in gilt lettering on his bows”.

A few more pages into the novel and there are more chuckles to be had when you discover that the postman no longer delivers mail to the Reach

…after he had fallen twice from Maurice’s ill-secured gangplank, the whole morning’s mail soaked away in the great river’s load of rubbish, the GPO, with every reason on its side, had notified the Reach that they could no longer undertake deliveries. They acknowledged that Mr Blake, from ‘Lord Jim, had rescued their employee on both occasions and they wished to record their thanks for this. The letters, since this, had had to be collected from the boatyard office, and Laura [Richard’s wife] felt that this made it not much better than living abroad.

The book also provides a real insight into what it must be like to live in that kind of “netherworld”, not quite belonging to either land or water, and consequently viewed by other members of society as being “odd” or impoverished.

The barge-dwellers would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money.

In one telling scene, Richard’s friend, Pinkie (so-called because of his love of pink gin), a real estate agent, asks him when he’s going to “give up this nonsense about living in the middle of the Thames?” When Richard claims he isn’t selling the boat and that he didn’t buy it as an investment, the response is: “Then what in the name of Christ did you buy her for?”

Nenna’s husband feels similarly. Despite returning from a two-year stint working abroad with his tail between his legs (the resultant riches he had hoped to acquire never appeared), he cannot bring himself to live on the boat that Nenna bought in his absence. Why? Because he feels it is beneath him, and yet he is happy to lodge in a North London terrace house with a colleague and his mother!

Of course, a book set on the Thames could not help but make the river a central character, and Fitzgerald writes of it so evocatively that you can see the water swirling, feel the tides rising and falling, hear the gulls squawking overhead.

This is a dear, gem of a book, comic and melancholy by turn, and peopled with intriguing characters. My only quibble is the falsity of the children’s dialogue (too adult, too contrived, but possibly 12-year-olds spoke like that in the early Sixties?) and the all-too abrupt ending. But as my first experience reading Penelope Fitzgerald I very much enjoyed it — thanks to KevinfromCanada for the recommendation!