Monday, May 13, 2013

Penelope Fitzgerald

As part of my recent interest in reading British women writers, I've just finished a novel by a great one - Penelope Fitzgerald. (A new author discovery! There are few things in life more thrilling!) I've been focused on writers of the early to mid twentieth century and Fitzgerald's first book was published in the '70s. However, her style and subjects (at least in her first few books) seem to accord with those of earlier authors I admire, people like Barbara Pym, Winifred Holtby, Dorothy Whipple. These women wrote stories about English village life and the lingering dominance of class and gender biases in a culture bumpily transitioning away from traditionalism. Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop (1978) aligns with this description. Specifically, Fitzgerald shares with Pym a quiet but keen wit, a knack for observation, and a prose style whose straightforwardness belies its sophistication and basis in great intelligence.

Fitzgerald's The Bookshop is the first of four compact novels she fashioned directly from personal experience, the others being Offshore (which I just finished reading), Human Voices, and At Freddie's. Having explicitly, sufficiently mined her own past for material, she went on from there to write historical fiction. The Bookshop's spare story is set in 1959 and concerns Florence Green, a widower who resides in the East Anglian seaside town of Hardborough. It's a place of little industry or promise where change is attempted from time to time, and usually with thwarted outcomes. Upon deciding to “make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right," Florence takes steps to open a bookstore.

Even after living in Hardborough for a decade Florence is still a latecomer and encounters resistance to her plan. The Bookshop is an idiosyncratic, unsentimental depiction of small town life on the levels of both interpersonal relationships and bureaucratic policy. The grievances, tensions and common pleasures Florence attributes to Hardborough could be found anywhere. But her delineation of the specific ways these ingredients manifest in this particular town make it feel like a distinct place. Once Florence decides on a location - a house built in the fifteenth century that's been abandoned for decades - and involves herself with a banker and a lawyer, all of the local residents become aware of her intentions and have opinions about their merits. One example of the concision of Fitzgerald's language is her inclusion of supposed letters between Florence and her lawyer. They have the brevity of memos and taciturnity of law-speak but still ably convey a lot about the people who send them. Florence finds a rival in Mrs. Gamart, described as "the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough." She believes she should have been the one to introduce culture to the area via Florence's selected site. Mrs. Gamart calls on social connections and a recent Act of Parliament (underwritten by her nephew) to derail Florence.

The success of The Bookshop lies with Fitzgerald's language and characters. Certainty and confidence underlie both of these elements to the degree that every person feels full and actual and the word choices succinct and true. Florence herself is a compelling mix of steadfastness and naivete. When she expresses interest in having a shop assistant, ten-year-old Christine Gipping appears. She's one of several children belonging to the local, hardscrabble Gipping family, each of whom accept the exigencies of hard work as an inevitability. Christine is forthright, competent and shrewd such that Florence repeatedly forgets she's a little girl. The child designs the process for the store's lending library and then, in one of the book's more humourous passages, becomes flustered by her immaturity when the system strays from her vision into temporary chaos.

Also appealing is the reclusive Mr. Brundish, something of a local landmark in the town because his family's aligned with its history (his home, Holt House, is the only other building of similar age to Florence's bookstore). He has thorough knowledge and opinions about Hardborough's past and present even though he never leaves his house. Fitzgerald describes him thusly, "Shabby, hardly presentable, he was not the sort of figure who could ever lose dignity." He becomes Florence's only local ally, a surprising relationship given his aloofness.

Florence learns that a novel, Lolita, written by an author she's never heard of, has caused a sensation. She wonders if it might be lucrative to stock it in her shop. She doesn't read it herself but instead asks Mr. Brundish for his opinion, despite the fact that his apparent old-guard manner would make him seem ill-suited to appraise it. Besides, Hardborough residents, as portrayed by Fitzgerald, are unlikely to be open to Nabokov's moral provocation. What makes this incident so amusing is the fact of the interval between the late '50s setting of Fitzgerald's book and its publication in the '70s. By this time, readers know full well of Lolita's notoriety. That Nabokov's book should draw Mr. Brundish and Florence closer together is odd and also revealing of their individual natures. Mr. Brundish advocates in favour of the book saying that the townspeople "won't understand it, but that's all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy." Florence trusts Mr. Brundish's judgement to the point of making a dubious choice for her shop. Mr. Brundish shows himself to be an instigator with a taste for dissent.

In one of my favourite passages, Florence takes a walk along a headland overlooking the sea where a housing development was heedlessly attempted. "A whole estate had been built there five years ago without any calculation of the sea's erosion. Before anyone had come to live there the sandy cliff had given way and the houses had begun to totter and slide." For Sale signs linger and, in the case of one former villa left "right on the verge," half the foundation is gone with the living room exposed to the elements. Florence sits on an abandoned front step amidst the sea breeze and bird song. Her surroundings are like a ghost town, the edifices ground down perhaps as much by the widespread local tendency toward reaction and obstinacy as by natural processes. The enclave amounts to a kind of ruin in reverse resulting from the community's past being so entrenched that modernity can't get a foothold. Vision and change appear as remote as the distant horizon.

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