Category Archives: Fitzgerald Penelope

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Having arrived late to Penelope Fitzgerald, I’ve been trying to catch up with a few of her novels over the past year or so. The Bookshop will make my end-of-year list, so I had high hopes for Booker Prize winner, Offshore, another novel that draws on Fitzgerald’s own life experience. Her time working in a Southwold bookshop informed the former while her years living on a barge on the Thames gave rise to the latter.


First published in 1979 but set in the early sixties, Offshore features a small community of individuals who live on houseboats on the Battersea Reach stretch of the Thames. It’s probably fair to say that these boat dwellers are outsiders, unsettled characters getting by on the margins of society. Despite living within touching distance of the security and solidity of dry land, they remain vulnerable, somewhat cast adrift in life.

The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway. (pg. 2)

The group’s somewhat reluctant leader is Richard, an investment counsellor and ex-Navy man who lives on Lord Jim, a converted minesweeper. Living alongside Richard is his ‘shires-bred’ wife, Laura, a woman who would much rather a nice house in the Home Counties, preferably something straight out of Country Life magazine. Dreadnought is occupied by Sam Willis, a semi-retired painter of maritime landscapes. Then there’s Maurice, a sympathetic, easy-going rent boy who allows his boat to be used as a repository for stolen goods. One or two others also feature, but the novel’s central character is 32-year-old Nenna, owner of Grace.

Offshore ebbs and flows along with the lives of these somewhat fragile, lonely individuals. While the story touches on various situations that affect different members of the community, this is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, Fitzgerald’s focus is on her characters: their hopes and aspirations, their failures and compromises.

Nenna’s marriage has broken down (possibly temporarily, possibly permanently) and she lives on Grace with her two children, Martha (aged 12) and Tilda (aged 6). Martha and Tilda are independent, resourceful creatures. Like the children in The Beginning of Spring and The Bookshop, they seem mature beyond their years.

One of the things I like most about Fitzgerald is the way she conveys the sense of a character in just one or two sentences. Take Nenna, for instance:

Nenna’s character was faulty, but she had the instinct to see what made other people unhappy, and this instinct had only failed her once, in the case of her own husband. (pgs. 10-11)

And here’s a telling description of Martha, Nenna’s eldest – telling in the sense that it conveys almost as much about Nenna as it does about her daughter:

Nenna would have felt better pleased with herself if she had resembled her elder daughter. But Martha, small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings, was not like her mother and even less like her father. The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha. (pg. 21)

Whenever she is alone, Nenna’s thoughts turn to the demise of her marriage to Edward. (Ideally she would like Edward to come and live on Grace with her and the children, but that seems a fairly distant prospect.)  These reflections take the form of a judicial hearing in which Nenna is questioned by a judge, while her conscience, quite uninvited, maintains a close watch over the proceedings. Here’s a brief excerpt:

‘…Why don’t I go to him? Well, why doesn’t he come to us? He hasn’t found anywhere at all that we could all of us live together. He’s in some kind of rooms in the north-east of London somewhere.’

‘42b Milvain Street, Stoke Newington.’

‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’

‘Have you made any effort to go and see the plaintiff there, Mrs James? I must remind you that we cannot admit second-hand evidence.’

So now it was out. She was the defendant, or rather the accused, and should have known it all along. (pg. 40)

In the hands of another writer, this could have been a little gimmicky, but Fitzgerald uses it very effectively here. It gives a clear insight into Nenna’s mind – the way she thinks and how she sees her relationship with Edward.

When Nenna finally goes to see him in Stoke Newington, things don’t go quite to plan. She finds Edward lodging in a single room in a house owned by the mother of one of his old school friends, hardly an ideal setting for a reconciliation.

Things were going as badly as they could. From the room immediately beneath them, somebody began to play the piano, a Chopin nocturne, with heavy emphasis, but the piano was by no means suitable for Chopin and the sound travelled upwards as a hellish tingling of protesting strings.

‘Eddie, is this the only room you’ve got?’

‘I don’t see anything wrong with it.’

She noticed now that there was a kind of cupboard in the corner which was likely to contain a washbasin, and a single bed, tucked in with a plaid rug. Surely they’d do better making love on board Grace than on a few yards of Mackenzie tartan? (pgs. 113-114)

One of most impressive things about Offshore stems from Fitzgerald’s ability to treat her characters with sympathy despite their failings. She has a knack for conveying humour alongside the misfortune and calamities that touch the lives of these barge-dwellers, and yet there is compassion in her writing, too.

While I didn’t love Offshore quite as much as The Bookshop, there is plenty to enjoy here. Each scene is beautifully observed. The novel has a strong sense of place, alive with the sights and smells of the riverside and glimpses of Chelsea in the early sixties. Fitzgerald offers just enough detail to give the reader a sense of each of her characters, their personality and outlook on life. Maurice is as amusing as he is hapless. There are touching exchanges between Nenna and Richard as they find solace in each other’s company. Willis’s attempts to patch up and sell his boat end in disaster – an impromptu party to celebrate the potential sale of Dreadnought is one of the novel’s delights. In some ways, Offshore reminded me a little of Mike Leigh’s films (something along the lines of High Hopes), and that’s no bad thing.

Max’s excellent review prompted me to pick up this novel, and his post contains links to a range of other reviews and articles about the book.

Offshore is published by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy. Book 12/20, #TBR20 round 2.

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.


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.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (review)

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for many years, but had never got around to reading. Three of her novels, The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and she won the prize in 1979 with Offshore. I knew she was held in high regard, but somehow, she’d fallen off my radar. But then at the end of last year, 4th Estate reissued Fitzgerald’s books in beautiful new editions. Tempted by these reissues in their smart covers, I thought I’d try one of her novels: The Beginning of Spring, first published in 1988.


The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in the winter of 1913, a time political and industrial change for Russia. Frank Reid — born and raised in Russia, but English by descent – owns and manages a small printing works, part of a business established by his father. As the book opens, Frank learns that his wife, Nellie, has left him suddenly and without any warning. Nellie has taken their three children (Dolly, Ben and Annushka) with her, but subsequently deposits them at Mozhaisk station. Frank is at a loss as to why Nellie has disappeared so abruptly, abandoning the children during her escape. On the children’s arrival home, Dolly (at ten, the eldest of the three) offers her father the following observation, which makes her seem wise beyond her years:

‘You shouldn’t have expected her to manage by herself. She had to send us back, we weren’t a comfort to her. I think you asked too much of her.’ (pg. 23, 4th Estate)

And a few days later, Dolly tells Frank ‘the mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.’ (pg. 62)

During the novel, we learn a little more of Nellie’s upbringing in Norbury, and how she came to meet Frank through the local choral society. As a young man, Frank journeyed to England to study and gain hands-on experience of the printing industry, and his training took him to Norbury. Fitzgerald takes us back in time to illustrate Frank’s initial impressions of his future wife:

Frank was struck by her way of looking at things. There was a tartness about it, a sharp flavour, not of ill-nature, but of disapproval of life’s compromises, including her own. (pg. 29)

Nellie is determined that she’s ‘not going to be got the better of by Norbury’. We sense her desperation to get away from this stifling environment, the gossip and judgement of its inhabitants, not to mention the scrutiny of aunts, uncles and other family members due to attend the wedding. A little before her wedding day, Nellie seems unsettled by her lack of experience with men, and the same anxieties return to her mind:

It was a moment’s loss of confidence, which Frank knew he mustn’t allow. Under his hands her solid partly naked body was damp with effort. She was recklessly dragging off something whose fastenings seem to defy her. Her voice was muffled. ‘Go on Frank. I’m not going to let them stand about knowing more than I do. I won’t be got the better of.’ (pg. 37)

There’s something quite telling about this section of the narrative, and yet Fitzgerald leaves much unsaid, thereby allowing the reader to contemplate the significance on future events. As the flashbacks continue, Nellie seems quite at home in Moscow on their arrival in Russia, more so than in Germany where the couple spent their first three years of marriage. And so we still don’t know why Nellie has left Frank, or whether she intends to come back.

Returning now to 1913, Frank sets about trying to make arrangements for the care of the children. Keen to avoid the English chaplaincy (the chaplain’s wife is quite a character) for as long as possible, Frank draws on the support of Arkady Kuriatin’s wife and family; Kuriatin is a merchant and business contact, and his family are happy to accommodate the Reid children, in the short term at least. Fitzgerald’s writing contains flashes of sly humour, and we see this in her description of the Kuriatins:

Arkady had children – how many, Frank couldn’t say, because extra ones, perhaps nephews and nieces, perhaps waifs, or even hostages, seemed to come and go. His wife, Matryona Osipovna, was always at home. Frank had heard her say, ‘What is there better outside than in?’ Nellie had always admitted Mrs Kuriatin’s kindness, but couldn’t be doing with her. (pg. 63)

A visit to Moscow by Nellie’s rather naïve brother, Charlie, also provides ample opportunity for Fitzgerald to add touches of wry humour to the narrative.

Another of the novel’s delights stems from its cast of finely-drawn and memorable characters; one such character is Selwyn Crane, Frank’s chief accountant, fervent poet and avid follower of Tolstoy. In order to provide his employer with a solution to his childcare dilemma, Selwyn introduces Frank to Lisa Ivanovna, a bright young peasant girl who can speak good Russian to the children. The author gives us a few details of how Selwyn has encountered Lisa. Finding her in tears while working in a Moscow department store, he assumes she’s feeling homesick and out-of-place in the big city. And yet, there is an air of mystery around Selwyn’s connection with the girl and his reasons for bringing her to the attention of Frank. All goes well when Lisa meets Frank’s children (who seem to be showing few signs of missing their mother), and so the young girl moves into the Reid household. Frank finds himself drawn to this attractive, quietly enigmatic creature, but it would be unfair of me to say any more about how the remainder of the story unfolds…

The Beginning of Spring is a quietly compelling novel, one that draws you slowly, yet steadily, into its mysterious world. Fitzgerald gives us a skilfully realised picture of Russia in this era with its tea rooms bustling with activity and its well-to-do houses. We see how business and dealings with the authorities are conducted in Russia during this period, a time when one had to have ‘an instinct for how much in the way of bribes would be appropriate for the uniformed and political police.’ And despite being born and raised in Russia, Frank is constantly reminded that he’s a ‘foreigner’, one whose freedom to come and go from the country is dependent on the disposition of the authorities.

As I’ve already hinted, there is much going on under the surface of the narrative, plenty left unsaid and this leaves space for the reader to ponder the significance of particular phrases and scenes. Towards the end of the book, there’s a beautiful extended passage covering the change and evolution of birch trees as the seasons pass from spring through to winter and back to spring once again. Fitzgerald describes in two or three pages the lifecycle of the birch, as we follow the trees from birth to decay and death. Once again, I’m sure this piece is symbolic of other events in the novel, but nothing is explicit; we’re left to draw our own meaning from these images. Similarly, could it be that the opening of sealed windows in the Reid household, an event that heralds the start of spring, is symbolic of something else? Could it be a metaphor for the release of repressed emotions, perhaps? A sign of feelings that have been bottled-up for months…

In the closing chapters, Fitzgerald deftly pulls the novel’s threads together, and we discover something of the puzzle surrounding Nellie’s disappearance. It’s a great ending, one that left me keen to read more of her novels at some point.

The Beginning of Spring is published in the UK by 4th Estate. Source: personal copy.