THOUGHTS ON: The Bookshop

by Penelope Fitzgerald

…courage and endurance are useless if they are never tested.”

the bookshop coverLooking back at last year’s Guardian film review of The Bookshop, I see it was described as “not a page turner”, which is undoubtedly true of the 1978 Booker Prize shortlisted novel from which it was adapted, but for entirely different reasons. While the paper’s critic, Wendy Ide, felt the movie was “sluggish” and the screenplay left “a lot to be desired”, the original book not being a page-turner is, to my mind, a sort of compliment.

Novelist and biographer, Penelope Fitzgerald died in 2000 at the age of 83 having begun her literary career in her late fifties when, in 1975, she published a life of Edward Burne-Jones. She went on to write two more biographies and nine novels, including the Booker Prize winning Offshore. She was awarded the Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime’s achievement in literature in 1996, and in 1999 received the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for ‘a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature’.

The Bookshop is Fitzgerald’s second novel. Set in a small East Anglian town of Hardborough in 1959, Florence Green, a quietly spirited, middle-aged widow arrives with the intention of opening a bookshop in the Old House, a long-abandoned property believed to be haunted by a “rapper” (or poltergeist). The highly conservative inhabitants are shocked and intrigued in equal measures by her plans – especially when she not only stocks but makes an impressive window-display from copies of Nabokov’s controversial novel, Lolita – and the formidable lady at the big house, Mrs Gamart, takes against her. Her enterprise is at first successful, but her enemies are ambitious and influential, and she faces ruthless opposition.

Fitzgerald writes of an age now disappeared (and some might say ‘good riddance’); an era when the British set great store by the rules of etiquette and having a ‘good name’ in one’s community. Deviation from a set of unspoken social rules, however slight, would leave one open to accusations of indecency or, God forbid, being ‘common’.

In her Preface to my 2014 Fourth Estate edition of The Bookshop, Hermione Lee (author of Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life) describes Fitzgerald as: “A humorous writer with a tragic sense of life” who “liked writers, and people, who stood at an odd angle to the world” – which perfectly sums up this great English novelist with a penchant for oblique, often cryptic narratives.

The Bookshop is a subtly satirical novel of unspoken emotion and small-town mentality peopled with an assortment of snobs, outcasts and eccentrics. It is also an unostentatious classic that reveals: in life, justice is seldom done.

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36 replies

  1. Unostentatious, as you so rightly say, and yet effortlessly elegant and deep.

  2. I read Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower a long time ago and struggled with it – her writing is so minimalist, which I know is a virtue, but isn’t a style I particularly get on with (I find it difficult to engage with a lot of inter-war and immediate post-war British/US fiction for the same reason). Perhaps I should try The Bookshop instead.

  3. I concur with your view of the author. It’s a beautiful novel, primarily because of its style. But I’m unsure about the pessimistic message you flag up. It’s been a strange week, but I think the question of justice is too large for what is ultimately a small book. I suppose there is no consensus about what justice is. I’ve just been blocked by George Galloway on Twitter for giving him a compliment (I don’t always agree with him). Is that fair? I think it could be in so far as it has revealed something about him. Hermione Lee is a biographer who can throw the kitchen sink at her subjects in terms of detail, so I think I’ll pass on the biography.

  4. I enjoyed this novel (although the poltergeist irritated me) and if anything enjoyed the movie even more. That said, I do tend to enjoy “not a page turner” movies, as my long-suffering wife frequently points out to me as she wakes during the closing credits.

  5. I’m intrigued…It sounds very interesting. I’d never heard of her before.

  6. I’m afraid I am not a fan of hers. I really didn’t care for Offshore and then we watched the film of The Bookshop last week and thought it was one of the worst we’ve seen for a long time.

  7. I’ve read The Bookshop several times now but have never seen the movie – and don’t want to. Yes, it’s minimalist so in some ways it might feel a bit choppy going from one characte/scene to another pretty quickly. But Chinese water color is also minimalist in that one brush stroke can creates a whole bird flying and two more capture the mountains behind it leaving the impression of actual flight.

    So too with Fitzgerald’s writing. Not only does she capture a very complex character as she is trying to run a new bookstore in the face of a powerful opponent, but she also renders the social milieu of a small town in England on the cusp of great changes, 1959.

    Thanks for the review,

    • I too am loath to watch a film adaption if I’ve really enjoyed a book – it almost always disappoints.

      I agree completely with your analysis, Becky. Very well expressed. Less is definitely more when it comes to Fitzgerald’s work.

  8. This was the first of Penelope Lively’s books that I read and I really liked it, but the turn in the story surprised me (which is all I’ll say to avoid spoilers, although now I feel that was quite likely “right” and “fair”, just not what I’d imagined in my younger reading years).

    The film will delight you if you enjoyed the pace and gentle tone of the book. It requires a lot of viewer, just as the book requires a lot of a reader: I love that kind of art, the kind that leaves room for us.

  9. Ah, I love spare writing and quiet books, Paula. I’ll be giving this author a shot. What buriedinprint said above summarizes so well the beauty in gentle books- that we readers get space, too. I love that about them. Thanks for opening me up once again to a new author. Beautifully-written review. ♥️

  10. I’m one of those who is undecided about Fitzgerald too – on my first experience with her I was a bit underwhelmed and I haven’t felt strongly that I should try any more, though if I do it will probably be this one! 😀

    • She seems to take readers that way – we either discover a taste for her work or feel completely underwhelmed! I hope The Bookshop tickles your cerebrum. 😊

      • I loved The Blue Flower – it’s historical fiction and about a young poet of the romantic era – 18th century – who falls in love with a 12 year old but it’s all pure romantic idealization – there is no sex.

  11. I really like this novel & you’ve captured exactly why – the sparse style, the quiet tone, the upset I felt at the injustice at the end which seemed absolutely true to life, unfortunately. I’ve not seen the film but I’d like to give it a go – it sounds as if its similar in tone to the book which I can see would divide viewers.

  12. Sadly I could see the mechanics of the story and it didn’t sit well with me. I am hoping to catch up with the movie because I have been told that it is a first – better than the book!

  13. I loved this film, but then I am a lover of cinematic beauty and slow-moving tales and anything that involves books in the plot 😄 Everything I’m reading here suggests I should read the book itself. Another one added to the list!

  14. Nicely done review.

  15. This book sounds lovely. And your review is absolutely wonderful. Adding it to my TBR now.


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