The Bookshop
Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop took only a day to read. It’s a short book and it deals with ordinary people in the English town of Hardborough. Florence Green, having been left a very small amount of money by her late husband, is determined to exist in her own right. To this end she decides, with the help of her bank, to set up a book shop in the town of Hardborough, which has no launderette, cinema or bookshop.

Florence acquires the Old House, which she plans to turn into her bookshop and residence. The Old House is the second oldest premises in the town, built over five hundred years ago and owing its survival to the cellar, which took seven feet of seawater in the 1953 floods. Unfortunately, due to the construction materials some walls of the house have never completely dried. In addition to this, the place seems to be haunted by a poltergeist or rapper. Nevertheless, Florence decides to make a go of it.

Unexpectedly, she is invited to a party at the house of Mrs Gamart, a woman with a network of family relations which gave [her] an access to power far beyond Hardborough itself. Mrs Gamart expresses her wholehearted support for the book shop. However, her support is soon qualified. Mrs Gamart reveals she has an interest in the Old House for an Arts Centre. It may have stood empty for five years prior to Florence’s purchase, but Mrs Gamart now thinks an Arts Centre will be far more appropriate for the town, and soon begins to make plans on Florence’s behalf to shift her somewhere else.

Part of the appeal of this book, I think, is in the latent desire of many readers to own a book shop of their own or work in one. If not that, then at least a love of books might be assumed. There is a naïve idealism associated with books which Florence articulates:

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.

There is an interesting amalgam of the pragmatic and the ideal in this thought. Adjectives like good, precious and necessary suggest the spiritual richness assumed in reading books, while their existence as a commodity reveals their commercial importance to Florence’s existence, as well. But it is the metaphor of embalming of the spirit – of the author’s or the reader’s I am not sure – which reveals the idealistic investment Florence has in books. While she may divide the books in her store into A, B and C – As being the best sellers, Cs the books publishers foist upon her as part of her deal, she identifies a quality in the written word that transcends the commercial and is, in her estimation, timeless.

These are noble feelings, but they are out of touch with the realities of the town. Florence Green is essentially a tragic figure because she does not understand this. And she is a good person, too. When Mrs Gamart suggests she move from the Old House, Florence imagines that she might accommodate this request, since she rightly perceives that she would be owed some compensation for the expense of acquiescing. However:

She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.

It is this division of exterminators and exterminates by the narrative voice which bears this ominous tragic potential. The novel opens with a memory of an eel caught in the beak of a heron, struggling for its life. The memory seems to auger a bad ending for Florence’s hopes of self-preservation, a term used by the narrative voice on the first page, suggesting the Darwinian struggle to be later fought during the polite meetings of the protagonists and their formal correspondences through legal proxy.

This struggle is also suggestive of the stasis of the English class system. Florence has her allies and enemies in the book, but they are almost exclusively divided along class lines, excepting Mr Brundish, owner of the oldest property in the town, who represents an older upper-class local than the more recently arrived and aspirational Mrs Gamart. Brundish knows the legal limits to which he can be pushed and Florence unwittingly makes him her ally through her good opinion of his judgment. She also has the ten-year-old Christine Gipping, who is intelligent and a great deal of help in the organisation of the shop, but who suffers the vagaries of the class system when her potential is stymied by the buff envelope she receives at school, advancing her into a Technical class rather than a Grammar school.

The novel rarely portrays open hostility. However, it is often implied through scene or setting. There is a scene in which Florence and Christine are frightened by their poltergeist for many pages, their rapper who knocks incessantly and threateningly through their walls. It is much like the towns people who have little respect for Florence’s rights or privacy. Fisherman use her premises as an ancient right of way and Mr Gill, an amateur painter, begins nailing his pictures to Florence’s walls to exhibit to the public even though he has been refused. The only moment of retribution is when Christine raps Mrs Gamart’s hand with a ruler for her presumptuous interference in the lending library.

There is also a scene in which Florence visits the nearby coast. Hardborough is built close to the coast and there is always a sense of pervading damp as one reads. Florence happens upon a scene of destruction. Service roads, farmlands and bungalows have fallen into the sea or are about to do so. She sits on the step of one of these bungalows, teetering on the precipice, and one senses the precariousness of Florence’s existence.

I think there is also a foreshadowing of the implacable forces arrayed against Florence in this. Florence Green is such an idealistic character that it is only natural for her to want to succeed, but the campaign against her is long, deliberate and well planned. I have not seen the movie which is based upon this book, but my impression before I started to read was that it would be a story of a small English town with trifling problems and themes of uplift and triumph. Instead, Hardborough, while a quaint little town, is the stage for all the Darwinian exigencies that can be brought to bear upon a human being. I felt a sense of outrage even though I knew this was only a fiction, because it felt too real. The novel has one of the saddest lines I have ever read in fiction: Surely you have to succeed if you give it everything you have.

This is a well written novel, quick to read and thoroughly worth a look.

The Bookshop - Official Trailer
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Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald's writing career was unusual in that she didn't start publishing until she was sixty. She won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore when she was sixty-three. She died at the age of eighty-three in 2000.