The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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.

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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.

62 thoughts on “The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. MarinaSofia

    One of my favourite books about bookshops/books. Such an incisive portrayal of English country life, village gossip, social pretensions and hypocrisy. Loved your review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina. That’s it in a nutshell! Fitzgerald really captures the dynamics and petty power struggles of small-town life, doesn’t she? Her incisive observations on social situations remind me so much of Elizabeth Taylor and Mrs Pafrey at the Claremont…another classic British writer enjoying a bit of a revival.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. How did you manage to miss out on this one?! (Joking aside it’s impossible to read everything – there are so many gaps in my reading it’s embarrassing!) I’m sure you would enjoy The Bookshop, especially given your experience in the book trade.

      Reply
  2. Alice

    I adored this book, and Offshore. Fitzgerald has such a way of making the everyday, or smaller events, so much bigger.

    I tried to read The Beginning of Spring, but alas it wasn’t for me. I think I like her best when she is writing about more insular communities – or just in places I am familiar with perhaps.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed The Bookshop, Alice. That’s a great point about insular communities as they do have the effect of magnifying the significance of little incidents and occurrences. I think Fitzgerald catches the feel of small-town life so well, she has the conversations down pat. I must try Offshore, it sounds terrific.

      I remember you saying you had tried The Beginning of Spring…sorry you didn’t get on with it as I know you enjoy Fitzgerald’s work so much. I really liked both of these books, but for very different reasons – they make quite a contrast. Have you tried The Gate of Angels? I have a copy of it in my TBR, and I wonder if it might be similar to Spring in terms of style.

      Reply
  3. poppypeacockpens

    Insightful but with humour? One of my favourite combinations so I do like the sound of this one Jacqui – got it yonks ago on kindle – must shuffle it up the tbr pile. Great review :)

    Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I generally like books about books. More so if they dig into issues revolving around books and people.

    I have not read Fitzgerald yet. She sounds like she is well worth reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s hard to resist a book about bookshops, isn’t it? I think you’d enjoy this Fitzgerald novel, Brian. It’s terrific on the social interactions and dynamics at play in a small, insular community. I really like her as a writer.

      Reply
  5. realthog

    A mouthwatering review — many thanks! I’m a sucker for fiction set in the publishing/bookselling trade, so I really must try to find time this one.

    Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui – I really *must* get to read some Fitzgerald. And I find it most intriguing that Ipswich in Suffolk used to have an Ancient House Bookshop in a very old building called The Ancient House (which now, alas, houses Lakeland….)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, do try Fitzgerald! I’m confident you’d enjoy her work. I don’t think you can go wrong with The Bookshop, and then there’s The Beginning of Spring with its evocative Russian setting.

      It’s interesting you should mention the shop in Ipswich as Fitzgerald actually spent some time working in a bookshop in Southwold, Suffolk. I’m sure she must have drawn on her Southwold experiences as inspiration for the novel, and I’m now wondering if The Ancient House was another influence! What a pity the bookshop has closed, it sounds like a wonderful setting for something with a cultural heritage…something like books!

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        It was a lovely shop, but when we got a Waterstones it lost out and eventually closed down. Shame…

        Reply
  7. My Book Strings

    I’ve never heard of either the author or the book, so I have to go investigate. It sounds like the perfect combination of observation and wit. My first thought was “oh no, a bookstore in a damp building… that can’t end well.” But it sounds like the dampness will be one of Florence’s lesser problems.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s brilliant, so perfectly observed. There’s quite a lot of humour in the interactions between the community’s inhabitants (and in Florence’s observations), but it’s also very poignant at times. All in all, I think you’d love it.

      Fitzgerald didn’t start writing until she was in her late fifties, but she wrote a series of novels and some biographies over the course of about twenty years. She won the Booker Prize for Offshore (which I haven’t read yet), and The Bookshop was nominated. I think she’s enjoying a bit of revival over here, and the fairly recent reissues of her work will have helped (the new 4th Estate editions are very smart indeed).

      You’re right about the damp as it’s the least of Florence’s worries, but I’d better not say anything more for fear of spoiling the story!

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    Well, I have this as you know, so I’m delighted to see you so taken by it. Wonderful quotes too.

    250 copies? Is that right? That seems an insane number for a small bookshop. I’d have thought ten a sizable starting order but I admit it’s not my trade.

    Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    Oh, rapper may just be archaic rather than purely local, I’ve heard that before derived of course from table rapping in seances during the whole spiritualism craze.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The passages are great, aren’t they? To be honest I was spoilt for choice with quotes as the writing is SO good – it’s another potential contender for my end-of-year highlights. I think you’ll enjoy it very much, Max….it’ll be an interesting companion piece to Offshore, which I need to pick up at some stage.

      Yes, it is 250 copies. I know, it’s nuts! Even Florence’s young helper, Christine, thinks it’s madness to order so many copies. There aren’t any other bookshops in the vicinity, but even so…

      Rapper…ah, of course. Everyone in Hardborough refers to ghosts/poltergeists as rappers, but I can see the seance connection now you’ve mentioned it.

      Reply
  10. heavenali

    Great review. I read this several years ago and you ‘ve reminded me what it was I so enjoyed about the book. The depiction of that small town society was so well done.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I’m glad my post triggered a few happy memories!

      Yes, Fitzgerald is so good on the dynamics of small-town life, she captures it perfectly. She reminds me a little of Elizabeth Taylor: her prose style; her incisive observations of people and little incidents; her ability to blend humour with more poignant moments. I must read more of their work.

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    I’ve got this and I’m so gald as you make it sound so wonderful. And a comparison with Elizabeth Taylor will always make me want to buy a book.
    I was also stunned by the huge number of copies of Lolita she ordered.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! As I was just saying to Ali, I can’t help but see some parallels between The Bookshop and Mrs Palfrey. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the Fitzgerald, Caroline.

      All those copies of Lolita…it’s crazy isn’t it?!

      Reply
  12. roughghosts

    This sounds like it would be a great introduction to Fitzgerald. I have long been fascinated by her life and the fact that she published her first novel at 58. Gives me a few more years to hope (but not many). I have been on leave from a highly pressured job in social services but if/when I need to work again I wish I could find a way to make ends meet with a job in a bookshop. That was how I supported myself in university.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this would make a great introduction to Fitzgerald, especially given your experience of working in a bookshop while at University. It was her second novel, so if you like what you see you can always continue and try a few of her others. (I probably should have started with The Bookshop but the Russian setting and premise of The Beginning of Spring caught my eye last year!)

      It is very encouraging to see someone succeed in their career when they start quite late in life. Perhaps it’s a little easier for a writer to do this than someone in another walk of life but it’s still a hugely impressive achievement. Wishing you all the very best for the future, Joe. And if you ever find yourself back in the world of bookshops I hope you never have to deal with the types of problems Florence encounters in Hardborough!

      Reply
  13. Gemma

    This sounds wonderful. Any book which is set around a bookshop is appealing to me, but how you describe it as finely observed makes me think it’s definitely up my street. From your quotes it also seems like it’s humorous in places which is a great combination! Another book for the to-read list :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I thought it was terrific. Much of the humour comes from the way Fitzgerald writes about the goings on in Hardborough, the petty incidents and interactions between inhabitants. It’s very nicely done! I think you’d really enjoy it, Gemma. I might have to go on a bit of Fitzgerald binge at some stage as I just want to read all of her novels!

      Reply
  14. litlove

    I loved this book and especially loved The Beginning of Spring. Fitzgerald is an amazing wordsmith, and you do her full justice in the quotations. Gorgeous review, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Victoria. Delighted to hear you enjoyed The Bookshop and Spring (I thought you might be a Fitzgerald fan!). I’m completely with you on the writing; her prose is top-notch, every word seems carefully chosen.

      I feel as if I’ve come late to Fitzgerald, Taylor and some of these other classic British writers…I shall have to make up for lost time.

      Reply
  15. Scott W.

    I know that wretch Mrs. Thornton so, so well. She is constantly aggravating me by keeping the very book I want out of circulation at the library for months at a time. (Oh heck, who am I kidding? I am Mrs. Thornton…).

    Nicely done post. Of Fitzgerald, I’ve only read The Blue Flower, and that was too many years ago. I recall being slightly irritated with it, not at all the way I’ve felt with other writers to whom Fitzgerald is often compared. Speaking of which, I am, by the way, a few chapters into Mrs. Palfrey at the moment and am relishing every word, thanks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Well, I’m also in danger of turning into Mrs Thornton as I’m currently hogging the county library’s only copy of a particular novel. (Just tried to renew it online but someone else has submitted a reservation! Back to the library it goes.)

      Re: The Blue Flower…that’s very interesting as I’ve heard mixed things about it. Some people seem to love it, others haven’t clicked with it at all. I have a copy as I picked up a whole bunch of Fitzgerald’s novels in bookshop’s closing down sale (oh, the irony!) but it’s still in the TBR pile. Might try Offshore as my next Fitzgerald as quite a few readers have recommended it to me, and it sounds quite similar in style to The Bookshop. Her early novels (inspired by some of her own experiences) seem quite different to the later historical ones.

      I’m absolutely delighted to hear that you are enjoying Mrs Palfrey! Well, if you ever fancy giving Fitzgerald another go may I suggest you take a look at The Bookshop. I could see some parallels between these two novels.

      Reply
  16. Emma

    Fantastic review, Jacqui, now I really want to read this. It goes on the wish list.

    So all this for Lolita, eh? Thank God she didn’t order 250 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What a racket it would have made in Hardborough! (although I personally find Lolita a lot more disturbing than Lady Chatterley’s Lover)

    PS : Hardborough and the likes are to Britain what baguettes are to France: something irrevocably linked to the country.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I loved this one. It’s so well observed and full of little details that make the story seem very true to life. I hope you get an opportunity to read it at some point. I’d be very interested in knowing if you think a similar story could play out in a provincial town in France. At first sight, the story in The Bookshop feels very British, but on reflection I wonder if certain elements are a little more universal…the gossip, petty sniping and manoeuvring for position?

      Would you believe I’ve never read Lolita?! I really do need to remedy that at some stage (I suspect I’ll find it far more disturbing than Lady Chatterley, too). So many books, so many books…

      Reply
  17. Séamus Duggan

    I like the idea of a writer who holds off until their fifties. Makes me feel that I have a few years yet. Fitzgerald sounds interesting and I have a feeling I have a book by her on my shelves but it’s not immediately discoverable. Mind you, I could stock a bookshop from my shelves, although a rather quixotic one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, and all that life experience to draw from, too. Fitzgerald is interesting, definitely worth a look. I could see some parallels between The Bookshop and the Elizabeth Taylor novel I reviewed the other week, but she’s probably a little softer than Muriel Spark. I’m curious to know which Fitzgerald you have on your shelves – you’ll have to fish it out!

      It would be fun to browse in a bookshop stocked with books from bloggers shelves…very revealing, no doubt!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I remember you saying that you’ve had mixed experiences with Fitzgerald. Glad to hear that you liked this one, Guy. I thought it was terrific, so sharply observed! I might try Offshore as my next by Fitzgerald (although I have a feeling you were less keen on that one).

      Reply
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  19. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Love the sound of this, the indignation of the other shopkeepers that she is garnering all the attention, a bittersweet irony. I have never read her, but I have Moontiger on my shelf that needs dusting off for sure!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s great, full of little details about the goings-on in a small town. I think you’d enjoy it very much, Claire. I’ve come late to Fitzgerald, but I’m trying to make up for lost time now. Oh, Moon Tiger is Penelope Lively (it’s easy to get these two Penelopes mixed up – I used to get them confused myself!).

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah well…I’ve heard great things about Moon Tiger; there’s a copy somewhere on one of my own shelves! :)

          If you were ever thinking of trying Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop would be a great place to start.

          Reply
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