The one place to go on a wet day: Penelope Fitzgerald sells books in Suffolk

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Our Author of the Month for March is novelist, essayist and LRB contributor Penelope Fitzgerald, “one of the most distinctive and elegant voices in contemporary British fiction” (The Guardian). In this extract from her 2013 biography of Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee relates Fitzgerald’s real-life experiences of Suffolk bookselling, which eventually found their way into ‘The Bookshop’.

Penelope kept the Ford Consul, which she drove around Suffolk without a licence, on one occasion into a lamp-post. Presumably Desmond [Penelope's husband] was not much in demand in Chambers after his long deviation from the law with World Review, and she had no work, apart from ‘Jassy’ [a serial for the children’s comic-strip magazine ‘Swift’]. The BBC commissions had dried up. Desmond was drinking, alone in London. On their visits home, Rawle [Fitzgerald‘s brother] and [his wife] Helen (who had their own problems) had the impression at this time that Desmond felt ‘Mops had abandoned him’. They began to have rows, every weekend, terrible rows in the kitchen about money, with the children listening. They ran up huge bills in the Southwold grocers, and had to avoid the shops which would no longer give them credit. They would buy things for the house on approval, like a refrigerator, and then send it back and get another one. The children overheard their mother, more than once, on the phone to the bank, asking how much money was in the account. They spent quite a bit of their time, at weekends, sitting outside various pubs waiting for Desmond to come out.

Phyllis Neame offered Penelope some part-time work in the Sole Bay Bookshop. This was a godsend, but it was not a financial solution. Selling books in 1950s rural Suffolk was not easy – even more so if your shop was haunted by a poltergeist. In interviews, she would look back on it with feeling:

[I worked] in a bookshop in a very lonely town we were living in on the east coast in Suffolk, sort of watery and marshy, with Constable skies. A very definite place. The shop was haunted as well, which I didn’t realise when I went there. I wrote about the shop and about the poltergeist, which was only part of the struggle the bookshop had against the opposition in the town to it being there at all. Not on any rational grounds, but the feeling that reading the kind of book that we sold was sort of putting on airs . . . We didn’t sell How to Improve your Sex Life Through Vegetable Cookery because the shop was frightfully respectable, and when Lolita came along there was a row about whether to carry it. But we did.

She would remember ‘the poor old Sole Bay bookshop’ fondly, as more of a community refuge than a thriving commercial concern. Forty years on, it seemed to her part of a lost history of England, rather like the public libraries:

It seems like another world . . . Mrs Neame . . . would have been horrified at the idea of on-line bookselling, and so would the customers, who thought of the shop as the one place to go on a wet day (and the weather can be very bad in Southwold). They would hang about for hours and go away without buying anything – except perhaps one greeting card – but we never complained, that would have been against the tradition of book-shop keeping.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life’ by Hermione Lee is published by Vintage (£12.99).

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