Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop

The Bookshop is set in 1959-1960, and was published in 1978. A woman opens a bookshop in an East Anglian village, and things go about as swimmingly as they might if, say, Jude the Obscure opened a bookshop...

Some of the problems the heroine faces are realistic – the villagers are mostly uninterested in books not about royalty or World War Two, although Lolita also sells well. Other difficulties seem less plausible – a member of the local establishment goes so far as to have an Act of Parliament passed to get the shop shut down. Were the gentry still that overbearing by 1959? Maybe my question is naïve. Valentine Cunningham notes that the characters “have the ring of terrible local truth about them” -- I like the implication there that "local truth" is not quite the same as the metropolitan variety...

The bookshop also has a “rapper” -- a charming Suffolk term for a poltergeist. This mainly serves to provide foreshadowing and is not all that bad for trade. Here is a representative joke --

“The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though he perhaps alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.”

According to Fitzgerald's interview with Kerry Fried, there really was a poltergeist in a bookshop she once worked in. Fitzgerald notes that “poltergeists seem to be attracted by adolescent children, let's say between the ages of 11 and 13,” which would explain a lot. Although according to Julian Barnes, Fitzgerald frequently lied to interviewers.

The bookshop assistant, Christine Gipping, is ten when the story begins. This enables Fitzgerald, among her other targets, to take a well-aimed swipe at the “eleven plus” exams that used so drastically to determine British children's futures. Something that really comes across -- England used to be a place where one got patronized a lot.

2 thoughts on “Penelope Fitzgerald’s <em>The Bookshop</em>”

  1. Ok, I take it back… England still is a place where one gets patronized a lot.

    According to Chris Jensen Romer — http://jerome23.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/poltergeists — the term poltergeist is common in English but not in German. He also says "polter' meaning to make a noise was a nineteenth century Suffolk dialect term, probably adopted from the Dutch, and the first usage of "poltergeist" in English was Catherine Crowe's The Night Side of Nature, published in 1848.

    What is it with East Anglia and poltergeists anyway?

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