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?
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?
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.