A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I am very much enjoying exploring a new literary landscape: East Anglia, the land of fens, floods and enormous skies. My exploration started with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, and continued with Rosy Thornton’s brilliant and evocative collection of short stories Sandlands and George Macbeth’s Poems from Oby. The latest evocation of this landscape and its people is a novel that I expected to be about my favourite theme of books and reading, but is in fact far more about the people who do or do not buy them: Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop.
Penelope Fitzgerald, whose centenary was in 2016, was born into the literary and scholarly dynasty the Knoxes, daughter of the editor Edmund Knox, and niece of the more famous Ronald Knox the theologian and crime writer. In the years after the Second World War she brought up her family in some penury, because of the alcoholism of her war hero husband. After a career as an editor, bookseller and literary journalist she turned to authorship in her late fifties, and during the rest of her life published a number of highly regarded novels and biographies. The Bookshop, her second novel published in 1978, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
I have no idea why I have ignored Penelope Fitzgerald for all these years – she is a wonderful discovery. The Bookshop is more a novella in length, and it offers originality and surprises at every turn. Widowed Florence Green, living in the coastal Suffolk town of Hardborough, decides to buy an ancient quayside property the Old House, complete with dilapidated oyster shed, and open a bookshop in it. In the late 1950s, Hardborough had “no fish and chips … no launderette, no cinema …” let alone a bookshop, and for its inhabitants this is scarcely a priority compared to these other facilities. The Old House comes complete with its own ‘rapper’, or poltergeist, taken completely for granted by Florence and everyone else who shared Hardborough with supernatural beings.
If I’d made any assumption about this book, it was that it would be a paean to books and reading and their force for good. I love having my assumptions confounded, and so it proves. Books and reading are the undercurrent here; it is a book about a battle, but I had better not spoil the ending. Florence opens the shop, and the people of Hardborough duly come and buy books. Her business head is not the strongest, but she has a hard-headed book-keeper to make sure she stays on the strait and narrow. The forces that line up against her are not supernatural (she has learnt as all her neighbours have to live with her poltergeist). Hardborough has its tiny but powerful elite (essentially one Lady Bountiful), casting envious eyes at neighbouring Aldeburgh. Florence’s innocent project to bring culture to the town is not nearly visionary enough, and above all Not Made Here.
Penelope Fitzgerald has a wonderful voice and powers of observation that rival Barbara Pym’s. Hardborough the town is the sum of its inhabitants, and with a couple of exceptions they and let live. Curiosity brings many of them to the bookshop, but stoical fatalism makes them indifferent whether the enterprise succeeds or fails. The details of Florence’s life in the book trade and the comings and goings of reps and deliveries are delicately drawn from life (Florence worked in a London bookshop – as did Fitzgerald – before coming to Hardborough with her late husband). The brilliant comic set-piece at the centre of the novel is Florence’s business decision to stock Lolita, and the rather listless waves that made with the local reading public.
Reading The Bookshop was a delight because of the surprises it dealt me. I had a list of more or less misty-eyed ‘books and reading’ stereotypes in my head that were gently undermined at every turn. Florence is not conventionally ‘passionate about books’; this is a trade that she knows and feels confident she can make her living at – she approaches her stock decisions, including Lolita, from a purely commercial point of view. She is not sentimental about it – there is a running joke comparing and contrasting her business ambitions and achievements with Mr Deben’s wet fish shop. Does Hardborough want or need either? It’s deliciously subversive. In terms of the characters, a handsome young man is no hero but a passively malign waste of space; an elderly recluse is a mysterious force for good; Florence’s shop assistant is young enough to attract the attention of the school attendance officer. Above all, the author’s keen eye for the austerely beautiful East Anglian landscape locates this novel in this exciting new literary country that I am revelling in discovering. I loved this novel so much that I now have the pleasure working my way through Penelope Fitzgerald’s other works.
Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop. London: Fourth Estate, 2016. 176pp (first published 1978).