The Bookshop

Book by Penelope Fitzgerald, published 1978 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize

Film directed by Isabel Coixet, starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson, Australian general release May 2018.

[this review contains spoilers]

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel tells the story of a middle-aged widow, Florence Green, and her mission to open a bookshop in a derelict and damp house that she acquires in the fictional East Anglian town of Hardborough. Yet this is not a book about books. This is a book about injustice.

There is local opposition to Florence’s plans, especially from the rich woman on the hill, Mrs Gamart, who fancies herself as a self-appointed patroness. Mrs Gamart wields a tyrannical influence and is determined that the old house should become an arts centre. This sets up the central conflict. Florence, an uneducated “retailer” who at times displays a sense of herself as lowly, has an appreciation of art for its own sake that matches her upright and generous character. She contends in a letter to her solicitor that a book is a necessary commodity. Mrs Gamart, meanwhile, is a poisonous individual who uses art to bolster her own status and influence- she wants Hardborough to have an arts centre so that it may compete with nearby towns for tourists. While the local hermit Mr Brundish points out to Florence the laughability of the notion that art can have a centre, Mrs Gamart sees herself occupying this position, as the arbiter of taste and a champion of commerce. Her vision places her at the helm of an engineered battle for the town’s survival.

As the struggle for the bookshop’s viability heats up, Florence asks, “Surely you can succeed when you give everything you have?” The irony is that, while Florence does give everything, she walks away with nothing. Mrs Gamart, through her politician nephew, oversees the passage of legislation that results in the compulsory acquisition of the Old House without the payment of compensation to Florence.

While the town thrives on gossip and some of its disappointed inhabitants could well enjoy the prospect of seeing someone else’s happiness ruined, the class stratifications of Hardborough also underlie the complicity of the characters in the bookshop’s demise. John Gipping, the father of eleven year old Christine Gipping who works after school in the bookshop, is a plasterer who is frequently out of work. It is he who is given the job of assessing the shop for water damage in the acquisition process. Bureaucracy interferes to stop Christine from working in the shop, and her prospects in life are constrained by the failure of the education system to bring out her talents. The primacy of dashed hopes and the inescapability of a dismal fate are signalled even in the names Mrs Gipping chooses for her children; two of Christine’s siblings are called Margaret and Peter, after the real-life Princess and her fiancé, but as Christine points out that “all came to nothing.” Just as Princess Margaret’s love was thwarted by an ascendant institution, so too are the Hardborough residents constrained by their stations in life.

The challenge of adapting a film into a book is to capture its essence in an art form which relies on completely different conventions. While there is merit in the argument that a film should be judged on its own terms, inevitably an adaptation will be compared to its written counterpart. If the book is well-loved, a filmmaker runs the risk of alienating the audience by not being “faithful.” The portrayal of the characters may disrupt readers’ preconceived ideas, resulting in viewers’ antipathy towards the whole production. In the case of The Bookshop, the challenge is to portray dynamics which mostly occur below the surface. Like the character of Milo North, whose “fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage,” the forces in the novel operate through stealth, only becoming conspicuous through their tragic consequences.

Isabel Coixet’s film succeeds in translating these forces into film, capturing brilliantly the claustrophobic and small-minded nature of Hardborough, and the injustice that is perpetuated against Florence, who is played with both radiance and understatement by Emily Mortimer. The quirks of the characters and of the town are brought out from the start with the right measure of comedy. The constant rumours that Florence is subject to are amusing to start with, yet hint at her downfall. The atmosphere transforms into palpable injustice and tragedy towards the film’s conclusion. (When Milo North closes the bookshop for an afternoon in Florence’s absence after volunteering to help her out, a woman in my row murmured “the bastard”).

While much of the dialogue is reproduced verbatim, some minor aspects of the plot are emphasised for dramatic effect. In the novel it is mentioned that Florence met her husband in a bookshop, and that he died of pneumonia on a battlefield. In the film, Florence adds that her husband read to her aloud every night, and thus the bookshop is shown to be a way for Florence to fill the hole left by her husband’s death, and heightens the tragedy of its closure. Furthermore, in the novel, Florence meets Mr Brundish only once, but in the film they see each other more frequently and form an unfulfilled romantic attachment. Mr Brundish’s death is one of the most devastating moments of the film.  Earlier, Florence loses a bright headscarf at the beach. When Mr Brundish’s death is revealed, the camera pans slowly along his splayed out body starting from the head, moving towards his hip pocket from which spills the headscarf, its bright colours dashed against the cold grey of the ground.

In this battle between good and evil, the book reads like a fairytale- but of the original, dark variety where good does not triumph. The presence of supernatural forces suggest something rotten exerting a malign presence. Florence’s vulnerability to forces beyond her control are illustrated through the rapper- a poltergeist believed to inhabit the Old House. It disappears after the bookshop is forced to close, as though it is somehow aligned with the brutal complicity of the townsfolk and the systematic exploitation of Florence’s trusting and generous character. Dark secrets are also hinted at through allusions to incest. Wally, a boy scout who assists Florence by running messages, mentions a production of Hansel and Gretel to her, in particular the scene where the boy and the girl “lie down in the leaves and get fresh together.” Florence tells him that he has missed the point, that Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister. That doesn’t make it any different, Wally tells her solemnly.

Coixet also makes judicious use of stylistic elements which capture the fairytale element of the story. The use of narration at the beginning and end evinces a fabular quality. There are visual cues including streetscapes of grey-stone buildings, shots of rambling dead trees sprawled in front of Mr Brundish’s castle-like property, which is sequestered behind decorative wrought iron gates. Shots of the estuary’s smooth waters intersperse scenes containing dialogue and action, hinting continually that all is not what it seems. There is also something of the witch about Mrs Gamart, who lives in a stately home on a hill, and whose brightly coloured frocks, reminiscent of Disney costuming, are the epitome of a showy, pretentious character who has no taste.

The characters do not get their just desserts. Florence’s very humanity is called into question by those in power. When the bureaucrats who notify her of the Old House’s acquisition say it is not fit for human habitation, Florence protests that she lives in it and she is still human. Potential allegiances are nipped in the bud, while those who could wield influence choose not to act. Milo North, a man of letters who works for the BBC, could wield positive influence in the situation but assists Mrs Gamart merely because he is asked to, and acquiescing is easier than saying no.

The film is visually arresting and quirky, eliciting characters that the audience feels strongly about while executing a devastating portrayal of the book’s central premise, that people in life are “divided into exterminators and exterminated, with the former at any moment predominating.” Hopefully the film will spark a renewed interest in the work of Penelope Fitzgerald whose writing is beautiful, simultaneously comic and dark, spare and profound.

Further reading

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee