by Penelope Fitzgerald
“…courage and endurance are useless if they are never tested.”
Looking 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.