Trying and Losing in Fitzgerald's The Bookshop
Updated: Jul 7
Penelope Fitzgerald writes such quietly brutal books. Florence Green with her naivete and kindness says toward the end of The Bookshop, “Surely you have to succeed if you give everything you have.” Milo, one of the reprehensibly self-serving characters in the book, responds, “I can’t see why.” Certainly the book itself does not support Florence’s idealism. The kind, bright, forthright characters are defeated while the machine of self-serving commerce, civilization, society keeps rolling over their once-bright dreams.
And there’s not really anyone to blame. Mrs. Gamart who wields the antagonistic power in the book barely lifts a finger and yet sets in motion a chain of destructive events that cost Florence Green her bookshop. Fitzgerald denies us a villain, the person at whose feet we could lay blame and on whose head we could heap loathing.
And she denies us a comforting moral. Mrs. Gamart who “always acted in the way she felt to be right” is reminiscent of Fay and her family in Eudora Welty’s The Optimist's Daughter. Fay considers herself “just as she always saw herself—in the right. Justified.” This single-minded self-focus doesn't win the day in Welty’s book. The protagonist Laurel, who has “powers of passion and imagination,” understands the interdependence of lives, memory, art, love and beauty that Fay can never fathom. Laurel knows what Vita Sackville-West calls, in All Passion Spent, “a transcending reality.” While Laurel’s departure from her hometown is bittersweet, we’re content because she’s satisfied with the gift of such a rich awareness even if she’s left her childhood home and family name in Fay's possession.
But Fitzgerald doesn’t give us even that uneasy comfort. Florence—kind, courageous, beauty-loving and insignificant—is defeated and ashamed and leaves her home sitting “with her head bowed in shame because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”
In her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee points to Fitzgerald’s penchant for victims. "She is drawn to failures and lost causes, and her novels deal with people in a muddle, hopeless cases, outsiders; what she called 'exterminatees.'" It’s a bleaker view of the scattered and lonely artistic types in All Passion Spent.
In Fitzgerald’s first draft of The Bookshop, the first line is “Experiences aren’t given us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” Certainly, the book closes on Florence not having “got over” anything. We’re offered no comforting and naive conviction that things will work out better next time.
But we do admire Florence Green and while we might be denied the comforting fiction that good people who try hard will triumph, I, who prefer to find some kind of spiritual succor, reach for the spiritual comfort T.S. Eliot offers:
“perhaps neither gain nor loss./ For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”