Friday 26 September 2014

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (Gerald Duckworth, 1978); Book Review, First Edition

NB: Linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

One of the places that Rachel and Edie and I visited during last year's family holiday to Suffolk was Southwold, a coastal town just over ten miles south of Lowestoft. Unlike a lot of the other places I dragged Rachel and Edie to during that holiday, I had no ulterior motive with Southwold: there are no secondhand bookshops there. In fact at that point there were no bookshops whatsoever in Southwold, the last one having closed in 2011. Happily, more recently Waterstones have opened a branch there – cunningly disguised as Southwold Books – but as my friend and colleague Roly Allen, who knows the area well, pointed out to me post-vacation, at one time the town had four bookshops. And at an even earlier time, the late author Penelope Fitzgerald, who lived for a time in Southwold, worked in a bookshop there, basing her second novel in part on her experiences.

The Bookshop was published in hardback by Gerald Duckworth & Co. in 1978, under a dust jacket illustrated by Joan Ogden. I acquired this first edition/first impression a little while after that Suffolk holiday on Roly's recommendation – as in, he recommended that I read the novel, not that I should secure a first of it, which, if he'd known how scarce and pricey first editions are, I doubt he would have anyway: there are fewer than half a dozen first impressions available online at present, the cheapest of them being £200 (even a second impression, of which there are even fewer available, will set you back at least £70). Fortunately I managed to nab this copy on eBay for not much more than a tenner, which just goes to show there are still bargains to be had online if you keep your eyes peeled.

The Bookshop is set in the fictional Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough, where, in 1959, Florence Green, widow and resident of Hardborough of ten years' standing, decides to open a bookshop, something the town hasn't had for generations. As reclusive squire Edmund Brundish puts it in a letter to Florence, "In my great-grandfather's time there was a bookseller in the High Street who, I believe, knocked down one of the customers with a folio when he grew too quarrelsome. There had been some delay in the arrival of the latest instalment of a new novel – I think, Dombey and Son. From that day to this, no one had been courageous enough to sell books in Hardborough." (The reference to Dickens is apt: from his name to his demeanour Mr Brundish is straight out of a Dickens story.)

To that end, and with a loan from the local bank, Florence purchases the Old House, a small damp-ridden property haunted by a noisy "rapper" (the local term for a poltergeist) – a property which, it transpires, social grandee Violet Gamart also has designs on (she'd like to turn it into an arts centre). Undeterred, Florence orders in stock and opens for business, but she soon runs into trouble when she adds a lending library facility in a back room (everybody wants to borrow the same book and, in a neat encapsulation of how in a small town everyone knows everyone else's business, via the coloured ticketing system everybody is able to see which books have been borrowed by whom). And then, at the suggestion of Milo North, a local young man who is "something in TV" in London, Florence orders in 250 copies of a newly published novel by an author whose name "sounded foreign – Russian perhaps". The author's name: Nabokov; the novel: Lolita.

The Bookshop has much to recommend it, not least among its attributes being its refreshing brevity (the Duckworth edition clocks in at under 120 pages); I have less and less time available to me for reading these days, so short books are always welcome. It's also instructive as regards the intricacies of running a provincial bookshop in the late 1950s – how books arrived from the wholesaler "in sets of eighteen, wrapped in thin brown paper", and how, having navigated the marshes in their vans, the visiting publishers' salesmen's "hearts sank when they realised that there was no rail-service at all and that all future orders would have to come down by road" – although I realise this sort of stuff will be of marginal interest to most.

Doubtless of broader appeal will be the cast of deftly delineated characters and the wonderful turns of phrase Fitzgerald often deploys to describe them. Of the feckless Milo North, for example, she writes that he "went through life with singularly little effort... What seemed delicacy in him was usually a way of avoiding trouble; what seemed like sympathy was the instinct to prevent trouble before it started", adding: "he simply lapsed into whatever he did next only if it seemed to him less trouble than anything else". More pithily she describes the local MP – who will prove instrumental in Florence's eventual undoing (he's Mrs Gamart's nephew) – as "a brilliant, successful, and stupid young man".

With the forces marshalled by the Machiavellian Mrs Gamart ranged against her, Florence's fate seems sealed almost from the off, but the inevitable denouement, when it comes, is no less affecting for that. Indeed it's notable how anyone with an ounce of decency in the novel comes a cropper, from Florence to Mr Brundish to Christine, Florence's ten-year-old assistant, who at least gets in one jab against Mrs Gamart – literally – before her spirits are crushed. All this speaks volumes to Fitzgerald's feelings about Hardborough's real world counterpart, Southwold, not least the quietly devastating last line, which rather bodes ill for the newly opened branch of Waterstones there (anyone who'd rather not have the ending spoiled, look away now): "As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop."

Next, another second novel by a female author – an Australian this time.


  1. Yet again, a review of a book I'd very much like to read but can't afford, isn't in any library, and I'll never get my hands on in any edition, ever. So frustrating, but I do appreciate the review, regardless.

  2. Is Penelope Fitzgerald not in print in the States, Richard? Her books are readily available over here, far as I know. Unless you mean first edition, in which case, yeah, you're probably stuffed.

  3. Nick,
    you told me you don't hang out at ebay no more, yet your last blogposts are all about ebay scores. Where is the truth, Nick?))

  4. Wow, the legend of last year's vacation grows.

    I love Penelope Fitzgerald but though I think I have all of her books (and a great biography of her from last year) they are all in relatively common American editions, nothing like your little gem. She is in print here - I see her books, new and used, all the time. The Bookshop and The Blue Flower, especially. The American edition of the biography will be published in November and I believe new editions of most of her fiction will be out in October.

  5. Ray: they may be eBay scores, but they're not necessarily RECENT eBay scores... That said, I do still keep an eye on eBay; I just exercise restraint.

    BG: Good to hear you love PG. Any others of hers you'd recommend to me?