Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, The Bookshop, is being read around the blogosphere at the moment. As I mentioned yesterday, Cornflower has chosen it for her bookgroup & Dovegreyreader has just reread it as well. Darlene at Roses over a Cottage Door has also reviewed it. The Bookshop is a novel about injustice & unfairness.
Florence Green, a middle-aged widow living in Hardborough, a seaside town on the East Anglian coast, decided to open a bookshop. She has bought the Old House, a 16th century property that has been left to slowly decay for some years. Hardborough is an unfriendly, unhelpful place. The polar opposite of Miss Read’s Fairacre & Thrush Green. This is a very bleak, if blackly comic, view of small town life. Everyone knows everything you do or are planning to do & they usually have some mean spirited reason for hoping that your plans fail. Local bigwig, Violet Gamert, has other plans for the Old House that don’t include Florence’s bookshop. She wants to have an Arts Centre hosting music festivals like Glyndebourne. She puts pressure on Florence to sell the House before the bookshop has even opened but Florence refuses to change her mind. Florence has made a formidable & determined enemy.
The bookshop opens to modest but steady sales & Florence even starts up a lending library. Unfortunately the company she rents the library books from sends a lot of dross for every bestseller & all her patrons only want to read the latest life of Queen Mary which is on loan to the slowest reader in the community. I found this painfully funny as I thought about the number of copies of the Twilight books & Stieg Larsson thrillers I buy to satisfy the never-ending reservation queues. Florence hires an assistant, 11 year old Christine Gipping, who works after school. Christine is very organised, opinionated & quite blunt about where Florence is going wrong. The House also has a poltergeist, the locals call it the rapper, whose ominous taps, raps & crashes reach a crescendo in a terrifying scene when Christine & Florence are powerless against its force,
The battering at the window died to a hiss; then gathered itself together and rose to a long animal scream, again and again.
‘Don’t mind it, Christine,’ Florence called out with sudden energy. ‘We know what it can’t do.’
‘That doesn’t want us to go,’ Christine muttered. ‘That wants us to stay and be tormented.’
They were besieged. The siege lasted for just over ten minutes, during which time the cold was so intense that Florence could not feel the girl’s hand lying in hers, or even her own fingertips. After ten minutes, Christine fell asleep.
When Florence asks advice of the town recluse, Mr Brundish, about the literary merit of a new book, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, he advises her to stock it & she buys a huge quantity. In any other book, the local moral arbiters would have been shocked by the contents of the book & wanted it banned. In Hardborough, the local shopkeepers are angry because Florence’s shop is now so busy with eager readers coming from far & wide to buy Lolita that their shops are suffering & the pavement is blocked by queues of shoppers. Gradually, Mrs Gamert’s subtle campaign, backed by her power in the community, has its effect on Florence. It culminates in a ridiculous exchange of letters combining legalese with absurdity when the local Schools Inspector has been informed that Christine is working illegally,
To: Mrs Florence Green. The Old House Bookshop
The Education Authority’s Inspectors have examined Christine Gipping and have required her to sign a declaration of truth of the matters respecting which she was examined. Although there is no suggestion of irregularity in her school attendance, it appears that consequent to the arrival of a best-selling book she worked more than 44 hours in your establishment during one week of her holidays. Furthermore her health safety and welfare are at risk in your premises which are haunted in an objectionable manner. I quote from a deposition by Christine Gipping to the effect that ‘the rapper doesn’t come on so loud now, but we can’t get rid of him altogether’. I am advised that under the provisions of the Act the supernatural would be classed with bacon-slicers and other machinery through which young persons must not be exposed to the risk of injury.
This book made me angry & despairing at the petty-minded nastiness of this small community. There’s no graffiti on windows or fire-bombing the premises or nasty things pushed through the letterbox. Just a continuous campaign of persecution by a powerful woman against a powerless woman who wanted to do something as harmless as open a bookshop, a symbol of enlightenment desperately needed in Hardborough. Not that Florence ever saw her bookshop that way. Penelope Fitzgerald is such a powerful writer. She sets up the community in the first couple of chapters & paints a picture of the inhabitants in just a few words or one scene. She never lets sentimentality get a look-in. Christine is as mercenary a child as you’ll ever meet & Florence herself is honest & straight with no self-pity.
All Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are short, compact & complete, whether she’s writing about early 20th century Russia in The Beginning of Spring or WWII London in Human Voices. I still have a couple of her novels unread & in a way I don’t want to read them because I don’t want to get to the end of her books. I also have her letters, So I Have Thought Of You, & I think I’ll be reading them sooner rather than later to get some insight into the woman she was. Hermione Lee is writing her biography (there’s a wonderful article by Lee about her research here) & that will be a biography to savour.