Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop

I’d heard such frequent and lavish praise for Penelope Fitzgerald – and her books were so, well, beautifully slim – that I’d been meaning to read her for ages. Now I think back on it, probably some of that praise was about other Penelopes (Lively, Mortimer) and I confused them in my mind. But for whatever reason, I finally picked up one of her novels, The Bookshop, spurred by the quote on the cover from Philip Hensher: “Of all the novelists in English of the last century, she has the most unarguable claim on greatness.” Ooh. And indeed wow. Greater than Greene then, than Nabokov, than Woolf, than Bellow … than Joyce? Let me at it!

The Bookshop

The Bookshop (1978) was Fitzgerald’s second novel; her first, The Golden Child, having been published a year earlier at the ripe age of 61. And not hurrying certainly gave her some source material from her life to write about: four of her first five novels were based on her own experiences, in a drama school, a houseboat community, and working at the BBC. The Bookshop, also inspired by Fitzgerald’s own life, is about a woman, Florence, who opens a bookshop in the fictional town of Hardborough, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Fitzgerald would win the following year with Offshore).

It’s a short, pleasing read, with a witty approach to the frustrations and hostilities inherent in trying to make changes in a parochial environment. Florence knows that “to leave a mark of any kind was exhilarating,” but is up against it on all sides. “She’s got a shop full of books for people to read,” says one villager to another. “What for?” comes the reply. When she does get the store open, she is forced to diversify into greetings cards (“‘They really ought to be divided into Romantic and Humorous,’ said Florence. These, indeed, were the only two attitudes to the stages of life’s journey envisaged by the manufacturers of the cards”) and a lending library, for those who wish to borrow rather than buy. She is forced to become not just a purveyor of literature but a businesswoman:

Now vans and estate cars began to appear in increased numbers over the brilliant horizon of the marshes, sometimes getting bogged down at the crossings and always if they tried to turn round on the foreshore, bringing the publishers’ salesmen. Even in summer, it was a hard journey. Those who made it were somewhat unwilling to part with their Fragrant Moments and engagement books, which were what Florence really wanted, unless she would also take the pile of novels which had the air, in their slightly worn jackets, of women on whom no one had ever made any demand.

No doubt this, and the other amusing dealings in the book, was a catharsis for Fitzgerald. The real test for the shop comes – the book is set in 1959 – when Florence decides to stock Lolita. This cause for concern could go either way (“‘I mustn’t let myself worry,’ she said. ‘While there’s life, there’s hope.’ ‘What a terrifying thought that is,’ muttered Mr Brundish”), and adds a frankly needed touch of structure and drama to the last third of the book’s 150 pages.

There is much in The Bookshop to like, and it put me in mind of a gentler Muriel Spark in its style and approach. But if there is century’s-best greatness here, it wasn’t shouting loudly enough for me to hear. I suspect that Fitzgerald has written better, meatier stuff, and if anyone can guide me in the right direction, I’d welcome it. I was, in the end, inspired to look out the extraordinary quote by Philip Hensher – he’s normally so hard to please – to see where he originally said it. It was a review in The Spectator of posthumously published stories, and it went like this (my emphasis):

It is really not inconceivable that there is a last novel, or that more short stories will surface. A tenth novel would have the value, in English literature, of an unknown work by Lawrence, Conrad or Waugh. That is not to overstate the case. Of all the novelists in English of the last quarter century, she has the most unarguable claim on greatness.

Still high praise, but not quite what the cover quote suggests. The ‘quarter’ must have accidentally fallen off when they were setting it. Ah well!


  1. I’m glad you liked it. It is a remarkable book, I think, but I would place it behind Human Voices, The Blue Flower and Offshore in her canon.

  2. You know I get all those Penelopes mixed up too. However I have read Bookshop, Blue Flower and I think Offshore. The odd part is I have very little memory of them. I guess i should read them again. There just was not a really dense image that stuck in my mind but that is a comment on the state of my mind rather than the quality of her prose. I do have the sense that I greatly enjoyed them whilst in the process of reading them.

  3. John – being a man of letters, as you are, you need to contribute to the debate about the best misery memoir title of the year, on me blog, innit! Hope you’re well!

  4. I’d recommend The Blue Flower, especially if you have memories of being irritated by Goethe in high school, as I was. It’s her longest novel, but my favorite. Thanks for the review, it’s very hard to find negative reviews of her and I wanted one for my book group.

  5. Goethe irritated the living daylights out of me at uni so The Blue Flower is where I will start. Although that cover on The Bookshop is seriously seductive ……

  6. How uncanny. I was looking at a copy of this earlier this morning, and wasn’t sure whether to risk it. I didn’t because it sounded a little too dusty and twee for me.

    I know what you mean about the Penelopes. It makes me realise that I not only judge books on cover, but also on title and author name. I am particularly wary of some womens names – the more old fashioned ones – but I was pleasantly surprised when I risked Helen Dunmore, and my two Doris Lessings didnt disappoint, so perhaps I should give Penny F. a go.

  7. Thanks for the ideas everyone. I think Offshore must be in the offing, as after all it won the Booker and if I recall from browsing, is even shorter than The Bookshop.

    I remained uninterfered-with by Goethe throughout my education, but The Blue Flower is I think the Fitzgerald which I’ve seen most widely praised. Will report back no doubt in due course.

  8. I ‘m afraid I’m one of those peple who are utterly devoted to Penny F. Just take your time reading all her books and I bet she’ll grow on you. I find there’s a lot in those books that keeps me thinking.

  9. The Bookshop was the first PF I read and there was just something about the immediacy of the writing that struck me, this is meant for me sort of thing, that had me quickly hunting down the rest. Gate of Angels, Human Voices, Offshore…oh the whole lot, don’t stint John. I can highly recommend House of Air which is collected writings and here you find PF the book reviewer par excellence, gently critical but never nasty and with a vast intellect that just tinkles away in the background but is never knowingly flaunted in your face.

  10. Thanks Rhys and dgr – everyone out there seems to love PF so I have no option really do I!

    Oh, House of Air, is that the one with the incredibly beautiful blue-and-white patterned cover? I have considered buying it so many times but haven’t because I thought I would never actually open it. Another one for the list then *sigh*…

  11. Thanks Jessica – being a fusspot about keeping my blog neat and tidy (Mrs Self hopes this habit will one day extend itself to the real world), I’ve incorporated your link into the text of your comment.

  12. You know I get all those Penelopes mixed up too.

    Looks like we’re not alone suki (and jem) – I was in Waterstone’s just now and they had two copies of The Blue Flower filed under Penelope Lively. I relieved them of one of them – my good deed for the day.

  13. I’m a big Fitzgerald partisan, too. Her books are as much about leaving out as about putting in, and thus they reward slow readings, re-readings, and attention to their silences.

    The one I find myself returning to most often is The Beginning of Spring. Set in Russia, it seems (to this non-Russian) to capture, without caricaturing or exoticising, so much of what is strange about that nation. And there are moments of both pure uncanny mysteriousness and of real beauty and perception.

    Offshore is wonderful, too, and Human Voices is deeply moving at points. I’m in the minority about The Blue Flower, though: I think it’s a failure–to me, the voice seems not to work for Fitzgerald and never quite convinces. But that could simply be because I don’t find German Romanticisim that congenial.

  14. Thanks very much for adding your thoughts, Levi. A first naysayer for The Blue Flower! Wish I hadn’t done my good deed yesterday after all (see above) – but then again, they didn’t have Offshore or Human Voices, the others which appeal to me most. To which I must now add The Beginning of Spring, of course.

    Slow reading and re-readings I seem to be getting progressively worse at, but I understand absolutely what you mean about a book where the absences speak as much as the presence, and the silence as much as the sound. Will keep trying.

  15. Of the three I’ve read (The Blue Flower, Human Voices and The Gate of Angels) I’d plump for The G. of A. The wretched young woman Novalis falls for in The Blue Flower is simply too irritating !

  16. Have just discovered your excellent blog and will use it for book recommendations. Am confused now about which Lively to plump for -I read The Beginning of Spring several years ago and thought it was delightful and totally compelling – one of the best books I’d read for a long time, full of surprises, great characterisation and wonderful detail about 19th century Moscow (?)
    So now – The Blue Flower or The Gate of Angels?

  17. Don’t ask me Judy – ask everyone else who’s commented! It does look as though I am just going to have to work my way through the rest of Fitzgerald’s backlist and decide for myself (what an idea!), since everyone seems to have a different favourite: but then that’s true of many authors with a bit of a reputation, isn’t it?

    Thanks for your kind words Judy, and hope to see you around here again soon.

  18. I go away for a week and find you’ve written a stack of posts I have to read for fear of missing out on something!!

    I laughed at the Lively/Fitzgerald mix-up as I was convinced I’d read a book by Fitzgerald only to go through my own blog to find it was a Lively I was thinking of (‘The Photograph’)! So, in short, I’ve not read any Fitzgerald before, but thanks to your review maybe I should rectify the situation.

    And although I know I shouldn’t judge books by their covers, I have to say this one looks very yummy indeed. A book about books and bookshops, and adorned with a pretty picture of books on a shelf — what’s not to like?

  19. Okay John, I have been staying off here in an attempt to stem the book buying for awhile and this just shows that I was wise. Now I want all her books. Woe is my credit card.

  20. What a great mix of contributions! I read a while ago ‘Offshore’, absolutely pretty, incredible characters (especially the tender alcoholic). It struck me, reading about her, that Fitzgerald was a religious person! I have bought The Blue Flower, she is just an amazing narrator!

  21. Heh, just give in Candy – you know it’s easier in the long run! (And welcome back 😉 )

    Nico, I am pretty sure Offshore will be next on my list to buy. Short, lovely design and won the Booker – OK, two of those might not be good reasons, but old habits die hard.

  22. I too have sometimes wondered what the fuss was over Penelope F. I remember being underwhelmed by The Bookshop and The Gate of Angels. But Penelope Lively is really really good. Try Moon Tiger.

  23. Thanks Becky – and I have tried Moon Tiger (well, it is a Penguin Modern Classic after all!) – I agree, it’s terrific. I enjoyed her memoir Oleander, Jacaranda less though, and haven’t really known where to go next with her. But let’s not confuse the Penelopes any longer on this thread!

  24. I’m coming a little late to this, John, but I’d agree with Hensher (with the ‘quarter’ retrieved) that she’s a substantial writer in terms of quality if not word count. I also read The Bookshop’ first, but, unlike you, was deeply moved by it. Of the others, I like ‘The Beginning of Spring’ and ‘The Gate of Angels’ best, particularly the first, which I find an extraordinary piece of writing, compelling, surprising, utterly convincing. She’s extraordinary on telling detail. Writing about Italy in ‘Innocence’, she knows where schoolchildren buy their exercise books from, among a host of other things. Someone mentions that she’s a spiritual writer, and that’s certainly there, but it never cloys as it does with say, Salley Vickers, a writer Fitzgerald admired and I don’t, much. Finally, ‘The Blue Flower’ is a tour de force but leaves me a little cold, but I mean to read it again.

    And I haven’t read any other Penelope at all, so I can’t comment. But I occasionally mix up my Barkers (Pat, Nicola, A.L…)

  25. Thought readers might enjoy this Booktrust review where the critic simply calls her Lively:

    The Blue Flower
    By Penelope Fitzgerald

    Published by HarperCollins
    Penelope Lively’s last published book before her death in 2000 is a spare, elegant and unusual novel set in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century.

    The story is based upon the life of the romantic poet and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote under the name Novalis, but Lively has written much more than a fictionalised biography of the man.

    …. and so on……

  26. This review reminds my of the folkloric Norwegian story of the poor fisherman writing a letter to the local vicar after the latter has paid him a visit. All through the letter the fisherman is indicating that the vicar must have taken (stolen) his knife, only to recover the knife in his own home at the end of the letter. But still he sends the letter to the vicar.

    Penelope Fitzgerald was never an author to put herself forward, so using most of a review to talk her down – and on wrongly quoted terms – is very strange. Fitzgerald was a remarkable writer, and The Bookshop stand as strong today as it did in 1978.

    1. Thank you, Gunnar. I don’t see that I’m using most of my review to talk Fitzgerald down, unless every response to every book is now judged on the terms of Amazon ratings, where anything less than five stars is considered a pasting. I liked The Bookshop, didn’t love it, but have since gone on to read The Beginning of Spring, Thr Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower, all of which I liked more.

      I’d also say that the misquote of Hensher on the cover of the edition I read is not incidental. We don’t read in a vacuum and for me the circumstances in which I read a book are usually relevant to my response, and often commented on here.

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