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A Reader's Guide

The Bookshop

A beautiful book, a perfect little gem.” —BBC “Kaleidoscope

Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel, her first to be short-listed for England’s prestigious Booker Prize, is set in the small East Anglian town of Hardborough in 1959. In this “island between sea and river,” Florence Green, a middle-aged widow with “a kind heart” —decides to open a bookshop in a long-unused, five-hundred-year-old property, the Old House.

Florence does not anticipate the ruthless opposition of Violet Gamart, who dreams of her own Hardborough Centre for Music and the Arts in the Old House and will not countenance any contenders for cultural first lady. As the battle heats up, Florence must contend not only with Violet Gamart and her cohorts, but with a poltergeist and forces of nature as well. Florence’s own allies are few and oddly matched: the eleven-year-old Christine Gipping; Mr. Raven, the wise marshman; and the reclusive local squire, Mr. Brundish.

Fitzgerald casts a cool, sympathetic eye on this small-town battleground, on its often comically animated residents, and on one courageous woman’s quest for principled self-fulfillment. The Bookshop is, in every way, “a marvelously piercing fiction.” (Times Literary Supplement)

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and, for every reader, provide a deeper understanding of The Bookshop.

1. What forces and motivations lead Florence Green to establish her bookshop in such an unpromising location as Hardborough? What forces and motivations are ranged against her? Could she have anticipated, effectively battled, and overcome those forces?

2. The image of the heron and the eel on the novel’s first page reappears later in the novel. How does this image relate to Fitzgerald’s statement about Florence Green: “She blinded her-self, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating”? Are other images related to the theme of “exterminators and exterminatees”?

3. Referring to Violet Gamart, Mr. Brundish distinguishes between force and power. Is the implication that force cannot dislodge Florence, but power can? What constitutes Violet Gamart’s power and what forces does she bring to bear on Florence? In what ways does Florence try to resist Mrs. Gamart’s power?

4. Why do Mr. Raven and Mr. Brundish admire and support Florence, however ineffectually? What is the significance of these two remaining representatives of the old ways being unable to protect Florence and themselves against the machinations of the new society?

5. Does Christine Gipping embody the values, attitudes, and expectations of Hardborough’s society? Is it merely that, “Like all the Hardborough children, she had learned to endure”? Whatare the defining features and consequences of her relationship with Florence?

6. Of Milo North, Fitzgerald writes: “Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.” What weak places in Florence and others does Milo find to exploit, and what advantage does he gain? How may we explain Florence’s misjudgment of Milo?

7. Florence is repeatedly described as “kind” and “courageous.” Is kindness her greatest asset or liability? In what ways does her kindheartedness complement or undermine her courage?

8. Is Vladimir Nabokov’s once controversial Lolita important in this novel beyond its role as a plot element? How does Florence go about deciding whether to stock the book? What does her approach reveal concerning her strengths and weaknesses, as a lover of books and as a businesswoman?

9. Does the final image of Florence on the train to London, “with her head bowed in shame,” ring true? Does she feel shame for herself, for Hardborough, or both?

About the Author

Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel, The Golden Child, in 1977, when she was sixty years old, and since then she has published eight additional novels to increasing praise and prizes. Three of those—The Bookshop (1978), The Beginning of Spring (1988), and The Gate of Angels (1990)—were short-listed for the Booker Prize. She was awarded the Booker Prize for Offshore (1979). She has also written three biographies. Penelope Fitzgerald, who died on April 18th, 2000, is still regarded as "one of [England's] finest and most entertaining novelists...."(The Observer)

Prior to her career as a novelist, Fitzgerald led a varied professional life. In addition to raising three children, she worked as journalist, in the Ministry of Food, at the BBC, and as a teacher. These experiences, as well as her travels, provided a wonderfully rich harvest of settings and characters from which she later crafted her remarkable fictions.

Among her abiding themes are the courage and determination of innocence in the face of sometimes monstrous adversity, the rewards of courageous eccentricity or creative effort, survival in terms of one's own sense of self, and the sometimes tiny sources of both grand achievement and terrible loss.

In addition to having perfected a style graced by wit, keen perception, and mastery of language, Fitzgerald has written a series of "dry, shrewd, sympathetic, and sharply economical books [that] are almost disreputably enjoyable." (New York Times Book Review)

Fitzgerald on Fitzgerald

On brevity:

“I do leave a lot out and trust the reader really to be able to understand it. [My books are] about twice the length. . . when they’re first finished, but I cut all of it out. It’s just an insult to [readers] to explain everything.”

On choosing a subject:

“You’ve decided you’re interested in a subject or a period and then you go and read about it. . . And then you look at pictures about it and listen to the right music and. . . it begins to reconstitute itself.”

On her books as tragic comedies:

“[My books] are too sad really to be comedies, but not important enough to be tragedies. And I’ve got. . . a great feeling for people who are defeated by life. . . They’re very decent sorts, usually, but it’s really all rather too much for all of them.”

On children:

“Introducing children into a novel is helpful because they introduce a different scale of moral judgment. It’s probably one that they’ve learned from adults, but adults themselves don’t stick to it.”

Writers & Company”—Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio

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