The Bookshop is set in 1959 in the fictional Suffolk town of Hardborough, where Florence Green, a middle-aged widow of limited means wishes to open a bookshop, something the town has not seen for several years. Florence has decided to buy the Old House, a run-down historic building in the centre of Hardborough, with a view to converting it into a viable business. She trusts her previous experience in the book trade will stand her in good stead.
At an early stage in the story, it becomes clear that Florence is not the only party interested in the Old House. Violet Gamart, one of Hardborough’s most powerful residents, has her eye on it for an arts centre. Hardborough must secure its place on the cultural landscape of Suffolk; it must keep pace with the likes of Aldeburgh.
Undeterred by a thinly-veiled warning from Mrs Gamart, Florence presses ahead. With the aid of a loan from the bank, she acquires the Old House, a modest damp-infested property which comes complete with its own poltergeist (or ‘rapper’ to use the local term). In time she acquires a supply of stock and opens The Old House Bookshop for business.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was Fitzgerald’s descriptions of Hardborough and its inhabitants. Here’s a short but effective description of this rather insular place:
The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. (pg. 8)
Hardborough is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everyone else’s business, ‘who was in financial straits, who would need larger family accommodation in nine months, and who was about to die.’ Fitzgerald presents several instances of how things work in Hardborough, but the following example is one of my favourites. Alongside the books for sale, Florence feels obliged to offer her customers a lending library facility, but the open collection system means that each borrower can see everyone else’s reservations. The Life of Queen Mary is much in demand, and several customers would like to borrow it; if only Mrs Thornton would come and collect her reservation. In the meantime, everyone else can see Queen Mary languishing on the shelf – a source of frustration for other borrowers, especially those who are desperate to get their hands on it. And to make matters worse, Mrs Thornton is rumoured to be a slow reader:
In point of time, Mrs Thornton had been the first to put it on her list; and Florence, confident in the justice of her method, placed the Thornton ticket in it. Every subscriber had a pink ticket, and the books were ranged alphabetically, waiting for collection. This was a grave weakness of the system. Everybody knew at a glance what everybody else had got. They should not have been poking about and turning things over in the painfully small space which had been cleared for the library, but they were unused to discipline. (pgs. 56-57)
In its first six months of business the bookshop does a fairly respectable trade; sales are modest, but not spectacular. One day, Florence receives a visit from a local resident, the rather slippery Milo North, who suggests that she order several copies of a recently-published novel, a book with the potential to sell like hot cakes. Florence is keen to ensure it is a good novel, one that is suitable to offer for sale to the inhabitants of Hardborough. With this in mind, she orders an inspection copy and asks her ally, the book-loving Mr Brundish, to give an opinion on its merits. On reading the novel, Brundish offers Florence the following view:
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. (pg 101)
Florence forges ahead and orders 250 copies, she is pleased to make it available to her customers – the novel in question is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
As you can probably guess, the arrival of Lolita prompts a bit of a furore in Hardborough. Florence’s window display alone draws quite a crowd, enough to create a temporary obstruction on the highway. Violet Gamart lodges an objection, and a series of rather pointed letters pass between Florence and her solicitor. The other High Street traders are upset; Florence, however, is quietly determined to carry on:
Not one of the throng in the High Street had come into the dressmaker’s, still less bought a watercolour. Nor had they looked at the wet fish offered by Mr Deben. All the tradespeople were now either slightly or emphatically hostile to the Old House Bookshop. It was decided not to ask her to join the Inner Wheel of the Hardborough and District Rotary Club. (pg. 109)
It is fairly clear from an early stage in this novel that Florence is going to be up against it at every turn as she tries to make a success of the Old Bookshop. I don’t want to say too much about the closing stages of the book, but the final paragraph will leave you with an unforgettable image of Florence. My sympathies were with her right to the bitter end.
The Bookshop is a brilliant book, so finely observed and incisive. Fitzgerald’s prose is precise and economical, her sentences perfectly balanced – her style reminds me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s (of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont fame). Like Taylor, Fitzgerald has a wonderful way of describing characters. Here’s an early description of Florence:
She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back. She was not much talked about, not even in Hardborough, where everyone could be seen coming over the wide distances and everything seen was discussed. (pg. 2)
Perhaps the most telling insight into Florence’s character comes on the opening page:
She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation. (pg. 1)
Milo North, on the other hand, ‘was tall, and went through life with singularly little effort.’ ‘His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.’ (pg. 22)
Hierarchies and class systems play an important role in the novel. The future of Christine Gipping, Florence’s young assistant, rests on the outcome of her Eleven Plus. A pass would secure her entry to Grammar school and, in time, the possibility of marriage to ‘a white collar chap’ – a bright future for Christine. Failure would see her consigned to the Technical – if this were the case she wouldn’t ever be able to look above ‘a labouring chap or even an unemployed chap’.
Even the books for Florence’s lending library come with their own pecking order:
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. (pg. 55)
Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too. I’ll draw to a close with a favourite quote, one that illustrates one of the challenges of life as a provincial bookseller – how to deal tactfully with requests from local authors. Their books came with titles such ‘On Foot Across the Marshes’ or ‘Awheel Across East Anglia’ for what else is there to do with flatlands but to cross them?
She vividly imagined their disillusionment, wedged behind the table with books and a pen in front of them, while the hours emptied away and no one came. ‘Tuesday is always a very quiet day in Hardborough, Mr ––, particularly if it is fine. I didn’t suggest Monday, because that would have been quieter still. Wednesdays are quiet too, except for the market, and Thursday is early closing. The customers will come in and ask for your book soon – of course they will, they have heard of you, you are a local author. Of course they will want your signature, they will come across the marshes, afoot and awheel.’ The thought of so much suffering and embarrassment was hard to bear, but at least she was in a position to see that it never took place. (pg. 69)
This is the second Penelope Fitzgerald I’ve reviewed, both are gems. The Bookshop is the more direct of the two, The Beginning of Spring the more mysterious. I can wholeheartedly recommend both.
The Bookshop is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy. Book 15/20 in my #TBR20.