Novel Readings

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

The Bookshop is a gem of a book: spare but revealing, quirky but unsentimental. Its story is minimal: Florence Green, a widow, decides it is time to “make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.” Her plan is to open a bookshore in the damp East Anglian town of Hardborough where she lives; the site she has chosen is the Old House, a property that has somehow survived over five hundred years and has stood empty for months. For no particularly good reason, Florence’s plan arouses, not so much hostility or outright antagonism, as a kind of discomfort in the town. She has a passive-aggressive rival for the Old House, Mrs Gamart, who declares her interest in establishing an Arts Center in it and tries a number of petty maneuvers for turning Florence out. Eventually, she succeeds. In the meantime, Florence has tried to make the shop, as well as the small lending library she establishes in it, a success, but neither ever really is successful, and in the end Florence has to accept that “the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years did not want a bookshop.” There are no great revelations along the way, but every action and interaction, every person and conversation,  is sharply rendered: this is my first experience reading Fitzgerald but she promptly joins my list of writers who just know, somehow, which words (and how many words) to use and just where to put them so that you are at once surprised and pleased by each sentence. I appreciated Florence, too, who, though not a heroic idealist, displays both resolution and independence of mind in the face of the soggy resistance of the other residents of Hardborough.  ‘It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age,” she tells her banker, “but having done it, I don’t intend to retreat.” When she opens the shop, she plans no celebration, “because she was uncertain who should be asked. The frame of mind, however, is everything. Given that, one can have a very satisfactory party all by oneself.” Reading that line, it struck me as an insight particularly apt for a book lover. She isn’t all by herself in her endeavor, as it turns out: she is joined in the store by 10-year-old Christine Gipping, who comes to  “help out,” and who, in one of the book’s darting moments of humor, raps Mrs Gamart across the knuckles (literally) when she bustles in and interferes with the precedence list at the lending library, which Florence has put under Christine’s charge. Milo North, a minor celebrity in town because he does “something in TV,” is an ally of sorts, until he is enlisted in one of Mrs Gamart’s conspiracies against Florence’s posession of the Old House. And the town’s reclusive intellectual, Edmund  Brundish, writes Florence a letter of support when she opens and advises her, when she asks for his opinion, that she ought to stock Lolita:

I have read Lolita, as you requested. It is a good book, and therefore you should try to sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.

She does order Lolita for the shop, and the window display attracts significant attention–enough that it becomes the grounds of a legal complaint by Mrs Gamart, who claims it provides “a temporary obstruction unreasonable in quantum and duration to the use of the highway.” The epistolary exchange between Florence and her lawyer, Mr Thornton, following Mrs Gamart’s complaint is a treat; it ends with the succinct message, “Coward!” Mrs Gamart’s campaign also eventually draws Edmund Brundish out of hiding: more than anyone else in the novel, he attempts to take a stand on principle. But Florence’s bookshop is not part of a crusade for high culture, and The Bookshop is not a satire about anti-intellectualism or freedom from censorship. It’s just a story about a small community too soggy to take a clear impression from the weight of an outsider’s plans. It’s also a story in which it seems perfectly natural that everyone, Florence included, believes in the “rapper” who haunts the Old House. This is not Sarah Waters territory here, no realm of the gothic or uncanny:

‘Your rapper’s been at my adjustable spanners,’ said the plumber, without rancour, when she came to see how the work was going forward. His tool bag had been upended and scattered; pale blue tiles with a nice design of waterlilies had been flung broadside about the upstairs passage. The bathroom, with its water supply half connected, had the alert air of having witnessed something.

In the end, it’s Florence, not the poltergeist, who is unnatural and unwanted in Hardborough.