• Sunday, June 25th, 2023

Penelope Fitzgerald was born in Lincoln, England, in 1916 to a distinguished family of intellectuals and scholar forebears. She grew up in Hampstead and, at the age of eight, was educated at a boarding school at Wycombe Abbey in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, followed by Somerville College, Oxford.

After graduating in 1939, she worked at the Ministry of Food and at the British Broadcasting Corporation. In 1941 she married Desmond Fitzgerald, who proved to be an irresponsible, alcoholic husband and father. The couple had three children. The matrimony was irrefutably a failure leading to poverty and hardship. Penelope Fitzgerald’s husband died in 1976, and she died in London in 2000. Her daughter Maria said that her mother worked until the week she died.

Having three children did not stop Fitzgerald from working. She worked in 1960 as an English teacher at a performing arts school, then at Westminster Tutors. Before starting her writing career at the late age of fifty-eight, she had been teaching for twenty-six years before becoming the manager of a bookshop in Southwold, Suffolk. She wrote biographies, novels, short stories, essays and reviews. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 and the Golden Pen Award in 1999, among others.

Although not as well-known as other writers as she deserves, Penelope Fitzgerald is considered among the most significant British writers since 1945. The Bookshop, Fitzgerald’s second novel, published in 1978, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was adapted into a film in 2017. It is based on the author’s own experience working in a bookshop while living in an abandoned Suffolk warehouse.

The story is set in 1959 and has, as a main character, the lonely, courageous middle-aged widow, Florence Green, who does not endear herself to the villagers and does not care to. With her modest inheritance, she has her heart set on opening the first bookshop in the small, parochial, East Anglian seaside fictional town of Hardborough.

Nothing seems to dampen her enthusiasm despite living in a primitive conservative community based on set orders. By opening her bookshop, Florence wanted to change the life of the villagers, to challenge the mentality of some of them, who say: “she has a shop full of books for people to read. But what for?” Unintimidated, Florence believes in her motto: “where there is life there is hope”.

However, Florence is unaware that her endeavours and hard work to fulfill her dream by transforming the long dilapidated, damp property called Old House she purchased for her bookshop is doomed. The reason is that it collides with the ambitions of a retired general’s wife, Violet Gamart, an influential, embittered, wealthy, prominent figure in town, who has entirely different plans for Florence’s Old House and who is, in general, an undefeated Machiavellian schemer.

Violet Gamart wants to transform the house into “a kind of” arts centre, and nothing will stop her plans and certainly not Florence Green’s bookshop. Gamart resorts to various schemes. She calls an education officer to investigate the employment of Florence’s diligent and only helper, the under-aged school girl, Christine Gipping. She also seeks the help of her successful nephew, a member of parliament, to pull a few strings to issue a parliamentary bill for legislation permitting the public purchase of “any buildings wholly or partly erected before 1549 and not used for residential purposes.”

Florence, hesitant about selling a recommended new book published in 1955, titled Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, asks old Mr Edmund Brundish, a member of one of Hardborough’s long-established families, for advice on stocking the novel for her bookshop. He encourages her to go ahead and sell Lolita, which he considers to be a good book. Florence buys two hundred and fifty copies. The controversial novel is a big hit, attracting queues in front of the bookshop and crowding the street, allowing Violet Gamart to call the police and constituting one more incident against Florence.

Acquiescing to defeat, Florence Green realises to her own detriment that she fits nowhere in this community, even after spending ten years among its residents. She has no choice but to submit to reality and yield to a power stronger than herself, regardless of her courage and determination. She has no support apart from the help of the esteemed Mr Brundish, who lives isolated from the world but seems to be “au fait” with all the occurrences in his community.

He decides to stand up for Florence Green against Mrs Gamart’s insidious plotting, aware that she is powerful and malevolent against whoever stands in her way. Mr Brundish goes to Mrs Gamart and cries out loudly to her to leave his friend Florence Green alone, storms out of the room and dies on his way back home.

Unfortunately, Mr Brundish’s untimely death leaves the forlorn Florence defenseless, without relations, connections or money. Crushed and disheartened, she quits and “as her train drew out of the station, she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.” And not surprisingly, they had never had one before hers.

Despite the drama owing to the main character’s hardship, her fight for what she stands for, and the unhappy ending, the author resists falling into pathos. Nonetheless, the reader cannot help feeling deep sympathy towards the protagonist’s shuttered dream. Fitzgerald’s skillful touch, and her distinguished prose, enhance the straightforward story’s fluidity.

However, the abrupt ending is disappointing, as well as the choice of the author to focus only on the moral standards and customs of a narrow-minded, insulated English village and by singling out a controversial book, Lolita, more than immersing her readers in the beautifully fascinating world of books on library shelves.

Nevertheless, this concise novel, which could have benefited from more descriptive detail, is bleak, lively, sardonic and not without humour. It describes the unadorned facts of everyday human life with its paltriness, obstacles, failures and struggles against the power of corruption that defeats hard work and honest intentions. Unfortunately, the story’s subject and what it refers to is timeless and still holds true today.

In her statement in 1998, Penelope Fitzgerald said: “I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

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Category: Book Reviews
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