In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not. This was because of her worries as to whether to purchase a small property, the Old House, with its own warehouse on the foreshore and to open the only bookshop in Hardborough. The uncertainty probably kept her awake.
Seven years ago, when I turned thirty, we were in East Anglia to celebrate the wedding of our friends A & I. We spent the eve of my birthday in the small coastal town of Southwold. T was fifteen months old. We walked on the beach with her, looking out into the bleak North Sea, then sat on a bench outside a pub drinking pints of Adnams while she watched us from her pushchair. The skies were vast and pearly with opalescent cloud. It was our first hotel stay with a baby and when she’d fallen asleep we read together in the bathroom, taking it in turns to lie in the bath.
The next morning it was raining. We ate breakfast in the hotel. We walked back round the town’s few shops which included, then, an independent bookshop. The rain was the heavy endless kind, and it steamed up the window of the cafe where we sheltered for coffee and cake. After a morning of grey rain against grey sea and grey sky we left Southwold in search of somewhere bigger, somewhere dryer. We ended up in Lowestoft where we bought T her very first pair of proper shoes and ate a birthday lunch in McDonald’s which, as I’m vegetarian and probably haven’t been in a McDonald’s since, I see now as a sign of just how desperate we were.
On Saturday evening I turned to making good on my intention to read all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels before the year is out. The Bookshop (1978) is her second novel, a slim, delectable comedy which I sat and read from start to finish, remembering what had made me fall in love with her books in the first place. It’s a simple story and I’d read it before, but it was a total joy to fall back under its spell.
The novel takes place in the fictional small town of Hardborough, a thinly disguised Southwold, clinging on to the bleak East Anglian coast. It’s the story of Florence Green, a middle-aged woman who has been widowed for some years, when she decides to open a bookshop in a town that doesn’t yet have a fish and chip shop, a launderette or a permanent cinema.
She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation. For more than eight years of half a lifetime she had lived at Hardborough on the very small amount of money her late husband had left her and had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.
From this sense of ‘duty’ a curious comedy of manners ensues, with the town lining up either for or against the bookshop in a very English way, which is to say by not saying anything at all, but manoeuvring all the time in ways both class-bound, comic and despicable. This being a Fitzgerald book we can’t expect those who, like Florence, are downtrodden but doing something they believe in to prevail. Its a sentiment that recurs in Fitzgerald’s novels, but is perhaps never expressed as strongly as here:
She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided in to exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating. Will-power is useless without a sense of direction. Hers was at such a low ebb that it no longer gave her the instructions for survival.
In many ways, The Bookshop could be almost be an E.F. Benson Mapp and Lucia story (which, I should add, I have never read but have been subjected to enough BBC radio and television adaptations over the years to feel that I have). But with Fitzgerald, things are always darker. There is a sense that the question of the bookshop is a battle between good and evil (“Just as she still thought of gravity as a force that pulled things towards it, not simply as a matter of least resistance, so she felt sure that character was a struggle between good and bad intentions.”) — and the matter-of-fact introduction of a poltergeist, known locally as a ‘rapper’, haunting the Old House also adds a moral and spiritual dimension to the opposition to the bookshop.
One of my favourite things about any Fitzgerald book is the children. They’re always miraculous: precocious, funny, and in most cases far wiser than the adults around them. Ten-year-old Christine Gipping who is sent by Raven the marshman, to help Florence with the bookshop after school and in the holidays is a perfect Fitzgerald creation:
Her skin was almost transparent. Her silky hair seemed to have no substance, ruffling away from her forehead in the slightest draught. When Florence, still anxious not to hurt her feelings, smiled encouragingly, she smiled back, showing two broken front teeth. They had been broken during the previous winter in rather a strange manner, when the washing on the line froze hard, and she was caught a blow in the face with an icy vest. Like all the Hardborough children, she had learned to endure.
What I admire above all is Fitzgerald’s concision. She has the ability to conjure a whole world from writing that is precise and spare. “Every action in it matters, however small” reads a quote attributed to the Spectator on the back of my copy. And it’s true that this short novel has the compression of a short story. Tantalisingly, an image at the end of the book points to Fitzgerald’s own future novel, The Blue Flower. Leaving Hardborough, Florence takes just two books with her, “Each had its old bookmarker in it […] and the Ruskin also had a pressed gentian, quite colourless. The book must have gone, perhaps fifty years before, to Switzerland in the springtime.”
Next up in Fitzgerald’s sparkling oeuvre, Offshore.
Photos 2 & 3 from Southwold, September 2008.