Likely Stories: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Nov 21, 2019

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I came across a nifty little film based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, The Bookshop.  This short novel was the first time I read a book about a bookstore.  This story is of a woman determined to open the first bookstore in a sleepy little English town.  Fitzgerald has had three novels shortlisted for the Booker prize.  In 1979, she captured the prize for Offshore.  This is my third reading of this splendid novel.




The story begins with Florence and her desire to open a bookshop.  Fitzgerald wrote, “In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely certain whether she had slept or not.  This was because of her worries as to whether to purchase a small property, the Old House, with its own warehouse on the foreshore, and open the only bookshop in Hardborough.  […]  Florence felt that if she hadn’t slept at all—and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind—she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron” (7). 

Fitzgerald continues, “She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.  For more than eight years of half a lifetime she had lived at Hardborough on the very small amount of money her late husband had left her and had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right (7). 

Florence approaches a bank for a loan.  It becomes apparent that the banker is reluctant to help.  He suggests she sell the house.  Penelope writes, “‘there is always the possibility of a re-sale.’ // ‘Naturally I want to reduce expenses to a minimum.’  The manager prepared to smile understandingly but spared himself the trouble when Florence added sharply ‘But I’ve no intention of re-selling.  It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age but having done it I don’t intend to retreat.  What do people think the Old House could be used for?  Why haven’t they done anything about it in the past seven years?  There were jackdaws nesting in it, half the tiles were off, it stank of rats.  Wouldn’t it be better as a place where people could stand and look at books?’ // ‘Are you talking about culture?’ the manager said, in a voice halfway between pity and respect. // ‘Culture is for amateurs.  I can’t run my shop at a loss.  Shakespeare was a professional!’” (10-11).  The bigwigs are against a bookshop in their village.

As pressure builds against the shop, a solicitor writes, “Dear Mrs. Green, // In reply to your letter […] I think we ought to abate the instruction, by which I mean stopping the general public from assembling in the narrowest part of the High Street, before any question of an indictment arises.”  Florence replies, “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.”  (87).  The lawyer replies, “‘…you would do well to make a formal apology to Mrs. Gamert” (88).  This is the source of all Florence’s troubles.  She replies, “Coward!” (88).

Penelope Fitzgerald is a marvelously talented writer.  The Book Shop is a story which shows nasty and short-sighted people, who can cause havoc for no good reason.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!