The 1p Book Review: Penelope Fitzgerald – The Bookshop

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald (available at 1p here) concerns the attempt by a widow called Florence Green –  “small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back ” – to set up a bookshop  in Hardborough, a small town on the East Anglian coast. Too late, Florence discovers that, in opening her establishment, she is going against the wishes of Mrs Violet Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough”. As Mrs Gamart tells Florence, when she invites the widow to a party, she has long been planning to use Florence’s premises as an arts centre.

“Chamber music in summer – we can’t leave it all to Aldeburgh – lecturers in winter … do, won’t you think it over?” Mrs Gamart says. In reply to Florence’s protests  – “We have lectures already …The Vicar’s series on Picturesque Suffolk … comes round again every three years” –  Mrs Gamart explains that the town needs “to be a good deal more ambitious”, withdrawing from Florence then, “with encouraging nods and gestures, into her protective horde of guests.”

Within the framework of this seemingly insignificant story, against the backdrop of Hardborough’s unequal battle with vile weather – “The beginning of November was one of the very few times of the year when there was no wind” – and the encroaching sea,  Fitzgerald, who explained in an essay in 1989 that she was “drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost”,  portrays in miniature the eternal struggle between the weak  – those who, like Florence, have “a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation” – and the ruthless, who, like  Mrs Gamart,  do not hesitate to use their “cousin’s second husband, who was something to do with the Arts Council and …[their] cousin once removed, who was soon going to be high up in the Directorate of Planning and …[their] brilliant nephew who sat for the Longwash Division of West Suffolk and had already made his name as the persevering secretary of the Society for Providing Public Access to Places of Interest and Beauty, and … Lord Gosfield who had ventured over from his stagnant castle in the Fens,” in order to ride roughshod over those who get in their way.

Despite a brief flicker of hope when a higher power, in the form of Mr Brundish – “It was well known that Mrs Gamart, as patroness of all that was of value in Hardborough, would have liked to count him as a friend, but since she had been at The Stead for only fifteen years and was not of Suffolk origin, her wishes had been in vain. Perhaps her presence had not been drawn to Mr Brundish’s attention” – seems to be on the point of exercising its benign influence, the end is never really in doubt for Florence. It doesn’t matter.  The book is not a novel of suspense; it is, to use AS Byatt’s characterisation of Fitzgerald’s writing, a “funny and terrible” account of the cruelty and vanity of human relations.

And it is largely its funniness that makes the book so enjoyable. Just as the air in Hardborough is shot through with damp, so Fitzgerald’s sense of the absurd saturates the text. Its other great virtue –and this is true of all Fitzgerald’s novels – is the terse clarity of the writing. Fitzgerald’s ability to conjure vivid  scenes and characters in only half a dozen sentences astonishes me over and over again. In 10 lines, she skewers Mrs Gamart, her husband, their  relationship and their setting:

“Silver photograph frames on the piano and on small tables permitted a glimpse of the network of family relations which gave Violet Gamart an access to power far beyond Hardborough itself. Her husband, the General, was opening drawers and cupboards with the object of not finding anything, to give him an excuse to wander from room to room. In the 1950s there were many plays on the London stage where the characters made frequent entrances and exits out of various doors and were seen again in the second act, three hours later. The General would have fitted well into such a play. He hovered, alert and experimentally smiling, among the refreshments, hoping that he would soon be needed, even if only for a few moments, since opening champagne is not woman’s work.”

She manages Milo North, who does something in TV, in a dozen words: “Milo North was tall, and went through life with singularly little effort.”

The book is very short, which I regard as a virtue. Ever self-critical, Fitzgerald admitted in an article in 1993 that she would have liked to make it still shorter, by removing the wonderful opening paragraph in which Florence sees:

“a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.”

Making that cut would have been a mistake, but the fact she was thinking about it reveals the rigour with which Fitzgerald approached her writing.  There are plenty of authors who might take note of her self-discipline.  In The Bookshop there is not a wasted word.

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5 thoughts on “The 1p Book Review: Penelope Fitzgerald – The Bookshop

  1. Gaw
    September 20, 2010 at 08:22

    Bought it (a new copy too). I would never have bought a P Fitzgerald novel if I hadn’t read your excellent review.

    I agree with you about short novels. Most books – non-fiction as well – are too long, with the reader having to wade through an irritating amount of padding. It must be a desire on the part of the publisher to be seen to give the reader their money’s worth combined with the fixed costs of making a book regardless of the number of its pages. E-books should result in less emphasis on chunkiness – but probably in return for a wider range of prices for new books, with a lower starting point. Perhaps they might eventually be priced by the page?

  2. Worm
    September 20, 2010 at 09:00

    Can’t believe that Fitzgerald didn’t even start writing her first book until she was 58!

    And Gaw/z, I too have a hatred of padding! And I think this is something that probably puts a lot of people off reading literary fiction

  3. Worm
    September 20, 2010 at 09:05

    “Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel,” observed Sebastian Faulks, “is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality – the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window.”

  4. zmkc@ymail.com'
    September 20, 2010 at 09:05

    I hope you like it, Gaw. I did briefly belong to a book group where another of hers was up for discussion one month and everyone except the person who’d suggested it plus me HATED it (I stopped going soon after – I’d always wondered why I hadn’t liked it there and it seemed to me that that incident revealed the problem). I think she is fantastically good – exceptionally observant, shrewd and wryly funny. Her work could be described as muted though, which I like, but may be the secret of her lack of appeal to many – she never plonks home a punch line or anything. My one failure with her (here comes my big guilty secret) is the book that is considered to be her masterpiece – The Blue Flower. I can see it is beautifully written but, as yet, it has failed to engage me. I shall keep trying though.

  5. zmkc@ymail.com'
    September 20, 2010 at 09:12

    Worm – I think she may have written other things before that age(? – articles, non-fiction?)
    About length – quite a few of Beryl Bainbridge’s books are pretty short too. It’s odd to think that neither Fitzgerald’s nor many of Bainbridge’s best would even be considered now for publication by most publishers as at present the absolute minimum word count for a novel is 60,000 words. Yet at the same time lots of people complain about how the last 30 pages of recent novels seem to be a waste of space – everything’s going along terrifically and then the whole thing falls in a heap. I think there is some sense of ‘If you’re going to shell out 16.99 (or whatever a paperback costs) you should have something pretty thick and weighty to carry away with you.’ Maybe if you have to print it up at home in the future, people will demand really, really short things, because otherwise the paper’s too expensive.

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