A Sketch of Coarsening Modern Times


When Florence Green decides to throw off eight years of passive widowhood and open a bookstore in her village in England’s fen country, the local marsh keeper salutes her courage. Why courage? Florence asks. Wouldn’t people want to buy books?

“They’ve lost the wish for anything of a rarity,” the keeper replies. “There’s many more kippers sold, for example, than bloaters that are half-smoked and have a more delicate flavour.”

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Bookshop,” published here for the first time, is a sketch of coarsening modern times and the defeat of humane discrimination by the treacherous undercurrents in a bucolic and amiable community. Florence, an innocent, is defeated, though innocence isn’t, quite.


Even in this early work, ostensibly slight, slightly rickety but curiously affecting, Fitzgerald displays the combination of depth and buoyancy that marks such later masterpieces as “The Beginning of Spring” and most recently, “The Blue Flower.” Her funerals are real and so is the champagne that gets produced at them. The dead are comic and also dead.

Her sensibility is religious, but her God is not impeccable. There are no purely abstract ideas or emotions; not even sadness, which leads concretely to tears, which lead to a handkerchief--an intrinsically silly object subject to laundry and other indignities.

The marsh keeper’s words worry Florence, but worry is not allowed to obscure what is at hand. Literally at hand is a wriggling horse’s tongue. Florence is clutching it while the keeper files the old animal’s teeth so it can chew the marsh grass.

The local banker, making a loan for the bookstore, tells her that he reads a few pages each night before falling asleep. It is a chilly pleasantry but Florence treats it as data to be pondered. “She reflected that at this rate a good book would last the manager for more than a year. The average price of a book was 12 shillings sixpence. She sighed.”

Foreboding is present right up to the end when, after a year or two, Florence is obliged to close the bookstore and retreat to London. Foreboding does not weigh us down though; her story defies pity. It does make us sad or rather, like the dying Mrs. Gradgrind’s pain in “Hard Times,” there is sadness somewhere about, though neither Florence nor we are entirely sure we have it.

The main lines seem familiar enough: An idealistic agent of change offers herself to a small town and receives a tentative welcome. The apparent opening is no more than a flinch, causing the social coils momentarily to relax before contracting to crush.

It is more complex than that, though. The villagers are fickle, but the force that expels Florence is not old custom but new ambition. Hardborough, the Suffolk village where she opens her store, is in the social grasp of Mrs. Gamart, representative of a postwar moneyed and political class.

She and her bumbling husband work at being gentry despite a lack of roots. They have been in Hardborough only a dozen years but their money and connections--a nephew in Parliament, a protege who holds a vague job in the BBC and a property-developer peer of recent vintage--give them their grip. Wanting cachet as well, Mrs. Gamart had thought of starting an arts center to rival the nearby Aldeburgh Festival.

When Florence unwittingly buys the 16th century house that was to be the center, the Gamarts begin the long squeeze. Florence’s teetering business plummets after a bookstore starts up in the next town (courtesy of the property peer). Her premises are seized under a new old-buildings law (courtesy of the parliamentary nephew). There will be no compensation (courtesy, too complicated to explain, of the BBC protege).

All this is somewhat piled on. Still influenced by Evelyn Waugh, the early Fitzgerald--also a Catholic--lets no good deed go unpunished and employs seriocomic martyrdom to suggest old virtues crushed by new times. Mrs. Gamart and her allies are too evil; fortunately they never dominate Florence’s story but only undermine it. As for Florence, she is by no means too good; it’s just that she has an ideal and thinks extremely hard about how to put it into effect.

Fitzgerald later acquired a better class of sinner; even here, though, her saints are wonderfully appealing.