A friend recently referred me to a rather poignant article about Penelope Fitzgerald by Julian Barnes, who describes how he accompanied her from York to London on “low forms of transport” after they appeared on a panel together. Regardless of her considerable credentials as an author, she was not an imposing figure: in Barnes’ words, “she comported herself as if she were a jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world.” It seems Fitzgerald was routinely underestimated and ignored during her writing life, but she attracted a discerning following. Personally, I love the kind of low-key modesty that is not actually humble but is more akin to hiding one’s light under a bushel — there to be found and experienced by kindred spirits.
So I read The Bookshop. First published in 1978, when Fitzgerald was over 60, it feels semi-autobiographical. Like Fitzgerald, Florence Green is a widow. She is overlooked and patronized by many people in the small town in which she lives. In fact,
… she had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and perhaps to others, that she existed in her own right.
She decides to open a bookshop. Mr. Keble, the bank manager, offers her some condescending advice:
” … I would like to put a point, Mrs. Green, which has in all probability not occurred to you, and yet which is so plain to those of us who are able to take the broader view. My point is this. If over any given period of time the cash inflow cannot meet the cash outflow, it is safe to predict that money difficulties are not far away.”
Florence had known this ever since her first payday, when, at the age of sixteen, she had become self-supporting. She prevented herself from making a sharp reply.
The Bookshop is a delight. One reads it with the sort of recognition created by a Jane Austen (and the sort of amused horror generated by characters like Mr. Collins or Mrs. Elton). Florence has more backbone than the town gives her credit for, but that may not be enough to fend off the casual cruelty of Violet Gamart and her cronies.
I moved on to At Freddie’s and Human Voices. These are of a similar style to The Bookshop: twentieth century vignettes, set at British institutions. At Freddie’s is set at a stage school for child actors. The adjectives nail the characters nicely (“Unwin, the embittered accountant;” “the terrifying Joybelle Morgan … whose very curls seemed to tinkle like brass filings”).
In Human Voices, which takes place at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) during the war years, Jeff Haggard, the Director of Program Planning, is reprimanded for pulling the plug on General Pinard’s broadcast. The rebuke is tempered by the fact that the General had advised the British public to surrender to the Germans, so it is in fact fortunate that the public did not hear the address.
“Leaving that aside, you acted without authority and, as a member of the administrative staff meddling with the equipment you’ve risked a strong protest from the unions. I don’t know what to say to you. Heads will roll. He was a privileged speaker. Do you intend to do this sort of thing often?”
“I hope we shan’t often be within measurable distance of invasion.”
“I don’t like that, Haggard.”
“I don’t mind withdrawing ‘measurable’.”
Since I came to Canada, decades ago, I haven’t experienced enough of this peculiarly British strain of understated humour. Her ability to skewer what is pompous, absurd, or immoral with no more than a discerning choice of one word over another is delicious.
Michael Dibdin, in the Independent on Sunday, wrote, “The prose is rapid, plain and unassuming, with a fondness for dry wit and familiar allocutions. There is little imagery and no recondite vocabulary. Obliquity, timing, and the virtues of omission and allusion are her secrets.”
Recognizing that omission is a virtue, I will leave it at that. Penelope Fitzgerald died in 2000, aged 83. She wrote three biographies, nine novels, and some shorter pieces. Her letters were published this month (So I Have Thought of You, HarperCollins Canada). I have a small feast of her books ahead of me and I plan to hoard them and treasure them one by one.