Born on December 17th 1916, Penelope Fitzgerald would have been 100 years-old today and, to celebrate the centenary of a much-loved and respected author, I have taken the liberty of a rummage in the dovegrey basement to find a post for today and tomorrow to mark the occasion.
It is hard to imagine that the First World War was in progress and this is what was happening on this day one hundred years ago...
Western Front - German counter-attack near Verdun; they recover Les Chambrettes.
Eastern Front - Fighting continues in the Tarnopol region. Romanians and Russians continue to fall back.
Asiatic and Egyptian Theatres - Strong enemy cavalry attacks checked south of Falahiya (Kut).
Naval and Overseas Operations - Fighting at Kibata continues.
Eddie Knox, Penelope's father, was waiting to embark for France and Penelope's mother, Christina, had moved into the draughty and freezing cold Old Palace of the Bishop of Lincoln, the home of her parents for the birth of her second baby.
In December 1916 it was not an oasis of calm.
As Hermione Lee explains in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, Lincoln was awash with war-wounded and bereaved families who were also coping with air raids and rationing. The ministrations of a Bishop were much in demand and, having succumbed to the onslaught of influenza, Edward Hicks was confined to bed whilst his wife Agnes, along with a nursemaid, cared for her seriously ill husband and her heavily pregnant daughter. Penelope Mary Knox was apparently born 'without much fuss' on the afternoon of December 17th. The Bishop was still too unwell to conduct his granddaughter's christening a month later so the Dean of Lincoln officiated, the frost would last into March and worse was to come with the news that Edward and Agnes's son Edwin, Christina's brother, had died at Amiens. The family quickly turned the Old Palace over to the Red Cross for a hospital....
But let's assume there was much joy in the nursery at the safe arrival of a daughter, and here are my thoughts on my favourite of all Penelope Fitzgerald's novels, The Bookshop, and which were first posted on here five years ago (and it really only seems like yesterday that I wrote this)
The Bookshop ~ Penelope Fitzgerald
'You must ask yourself, when you envisage yourself opening a bookshop, what your objective really is.'
I'm losing count of the number of times I have read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, but I had read it again prior to my recent trip to London and the wander around Hampstead with Justine Picardie, which included paying homage at Penelope Fitzgerald's grave, and I've just read it yet again because I didn't write my thoughts down at the time, and each time it's as if I read a new book.
I think I might be in danger of repetition to the power of ten here about the moment in my reading life when, back in December 2003, The Bookshop was my introduction to the writing of an author who I think you all know by now I admire most above all others.
Self-effacing and modest Florence Green, acutely aware of her own failings, decides against all the odds to open a bookshop in the East Anglian market town of Hardborough. No push over and doggedly determined when she needs to be, Florence also knows when it is time to retire gracefully, eventually defeated by the community but never cowed by it. It is a plot I know so well, but if you've read The Bookshop you'll know that much more happens than this, and I am always amazed at how successive readings can also be completely different readings of the same book. Previously unnoticed nuances emerge, perhaps subtle and gentle (and to me Penelope Fitzgerald is always both of those) developments of character or plot that I may not have appreciated before. This time I was marvelling at the trickle of characters whose presence is firmly established by page twenty one as the world surrounding Florence Green is effortlessly populated.
It's seems to have been the week of the child on here and I've really enjoyed reflecting and writing about a child's point of view in recent reading and, in keeping with that, the character who I identified with most on this reading was by chance a ten and a half year old girl. Christine arrives brimming with that confidence that only ten and a half year olds can have as she offers her services to Florence in the shop, coming to work for her after school each day.
' Christine liked to do the locking up. At the age of ten and a half she knew, for perhaps the last time in her life, exactly how everything should be done. This would be her last year at Primary. The shadow of her eleven plus, at the end of the next summer was already felt.'
I wonder if you can remember being ten and a half?
Please forgive the self-indulgence because funnily enough I can, and with crystal clarity after Penelope Fitzgerald had described it so succinctly, and I would have given away my roller skates to work in a bookshop. It's that year when you are top dog at primary school but about to embark on the great leveler that is secondary school and have to start working your way up all over again.
I might have been the fastest runner in the school but I was about to become the slowest.
I might have been one of the best readers and spellers coming top in everything, but I was about to be suitably cut down to size, and apart from the occasional fluke I'm not sure I ever came top or excelled in much again except for one season as hockey captain and holding the school record for running 150 yards for about a week.
This being me I have the embarrassing photographic evidence which I think demonstrates that transition...
Me at ten and a half...
and then about a year later and in my first term at grammar school...
Apart from the fact I had sensibly ditched the alice band, something very subtle seems to have altered, about my face, my eyes and my smile. It's always hard to see it in yourself but the closer I looked the more I could sense the older me, more cautious, more reserved, perhaps more guarded, and nothing like as confident as I was when sporting that orange jumper my mum had made me. I'm definitely back down in the pecking order again.
Penelope Fitzgerald does fictional children so well. You only have to read her collected letters to sense how close and involved she was in the lives of her own children and grandchildren, and Christine is a perfect example of all that observational skill used to good effect yet with much economy of detail.
I browse Penelope Fitzgerald's letters almost constantly to discover her thoughts about everything, it's all in there not least her thoughts about her own books, and of The Bookshop she cites Balzac as the 'presiding genius of this little book'. I'm thinking back to my reading of Balzac's Eugenie Grandet, simple characters and plot yet complex and dynamic for all that simplicity, and dare I say how much better Penelope Fitzgerald is at those gaps and silences than the rather garrulous Monsieur Balzac.
The letters display the customary modesty that I associate with Penelope Fitzgerald, humble to the point of feeling unworthy of the attention but always with a wonderfully droll edge to the humour.
This in a letter to her editor at Macmillan, Richard Garnett,
'It worried me terribly when you told me I was only an amateur writer and I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose your amateur status?'
and this to Richard Ollard her editor at Collins, where Penelope Fitzgerald had moved with her subsequent Booker winning novel Offshore after feeling unwanted at Duckworth..
'The TLS was also very kind to The Bookshop and said it was a novella in the tradition of Henry James, not a selling point perhaps.'
Please do share any happy thoughts about The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald and any of her other books that you may have enjoyed because you never know, there might just be someone out there who hasn't read any of them and still has all those treats in store.
And does anyone know The Old Palace in Lincoln...