A necessary commodity

© C A Lovegrove

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Preface by Hermione Lee,
introduction by David Nicholls, 2013.
4th Estate 2018 (1978).

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

John Milton, ‘Areopagitica’

It is 1959, and Florence Green is minded to open a bookshop in Hardborough, a town on the Suffolk coast. She finds vacant premises for sale, a building of some antiquity but unloved and neglected, and proceeds to buy it with financial assistance from the bank.

However, as the adage goes, though you can lead a horse to water you can’t make it drink, and Hardborough proves resistant to her well-meant plans. In particular Mrs Gamart, who reigns among the town’s upper echelons, decides she wants the premises for an arts centre.

Florence, a war widow who wants to give people the benefit of the doubt, at first seems amenable to giving up ownership; but when she realises Mrs Gamart is trying to preempt what is Florence’s own decision she digs her heels in and sets up shop. Has she misjudged Mrs Gamart’s steely determination, along with where the town’s sympathies may lie?

A page from early titles in the Dent Everyman series, with Milton quote

Through 1959 and 1960, helped in the holidays and after school by a young girl called Christine who’s due to sit the eleven-plus exam, Florence perseveres with her enterprise. Building on her previous experience as an assistant in a London bookshop she takes book orders from locals, caters for summer tourists, she even begins a lending library; despite the presence of a poltergeist she is perfectly content with the steady business of selling books and stationary.

Yet even as a resident of ten years standing she, an incomer, remains an outsider, however tolerated she might feel. And when Mrs Gamart decides she has been foiled long enough in her designs for the Old House, where will the townspeople’s loyalties lie? Will the apparent support of the remaining scion of a long-established family be sufficient to turn the tables on Florence’s implacable foe?

Southwold beach © C A Lovegrove

The fictional settlement of Hardborough sounded familiar to me, so it came as no surprise to learn that when Fitzgerald wrote this in the 1970s she was basing it in large measure on memories of helping in Southwold’s Sole Bay Bookshop in the late 50s. She described the then “lonely town”  as “sort of watery and marshy, with Constable skies,” though she hadn’t realised the bookshop had a resident poltergeist until she began working there.

Unlike the now bustling tourist hotspot (with a well patronised bookshop) Southwold then was suspicious of any arty enterprise, much like Hardborough; and the author’s then feckless husband, the bookshop stocking Nabokov’s Lolita, and even the property’s ‘noisy spirit’ all find their way in one form or another onto the novel’s pages. There is a distinct sense that Fitzgerald was exorcising whatever she found dispiriting during that period while she was writing this short novel.

And there is also a probability that in Florence Green we have a portrait of the author herself. Prone at first to be taken advantage of, Florence doesn’t allow herself to be taken in again in the same way. Quietly assertive, she provides some of the subtly humorous moments in the novel, as when her responses during an exchange of letters become terser and more opaque as her correspondent tries unsuccessfully to bully her with legal jargon; we’re also offered bleaker scenes when she increasingly feels isolated.

In David Nicholls’ fine introduction to this edition (best read afterwards, however) he rightly draws close comparisons between Fitzgerald and her contemporary Muriel Spark, both of whom he says wrote “tough-minded, spiky books”. Not every reader will connect with Florence Green, but I thoroughly empathised with her, whether during her ups or her downs. And of course I approved of her repeating to her lawyer the Milton quote included in early Everyman editions, but now with her own addition:

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.”

Sadly certain sections of Hardborough seem to have had difficulty accepting that the book was a “necessary commodity”. It’s a situation that is tragically familiar even now.

Southwold ferry to and from Walberswick  © C A Lovegrove

25 thoughts on “A necessary commodity

    1. I know what you mean – as when she palmed off Lolita for someone else to read for her. I suppose she was trying to bring a reading culture to Hardborough as much as Mrs Gamart was attempting to foist an arts culture on the town, but in a much less high-handed way.

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  1. I have read this but very very long ago for a book group, and I don’t quite remember the details. But I see it does touch upon the very relevant question of the necessity of books. And you are right, I wonder what percentage of people will see it as such now, scary thought for people like us.

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    1. We’re lucky in our rural Welsh town of less than 3000 residents – a still functioning library, one indie bookshop and a couple of upmarket charity shops with a reasonable and constantly changing selection of books (though the choice of children’s books in the last two shops is poor). So I feel well catered for, though I know so many other centres are not.

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      1. I wish we were too. We have great libraries in the city but not close enough for us in the suburbs. Locally, no one seems to consider them. But we do have a few bookshops closeby which cater to both popular reading and school/college texts. Those plus the online options (both shopping and review) have been what I’ve relied on these past many years.

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    1. Thanks, Lisa—I thought the downbeat ending was of necessity realistic, given the many hints we were given in advance. Glad you liked the pictures: we went to Southwold only last year after lockdown was eased, so it was nice to have memories reflected in this book, even if the story’s quite bleak.

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  2. My one attempt at reading Fitzgerald didn’t go so well but I do feel I should give her another chance. And as I’m an East Anglian immigrant, I might find much to identify with here. Books are such a necessity to me that I could well find some of the characters here hard to take!!

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    1. Hah, yes philistinism can be a distressing attitude to confront, but against that there are indications that Florence’s efforts are appreciated, although only low key.

      Discounting WH Smith – it sells books but does that make it a bookshop? – Southwold still has at least one retailer selling books (even if it’s a Waterstones masquerading as an indie) and very bright and inviting it is too!

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    1. People like Mrs G with a one-track mind (in her case, something to compete with Aldeburgh as a cultural centre) seldom waver, but in her case it seems to have turned into a personal vendetta.

      When Fitzgerald worked at the Southwold bookshop in the 1950s the premises were one of the oldest surviving buildings, called the Old Something-or-other, and probably earlier than the 1662 date noted on the gable (http://www.southwoldandson.co.uk/site/High%20Street/No%2082%20High%20Street.htm)


  3. Interesting. I have not read the book, but I have seen the film starring Emily Mortimer and it was insufferable, dull, one of the worst. Every time I thought the drama would pick up, such as Lolita displayed and recommended in a bookshop window and the obvious consequences that could flow from that, it never did and the plot never went where the obvious interest was. I am sure the book is better, but after that film I never had any desire to pick up the book version.

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    1. I was surprised to see it had been made into a film, Diana, especially after having myself completed the novel, because it’s essentially a purely literary work, subtle and sad but where the enjoyment comes from its characterisation and satire. Nothing much happens, and that’s the point: it’s a picture of a small town community with a small-town attitude and a suspicion of do-gooding outsiders.

      East Anglia was (and I gather mostly remains) conservative in both mindset and politics, and this novel rather ruefully reflects that. Still, authors do seem to be drawn to that corner of the world – Ruth Rendell, P D James, Emma Freud – while freethinking home-grown authors like George Orwell escape…

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      1. Yes, I guess this kind of literary book does not not translate well into a film. I normally like books about small, secluded, conservative communities. I even think that it is possible that Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, another book with that theme, might have been influenced by Fitzgerald’s work.

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  4. Pingback: A necessary commodity – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  5. I really enjoyed this one when I read it, I do have a weakness for a small town book and a book about a bookshop. I always read the introduction last as there are so often spoilers – though I just read Larry McMurtry’s preface to Moving On before starting the novel and that’s turned out OK.

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    1. Those introductions can be so sneaky, can’t they, appearing to just set the scene or indicate the background – and then throwing in a massive spoilery spanner. So yes, avoid till the end, though that hasn’t proved a problem for you.

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  6. I don’t think the film did the book justice. And of course (from memory) it had to have Bill Nighy in it. To veer off at a tangent have you seen him in Still Crazy as an old rock star trying to make a comeback? Great fun.

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    1. Yes, Still Crazy was very enjoyable, with an upbeat finale. Sadly, I don’t see Nighy in the role of Mr Brundish, which is probably why some films fall flat if the characters you have in mind are miscast or the stars don’t match the fictional figures conjured up in your memory.

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