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David Nicholls introduces Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop

Posted on 14th September 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our ever-popular Rediscovered Classics series continues with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. Her second novel after her 1977 debut The Golden Child, The Bookshop is the perfect introduction to Fitzgerald territory, a tale of a quiet determination in the face of parochial-but-steely resistance. It lost out on the Booker but paved the way for Fitzgerald’s success the following year with Offshore, her 1979 entry in a remarkable five-book run that firmly established her a very great, if late-flowering, British talent.

The Midas touch of David Nicholls has seen each of his novels receive the type of acclaim and success most authors can only dream of. Starter for Ten, his debut of 2003, deftly set the Nicholls’ store – witty, knowing, writing prepared to look at relationships without being remotely mawkish – and in turn a series of bestsellers followed, including the all-conquering One Day of 2009. Happily, David is also one of the Waterstones family with a stint at our fine establishment at Notting Hill to his name: some of those experiences go into the following introduction to The Bookshop, which we exclusively reproduce here.

For several years in the mid-1990s I worked in a West London bookshop, running the children’s department with a rod of iron and supervising, with noisy resentment, the section called ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’. My colleagues for the most part were English Literature graduates or postgraduates, knowledgeable and passionate about the written word. Yes, we were shop assistants but the fact that we sold books, as opposed to socks or potatoes or saucepans, gave the job a certain respectability, kudos almost. Even if our bestsellers were sporting biographies or SAS memoirs or greetings cards, bookselling was practically a branch of academia. Books mattered, they were different, they were ‘improving’.

Florence Green, the heroine of Fitzgerald’s second novel, proprietor of an East Suffolk small town bookshop, feels much the same. In a terse letter to her solicitor, she quotes the endpaper of her Everyman editions:

‘A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life,’ and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

Surely Penelope Fitzgerald felt something like this, though she would have expressed it in plainer language.

Don’t all novelists believe that books matter, that they’re different and necessary? When stocking her bookshop, Florence places those Everyman editions, in their ‘shabby dignity’, between Religion and Home Medicine, and isn’t this where literature belongs, somewhere between the spiritual and the earthly, the practical?

And yet what’s striking, in a novel called The Bookshop, is the absence of books, or specifically fiction and literature. The readers in the town of Hardborough have no interest in Ruskin or Keats or Austen, T. S. Eliot or Henry James. They crave books about royalty and the SAS, spotters’ guides, the score for the Messiah and greetings cards (an indication, I suppose, of how little the book trade changes) and Fitzgerald has great fun with the staggeringly banal titles: Build Your Own Racing Dinghy,  I Flew With the Führer, Daily Life in Ancient Britain. Categorisation is not by subject, but by popularity: A, B and ‘the repellent Cs’, books that have acquired ‘a peculiar fragrance’, with titles like The History of Chinese Thought. A good book may well be the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, but for the bank manager they serve another purpose:

‘Don’t misunderstand me … I find a good book at my bedside of incalculable value. When I eventually retire I’ve no sooner read a few pages than I’m overwhelmed with sleep.’

And what about literature, and specifically fiction? The only novel mentioned at length, Lolita, saves Florence’s business, but there is no discussion of its contents, its characters or themes or story.  Mr Brundish’s appraisal is characteristically to the point:

‘It is a good book, and therefore you should try and sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.’

That last sentence is a typical Fitzgerald notion, overturning the conventional, sentimental idea. Art, culture, literature seem to improve no one in Hardborough. The most ‘cultured’, ‘artistic’ people in this community are also the most monstrous. For the malign Mrs Gamart, an interest in ‘Culture’ brings social status and the illusion of sophistication. She will happily abandon compassion and decency to establish her precious arts centre, vital if the town is to compete socially with high-and-mighty Aldeburgh. Charming Milo works for the revered BBC, that bastion of liberal-humanistic values, yet he is lazy, vain and casually cruel. ‘His emotions, from lack of exercise, had disappeared almost altogether’, and what at first seems like gentleness is a cover for his appalling selfishness. Another typically incisive Fitzgerald observation: 

Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.

Even the hopeless watercolourist Theodore Gill (‘who saw no reason to abandon the pleasant style of the turn of the century’) is conceited, selfish and insensitive. Florence aside, the decent, loyal characters – Christine, Wally, Raven – are the least pretentious, indifferent to culture and the social status it brings. Christine prefers ‘stickers’ and bookmarks over books, and only reads Bunty:

Her resentment was directed against everyone who had to do with books, and reading, and made it a condition of success to write little compositions … She hated them all.

With the exception of Mr Brundish, whom Florence only meets once, it is also worth noting that her main allies belong to the working class and, in the case of the Gippings, almost an underclass; there are glancing references to incest, to children running wild, eating maggots, pelting each other with stones or beets.

Hardborough is not quite the real world. Isolated and enclosed, its parochial philistinism is exaggerated for comic effect. Phyllis Neame, the owner of the Southwold bookshop where Penelope Fitzgerald once worked, contested the portrayal of the town, insisting that everyone had been much nicer in real life. But this fictional town is stripped of quaintness. It is a harsh, class-bound place. There’s a startling passage where Christine’s mother discusses education, finding a sudden eloquence on the practical repercussions of Christine’s failure to pass the dreaded Eleven Plus:

‘It’s what we call a death sentence. I’ve nothing against the Technical, but it just means this: what chance will she ever have of meeting and marrying a white-collar chap? She won’t ever be able to look above a labouring chap or even an unemployed chap and believe me, Mrs Green, she’ll be pegging out her own washing until the day she dies.’

Contrast this with Milo North, going ‘through life with singularly little effort’. Florence and the Gippings are decent but powerless and yet one small remark from the vicious Mrs Gamart can have repercussions in the Houses of Parliament and ultimately destroy a livelihood. Intelligence has nothing to do with it; Christine is eccentric but also bright, shrewd, passionate and insightful, while Mrs Gamart’s nephew, the pliable MP who facilitates Florence’s downfall, is ‘brilliant, successful and stupid’. Like Florence, Christine fails because she can’t tell ‘which number comes next’. In one of the book’s most striking images, the difference between a white envelope, denoting acceptance by the grammar school, and a buff envelope, denoting the Technical, is the difference between success and drudgery. ‘Hardborough children, looking back in future years over a long life, would remember nothing more painful or more decisive than the envelopes waiting on the desks.’

Yet while class is everywhere in The Bookshop, money and social status are not the only dividing lines. The novel is political in the sense that Fitzgerald’s sympathies and instincts, like Florence’s, are liberal and broadly anti-authoritarian, but the real division in life, the one that matters, is that between the ‘exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating’. This is a recurring theme in Fitzgerald’s books, particularly in those earlier novels drawn from episodes in her life, and it’s hard to think of a novelist who writes more compassionately and insightfully about failure. The Bookshop, which she called ‘her first straight novel’ after The Golden Child, gives the idea its clearest expression. Florence values kindness above everything. She is decent, principled, intelligent and unsnobbish. Yet, faced with the combined forces of Mrs Gamart and Milo North, the indifferent bank managers and corrupt solicitors, she doesn’t stand a chance. The final sentence of the novel is bruising, but Florence has the saddest line:

‘Surely you have to succeed, if you give everything you have.’

Even an item as innocuous and homely as Mr Brundish’s teapot bears the warning ‘Not to succeed in one thing is to fail in all.’ Far more frightening than any poltergeist is the spectre of loneliness in old age. On the radio, Florence hears that ‘the expectation of life was now 68.1 years for males and 73.9 years for females … She tried to feel that this was encouraging.’

With typical self-deprecation, Fitzgerald called The Bookshop ‘a short novel with a sad ending’, which is true I suppose, but takes no account of Fitzgerald’s wit and playfulness. The later novel, At Freddie’s, is brighter and lighter (and would be one of my candidates for great comic novels of the twentieth century) but there are wonderful moments in The Bookshop too. Fitzgerald’s great gift, often remarked upon, was the precision and economy of her prose, so that a sea scout is ‘square and reliable as a straw-bale’ and Mr Gill smiles ‘as a toad does, because it has no other expression’. Or this, my favourite line, more flamboyantly comic:

They [Christine’s two front teeth] 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.

And there’s sharp social comedy too, of a particularly English kind: given an ill-fitting dress in shocking red, Florence suggests meekly, ‘Perhaps if I try to stand against the wall most of the time …’ Much of the humour balances on the edge of absurdity or draws on a Dickensian tradition. The characters’ names, for example: Florence Green is solid and sensible, but Gipping, Cutts, Deben, Brundish? Gamart is an allusion to Balzac’s Mlle Gamart in Le Curé de Tours, cruel and provincial. Even Milo’s conventionally unconventional girlfriend in the red tights is  Kattie with an extra ‘t’.

I first read Penelope Fitzgerald after reading a great deal of Muriel Spark, and the similarities are there: both Spark and Fitzgerald wrote slim volumes in a clear, precise, economical prose, often with an autobiographical element, particularly in the early books. They have a reputation for genteelness that is not borne out by the tough-minded, spiky books themselves, and share an interest in good and evil, and in religion. Both authors present children as not quite innocent, just as flawed and frank as adults. Often their characters exist on the fringes of an artistic and literary world, where poverty and failure are far more common than success. Most strikingly, they share an ability to combine the mundane and every day with the surreal, the supernatural, the violent. It is no surprise that both authors wrote ghost stories. No one in Hardborough is taken aback by the poltergeist, no one is sceptical or seeks an explanation. It is a place where a bathroom can have ‘the alert air of having witnessed something’, where spigots are driven into marrows to produce booze, where a heron flies by with a writhing eel halfway down its throat and a middle-aged woman can be seen tugging with all her might on a horse’s large slippery dark tongue. The sense of place is wonderful, the landscape described without recourse to purple prose, just that trademark economy:

The sky brightened from one horizon to the other, and the high white cloud was reflected in mile after mile of shining dyke water, so that the marshes seemed to stand between cloud and cloud.

Hardborough is a place of extremes, almost an island, isolated from city life but very far from being a rural idyll. The characterisation is also heightened: the monstrous Mrs Gamart has ‘dark bright eyes which appeared to be kept open, as though by some mechanism, to their widest extent’. Christine Gipping is perhaps the most vivid creation, with her transparent skin, her ruffled hair and missing teeth. I can’t think of any author who writes children better than Penelope Fitzgerald. Like Salinger, she has a real interest in them. They are never patronised or idealised. Christine is bad-tempered, tempestuous and horribly tactless:

‘You haven’t any children, Mrs Green?’ ‘No. I should have liked to.’

‘Life passed you by in that respect, then.’

Without waiting for explanations, she bustled round the shop …

Yet Florence remains fiercely loyal to Christine, even when snubbed in return. Fitzgerald never overplays or sentimentalises this maternal bond, but if exposure to a world of books can’t ‘improve’ Christine, then human contact surely can:

The two of them, during the past months, had not been without their effect on one another. If Florence was more resilient, Christine had grown more sensitive …

… and they sit together by the paraffin heater on a cold September evening ‘in the two comfortable chairs, like ladies’.

I have, at times, adapted books into screenplays, and a small but persistent voice often accompanies my first reading of a book, asking ‘how might this work on screen?’ The Bookshop is an example of what is called ‘a hard sell’, though an adaptation, starring Anna Massey, was once mooted and another may happen  soon. It could make a fine film, but a faithful adaption would have to take on board the author’s refusal to provide easy or comforting answers. Throughout the book, Fitzgerald sets up expectations that she then refuses to fulfil. Will there be a flirtation with Milo? What happened to Florence’s husband? Will we find out in flashback? Will Christine grow to love books? Perhaps there could be a scene, late at night, where she discovers Jane Eyre! Will Florence take a heroic, public stand against Mrs Gamart? Make a big speech? Perhaps the locals will support her, or perhaps Mr Brundish will step in and save the day!

But this is no cosy sub-Ealing comedy. Penelope Fitzgerald defies those clichés with glee, and this is precisely what makes her a great novelist. Expectations are constantly denied, explanations withheld. Why does Mr Brundish defend a woman he barely meets, and what motivates Mrs Gamart’s shocking and persistent spite? We never really know. We find out little about Florence’s past and are given few clues to her future. Character portraits are brief or, in the case of our lead character, are defined as much by absence as presence: Florence is ‘somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back. She was not much talked about …’

And then there is the ending. Fitzgerald is a fine comic writer, one of the best, but her humour is inseparable from a terrible sadness, particularly in the closing moments (At Freddie’s and Offshore also end with similar dying falls). The last paragraph of The Bookshop is not fraught or emotional, there are no big speeches or farewells, no dialogue at all. The prose is plain and matter-of- fact, and only one word is used to describe Florence’s emotions. But it’s a terrible word, and the final sentence of this book is one of the saddest I’ve ever read. Quietly devastating, like the novel itself.

David Nicholls

2013

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