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.


10 thoughts on “Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

  1. Hi, Simon. I watched the movie without knowing about the book. I enjoyed the movie, for the most part, although the ending was heavily sentimentalized. But I was curious about the book when I saw in the ending credits that the movie was based on it. The amazon reviews were clear that the book had quite a different vibe (for lack of a better word) than the film. I’m curious about the book, but my unread stack is becoming overwhelming. What is your recommendation?

    P.S. Our local PBS TV station has been playing a lot of old Midsomer Murders shows over the last year. I enjoy them for their near-complete unreality 🙂 but the very first episode featured Emily Mortimer. We were surprised to see that she had had a nose job. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but it stood out for use because both of us (without mentioning it to the other) had always thought that she had a slightly odd nose. Turns out that was done on purpose!

    • Hi Paula: yes, it’s a shame about that sentimental ending to the film. Otherwise it stuck fairly closely to the novel in spirit, but the novel has more grit. It’s perhaps the weakest PF novel I’ve read so far, but fine for a wet weekend afternoon or, like me, when convalescing from illness. The others I linked to in the post are far stronger and meatier. It’s very short – just over 100 pp. in my hardback trilogy of novels, so wouldn’t take long to read. I’ve seen a few of those M Murders shows, years ago; not my favourite genre, but my wife liked them at the time. I enjoyed the implausibly violent goings-on in an otherwise sleepy rural backwater! Didn’t know about the E Mortimer nose job; it is very (almost annoyingly) perky.

      • Yes, that’s why we noticed her nose — its annoying perkiness!

        If Midsomer were a real county I’d know to avoid visiting it — the murder rate is insane. 🙂

        I haven’t read any Fitzgerald yet, but I do believe I have her in my massive stacks.

        • I suppose Midsomer is based loosely on counties like Somerset (Midsomer Norton is there) or Oxfordshire; those photogenic chocolate box areas beloved of crime fiction writers looking for something noticeably different from the hard-boiled urban noir of the usual run of crime fiction. A Christie did this, of course, long before, and others like her: the vicarage murder (was there such a thing, or do I imagine it?) and all that…

  2. I’m always an advocate of the book is better, and I’ve never found anything to change my mind over the years! I’ve not got on particularly well with my attempt at reding Fitzgerald but I dare say I’ll try again another day!

    • Films obviously have to elide, omit and adapt, usually to the detriment of the original. Have you read the others I mentioned in the post? They’re stronger than this one.

      • I tried The Beginning of Spring but it didn’t gel with me somehow. It may be I’ve read too much Russian lit and her vision of Russia just didn’t work for me! I should obviously try something else with an open mind…

        • I enjoyed TBOSpring, but can see why you might have found it not ‘Russian’ enough. I think I’ve enjoyed Offshore and Human Voices most; the two in this volume are rather slight. It’s a while since I read The Blue Flower; I recall finding it beautiful but rather heavy going. Her range of subjects, themes, settings and historical periods is immense. After excavating her own experience in the first novels she turned to historical fiction – a remarkable shift in approach. And she started novel writing relatively late in life…hope for us all.

    • Thanks for the link, Liz. Good to see we have similar views on this ‘slight’ but beautifully written novel. The horse’s tongue scene is weird – she’s good at that sort of unexpected stuff

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