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Archive for June 20th, 2019


Emily Mortimer as Florence near the close of The Bookshop (Croixet, 2018)

She [had] blinded herself, 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 — Fitzgerald, Bookshop, Chapter 3, p 37)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m writing this in the spirit of my “39th footnote” to my review blog on the movie, Belle. This blog is a corrective, a qualifier of the one I wrote on the movie and book last summer. This time I take seriously poltergeist in Fitzgerald’s novella, align the novella with Austen’s use of a naif and satiric gothic in Northanger Abbey, and uncover a very different kind of novel than we (or Isabel Croixet) thought we had.

This summer I have been teaching a course based on Booker Prize books once again (see Autumn OLLI at AU, Spring OLLI at Mason). So for a second time I’ve read and discussed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop with a class of retired adults. This time differed from the last because I’ve started bringing in my laptop and myself showing specific chosen clips from DVD videos to discuss film art for real, and connect what we learn from our viewing to the book.

Not because of the film, but because I managed to get more into the book with the class, into its details, this time I brought out the problem of the poltergeist in the novel much more emphatically. I suggested the existence of this poltergeist is a problem, because otherwise, even if the novel is not wholly realistic, is fable-like, it’s mostly realistic. And yet we have several terrifying scenes of rapping, harassing and haunted sequences where Florence alone and then Florence with her helper, the 11 year old Christine are frightened, made acutely uncomfortable. Add to the way the house is described as old, damp, falling into desuetude (needing work on pipes, on the heat): instead of a potential art center (which Mrs Gamart says she wants to make the building into) what we have is a potential trap for destroying a vulnerable heroine’s spirit or life. The book bears a mild resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

And that is precisely what happens because by the end of the book, due to the machinations of the spiteful domineering Mrs Gamart, and the complicit help of a banker, solicitor, people in the education department, Mrs Gamart’s nephew who passes a bill that enables Mrs Gamart to evict Florence, and the neighborhood which stops patronizing Florence’s store, Florence loses everything. Her life savings, the house she lived in before, all her furniture, and in the book is last seen at a bus stop with her suitcase and two salvaged Everyman books (Ruskin’s Unto This Last and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding), waiting to board a train to take her far from where she had had a home with her husband and after his death, the eight years of her widowhood. Shades of Cathy Come Home.

Then what happened is a couple of the people in the class said, why not take the poltergeist seriously. Between the three of us, we came up with the idea that the poltergeist is a doppelganger and surrogate for Mrs Gamart. This ghost stands for how Florence is undermined from within when Milo North, the treacherous BBC person, becomes an instrument of Mrs Gamart’s and tempts Florence to buy 250 copies of Lolita:¬†an ambiguous book, both repulsive, pornographic, mean and yet much respected because thought to be “good” by Graham Greene and Mr Brundish, Florence’s one pro-active faithful friend, and a best-seller too. North offers himself up as an inexpensive employee when Christine is forbidden to work in the shop, but when Florence leaves, he turns the sign on the door to “closed” and allows the city inspectors to come in to find the house to be dangerous to live in. Jack Sullivan in his Elegant Nightmares argues that the ghost story is a popular version of Kafka where the universe itself turns malevolent and innocent victims who happen to be in the way of some harrowing vendetta end up destroyed or dead. Mrs Gamart is continually intrusive and insidious, a poltergeist herself.

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Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey, 2008)


Florence and Christine Gipping (The Bookshop, 2018)


Eleanor Tilney and Catherine reading Isabella’s letter (NA, 2008)

Another aspect of the book that came up in our discussions was its likeness to Northanger Abbey: like Catherine Morland, Florence is a good, kind person, generous, and more naive than is believable. Everything is so stacked against her. Everyone. It takes Florence a long time to realize that Mrs Gamart is closing a noose around her neck, and that she is fighting a battle she will lose. She is all heart and lives by love instead of distrust, false performative ways, manipulation. Northanger Abbey is an anti-gothic gothic novel: it critiques the gothic novel for exaggerations and promoting false (titillating fears) when real human nature is villainous enough. NA too has realistic sequences, and harrowing ones as Catherine begins to believe the general has hidden his wife away in some prison in the for 9 years. Mrs Gamart is just as much a vampire as Henry Tilney said his father was to his mother: she drained the life out of Florence’s shop and took the identity Florence wanted to build for herself.

The film by Isabel Croixet drops the poltergeist altogether and although she photographs the meadows, marshes, and the nearness of the seas, the basic tonal palette of the film is not grey, but often bright and blue, hopeful. She provides a narrator in the form of Christine now all grown up and looking back, concerned to explain, vindicate, show Florence’s courage and high selfless ideal to share her love of books with the people of the town. At the same time Florence has shown remarkable courage, a quiet desperate gentle heroism in holding out. And there are very happy moments, when for example, she sets up her shop and organizes her books, when she puts her sign out, and in the early days of interest and excitement; and in her relationship with Christine. At the close of the film unlike the book, Christine burns the shop down so Mrs Gamart cannot take it over, is seen waving Florence away, Florence still encouraging her to read, and now has herself opened up a very successful bookshop. In the book all we know is that Christine is “onto” North (“you’d better watch it”) and does not last in the bookshop that Mrs Gamart set up in another town as rival to Florence’s and that Christine’s mother sent her to.

But this time I did notice many more dark scenes, more distress, the indifference of the townspeople, their anger and alienation from Florence at the end precisely because they have given in & helped Mrs Gamart destroy her; and above all, the role of Bill Nighy, nervous recluse, who while his taste leaves something to be desires, goes out to fight like a knight, and loses the battle. Telling truths to Mrs Gamart does not deter her, and he has an heart attack from the effort.


The brilliant Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish trying & failing to get through


Sky afterwards


Leaves on the ground — it’s November


Far shot of body — we glimpse Florence’s kerchief in his pocket

It might not have taken that much to add genuine shadows of the gothic

The novel is very sad, melancholy, the darkest of all Fitzgerald’s books, and now I’m thinking that a gothic film more in the vein of Northanger Abbey might have been made out of it, and also one which would have more adequately captured the intuitive spiritual feeling of Fitzgerald’s book. See where I wrote a couple of years ago now on just Fitzgerald as a writer in the context of her life and other works, again especially The Bookshop, but together with Offshore, Hermione Lee’s biography and Fitzgerald’s study of the poet Charlotte Mew.

Ellen

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