This short 1978 novel, set in 1959-60, about a widow who opens a bookshop in the fictional East Anglian seaside town of Hardborough where she has lived for the past eight years, and the obstructions she encounters from the local population, was greatly admired by most in our group. Mark said he had suggested the book because when he read it some years ago he was stunned by the economy and elegance of the prose (for which Fitzgerald is so known) - an admiration shared by everyone else in the group - although, he said, he wasn't sure what it was about.
He was probably going to go on to elaborate on this, but I jumped in and said, surely it's about small-town politics and the kind of fascistic pressure that can be brought to bear in such small communities on those who don't conform to the wishes of those with power. Frances Green wants to buy The Old House, a house on the foreshore with its own (damp) warehouse, a former oyster house, for her bookshop. However, Mrs Gamart, wife of a retired general, has plans for the place as an Arts Centre - a bid to situate herself at the cultural centre of Hardborough (and in the process inveigle herself with the remaining representative of the old gentry, Mr Brundish, by whom she has so far been ignored). Mrs Gamart gets straight to work on Frances by inviting her to a soiree. However, Frances, unaware at the start of such motives and machinations, and certainly unaware of where they must inevitably lead, is undeterred and goes ahead with her bookshop, only to encounter obstructions so underhand that they can hardly be named, with even her own solicitor party to the social pressure against her, so that in the end she is undone. Ann said that the book is thus about the impossibility for an outsider of negotiating the unspoken rules of such a community (although Frances has been there eight years, she is in effect a blow-in). John commented that the plot indeed amounts to a witch hunt conducted on the most genteel terms.
Mark, Trevor, Clare and Jenny raved unreservedly about the book, in particular its depiction of the subtlety of the viciousness deployed against Frances. The stunning opening image, symbolic of the tussle between that viciousness and Frances's oblivion and determination was remarked on:
She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.Later, the narrative will comment about Frances: 'She 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.'
We all thought that the descriptions of the environs were evocative, and beautifully symbolic of the forces surrounding Frances and the sadness of her fate:
The North Sea emitted a brutal salt smell, at once clean and rotten. The tide was running out fast, pausing at the submerged rocks and spreading into yellowish foam, as though deliberating what to throw up next or leave behind, how many wrecks of ships and men, how many plastic bottles.
There was some dispute about Frances's character. Clare saw her chiefly as ingenuous, and someone pointed in corroboration to the early description of her: 'She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view and totally so from the back.' However, that early description is only - and no doubt narratorially deliberately only - of her outward appearance. Others of us countered that she was feisty, in the early pages hanging on to a horse's tongue while its teeth are filed and later responding to her solicitor who is failing to back her with a single-word letter: 'Coward!' In fact ingenuousness and feistiness are not mutually exclusive; it is indeed that combination in Frances that is central to the plot. It is interesting, though, that we had this dispute, and it is is perhaps relevant to subsequent points we discussed.
I said that although I found the prose elegant and the observations of people acute, I did actually find the narration emotionally flat, with which Doug, Ann and John agreed. Doug said he suspected it was imbued with the psyche of the author, whose life was indeed hard, the events of this novel echoing an episode of her own. Clare said that on the contrary she saw the tone of the prose as a reflection of the state of mind of protagonist Frances. However, as had been pointed out, Frances's psyche is fundamentally feisty, and I said that even if it weren't, then there's no need for the prose itself to be affectively flat, since the novel is a third-person omniscient narration.
We four felt that the flatness of the prose didn't do justice to the viciousness of the situation being depicted, but the others countered that it was precisely this contrast that made the viciousness so telling, and this was a strong disagreement in the group.
I said too that I felt that the characters were stereotypes, and once again Doug, Ann and John agreed, John strongly so. I was conceding to the rest that in such small towns in the fifties and sixties there were stereotypes - the retired general, his social-climbing wife, the ageing representative of old money, the louche commuting BBC employee, the more salt-of-the earth working-class characters, all of which appear here - when John made a point that perhaps explained some of our disagreements.
There is no interiority in the piece, he pointed out. Everyone, including Frances, is seen very much from the outside. At most we are told what Frances's emotions are. The book, as Ann said, is in the narrative tradition of writers such as Trollope, Edith Wharton and Barbara Pym, operating chiefly as social commentary rather than psychological exploration, and taking a rational objective view of all of the characters including the main protagonist. We are not made, as we are in the more modern literary mode of interiority, to share the protagonist's emotional experience, but have to take on trust the narrative judgement of her. The reader's way of apprehending her is thus in turn directed to be rational rather than experiential - which perhaps led to our differing reasoning about Frances. With regard to the other characters: although I had conceded that people do in life act in stereotype roles, it is also true that no one in life is truly a stereotype: there is always a complicating interiority. This novel eschews that interiority, leaving its more peripheral characters perilously grounded in the shallows of stereotype.
An aspect of the book that almost everyone felt unsure about was the poltergeist that inhabits the Old House, the 'rapper' as it is locally called. The locals take it for granted, which Frances herself does, and for a while after she moves in it seems to settle down as a low-key presence, but then later becomes more obstructive, refusing to let her open her own door then letting go and sending her flying, and making wild and vicious noises. Because this is such a realist novel, some of us in the group had wondered as we read if the rapper were really the locals trying to hound Frances from the house, but as everyone agreed, no evidence whatever emerged to suggest this. It seemed that we were meant to accept its presence as a fact and symbolic only of the social pressures on Frances, initially subtle but finally overt.
Everyone agreed that the ending of the novel is stunning. Here the objective observational narrative mode works to brilliant effect, formally enacting the exclusion of Frances as we watch her leave with an emotion she has been made unjustly to feel:
As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame...
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here