Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), The Bookshop. Everyman’s Library 3-vol. edition (with Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower). First published 1978

I usually find that seeing the film version of a novel before reading the book is a mistake. This was definitely the case with Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Bookshop.

The novels I’ve read by her so far all have an astonishing immediacy in terms of period detail, setting and dialogue; from The Blue Flower (1995), read some time ago pre-blog, set at the time of Romantic poet Novalis (d. 1801) in a Germany that’s palpably realised, to pre-Revolution Moscow in The Beginning of Spring (1988).

In Offshore (winner of the 1979 Booker Prize) the hazardous life of an impoverished mother on a Thames houseboat in the early 1960s is evoked with the sharpness of a monochrome photograph. Human Voices just as vividly represents the people working on propaganda radio programmes during the London Blitz of 1940.

Fitzgerald 3 novels cover Florence Green, the slightly adrift middle-aged widow who’s the protagonist of The Bookshop, is another typical Fitzgerald heroine: a bit eccentric, idealistic to the point of naiveté, gifted at connecting with other people (but with a tendency to be too open and honest, which costs her dearly with unscrupulous or treacherous types – of whom there are several lushly drawn examples in this novel), tenacious but with a tendency to be wrong-headed.

It’s set in an East Anglian town called appropriately Hardborough. Florence opens a bookshop in a narrow-minded place that’s more philistine than present-day Southwold – where in real life the author worked in such a shop. The plot concerns Florence’s struggles to make a go of the business against the odds, and the oddball characters who populate this marginal town.

This is the only Fitzgerald novel I’ve read so far where I didn’t feel she conveyed a sense of the place very effectively. I know East Anglia quite well, and have been to coastal towns there like Southwold quite often, and I didn’t find the scenery described in this novel particularly convincing, or sufficiently present to contribute much to the texture of the narrative.

It’s a neatly plotted novel, with some crisply drawn characters and the gentle, perceptive humour, laced with a harder element, found in her other lighter novels. But it was spoilt for me by the vision that kept intruding of twinkly-eyed Emily Mortimer as the over-pretty, slightly vacuous,  and much younger heroine of the 2017 film version by Catalan director Isabel Coixet.

Mrs Gamart, the Cruella da Ville villain of the piece, was played well by Patricia Clarkson, cast presumably to please the American audience, but I couldn’t help associating her with other things I’d seen her in, from Sally Potter’s excellent chamber comedy The Party to the melodramatic Netflix drama House of Cards.

Perhaps the most intrusive actor, though, was Bill Nighy, turning in one of his usual turns as himself. He plays the reclusive but sympathetic old widower Edmund Brundish who in the novel champions Florence’s enterprise out of fellow feeling and antagonism towards mean-spirited provincial snobs like Mrs Gamart. To make the film more popcorn-friendly there’s an unlikely and rather silly suggestion of a romantic attraction between him and the widow.

The film’s ending is also made to conform more to the demands of a cinema audience, whereas Fitzgerald sensibly keeps things low key and unsentimental.

The best characters in the novel are the children – as they were in Offshore – especially the near-feral Christine, a ten-year-old with more street awareness than Florence could ever dream of.

I must stick to my rule of ensuring I’ve read the book before seeing the film. I’m afraid that it made this slightly twee but charming novel something rather more saccharine as a reading experience than it would have otherwise been – despite its having much darker elements than the film.