I planned to write about The Midnight Library by Matthew Haig. But all I want to say will fit in a paragraph. The book is a bestseller – and any book with library in the title is going to catch my eye. But then I found that the library only contained books about the protagonist, an endless series of mirrors displaying different facets of one person. Surely that should only, at the most, be one section of a library? As to the novel’s message, I was reminded of E Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. At the start of one chapter, the children command the carpet to take them somewhere where they can do good deeds. The carpet wobbles, then the children find themselves still at home. I think I remember that one of them exclaims, “Like the worst kind of Sunday School story.” (Nesbit lets the children refine their wish, and they have another adventure). Matthew Haig’s book does NOT resemble the worst kind of Sunday school story, and I enjoyed reading it, but I’m unlikely to read it again.
I looked for a novel that celebrated the diversity that I’d hope to find in a library, or a bookshop. And I remembered Penelope Fitzgerald. There was a time, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, when I felt that too many of the books I wanted to read were written by Penelopes, and that if I wanted to be read I should have to change my name. Penelope Lively, (Moon Tiger, Family Album – and her books for children), Penelope Mortimer (short stories about families) and Penelope Fitzgerald who wrote The Bookshop.
Penelope Fitzgerald was a Writer. Her book The Little Flower has one of the best openings I have ever read in a novel. Parachutes of dirty laundry are floating down from every window in a large country house, shirts, nightwear, sheets – all float down to the grass to be collected for the annual spring wash.
I’m going to describe the plot of The Bookshop – but it’s not a book you read to find out what happens. You (I probably should say I) read and re-read it for Penelope’s Fitzgerald’s writing – for the pictures she paints of bleak weather, dilapidated buildings; for the characters, described with such acuity; for telling conversations; to laugh at catastrophes and to look at some aspects of life in the grey 1950s, especially (definitely if ‘you’ means ‘me’), to consider whether ordering multiple copies of Lolita would a courageous act or a foolish doomed action in support of a fatally-flawed book.
The Bookshop is a tragedy. From the beginning the reader fears this story cannot end well (but how desperately that reader hopes to be surprised). The cards, not just the cards, but the books she tries to sell, even the bricks her shop is built with, seem stacked against Florence, who decides to open a bookshop in a fictional Norfolk town. Florence starts by affronting the local arbiter of taste, who consequently feels her position threatened. In subsequent chapters we discover that the premises are unsuitable for a bookshop, the description of damp and mould, its sight and smell, is enriched by Penelope Fitzgerald’s experience of living in a damp houseboat, which eventually sank into the Thames. Florence gives responsibility to a most competent child, but allows her to deal with the public without considering a child’s rigid morality, her inability to recognise political expediency and her determination that no-one may break a rule, (for example jump a queue). Florence is incompetent when it comes to elementary book keeping, and is evangelistic rather than commercial when it comes to choices in purchasing and marketing. Florence’s most influential chief supporter cannot be stalwart, he is an ailing recluse
But even so the bookshop might have survived – survived long enough perhaps to swallow all Florence’s income, savings and borrowings – but its end was premature, because of spite and malignity, because of laziness, complacency and a politician’s preference for expedience over principal. Florence leaves the town ashamed, ashamed of a town that thought it didn’t need a bookshop.
If I’m talking about books with messages in this post, then the message I read in The Bookshop is that for a book shop to fail it is only necessary for local readers to do nothing.
And now I’ve written this, I’m going out to buy a book. From Steyning Bookshop where I’m usually tempted to spend more than I planned, but always come out with more than I bargained for.