Possessing Courage

Penelope Fitzgerald was one of the United Kingdom’s most highly regarded contemporary authors. She died in 2000 at the age of 83. The Bookshop, published in 1978, was her second novel.  

Set mainly in 1959, it follows Florence Green, a middle-aged widow with a small inheritance, who risks everything to open a bookshop in the quaint seaside town of Hardborough, Suffolk. The Bookshop is not a cozy tale of English village life, but rather a story of courage, one woman’s resolve to enlarge her neighbors’ lives and to challenge the attitudes and inequalities that keep people apart.

The pivotal moment in the book is a conversation between Florence and Mr. Brundish, a reclusive book loving widower and an enthusiastic supporter of the bookshop.  He invites Florence to Holt House on Sunday afternoon for tea. Conversation is awkward at first but then they relax. Mr. Brundish offers the following assessment:

‘Let me tell you what I admire in human beings. I value most the one virtue which they share with gods and animals, and which need not therefore be referred to as a virtue. I refer to courage. You, Mrs. Green, possess that quality in abundance.’

Mr. Brundish The Bookshop – Florence Penelope

His insightful words concerning Mrs. Green are affirming, fortifying her for what is to come. Courage is what defines Florence Green.

The English word ‘courage’ comes from the Latin term ‘cor,’ meaning ‘heart’ or ‘of the heart.’ Courage emanates from the heart. It is an inner confidence that is not frightened or easily intimidated.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines courage as the ‘mental and moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.’

Courage enabled Florence Green to navigate the challenges and uncertainties of life in Hardborough. Let us consider these examples.

The courage to grieve:

Florence met her husband at Muller’s Bookshop in Wigmore. They had been paired together to help with stocktaking. Charlie Green was the poetry buyer. They married. Charlie later found alternate employment with the Board of Trade. When he died, Florence chose to relocate. She moved to an isolated coastal town and for the first eight years dedicated herself to survival and not just from ‘the cold and clear East Anglian air.’

Grief often feels like survival, doing what you need to do. Florence sought solace in a quiet existence, free of expectations and enquiry. She was content with the simplicity of her life, finding meaning in the daily routines. 

Florence respected her grief and was willing to give it the time it required. She loved her husband, so it was not surprising she found adjusting to being alone challenging.

Adjusting is part of our grief work – changing our focus, revising our expectations, and making room for new experiences.

It takes great courage to sit with grief. It is unpredictable and unrehearsed. It is what it is.

The courage to dream:

Florence dreamt of opening a bookshop. It was a seed thought that needed nurturing. Dreams do not materialise before our eyes. They involve careful consideration, planning and hard work to bring them to fruition.

Florence noted that in 1959 Hardborough was without a fish and chip shop, a launderette and the cinema only opened alternate Saturday nights. More importantly, there was no bookshop.

Florence possessed the clarity and patience required to convince the bank manager to loan her the money to purchase the dilapidated and smelly Old House, despite it being a property that had been standing empty for a long time and was believed to be haunted.

Possessing courage is to persist on the path your dreams lead you to despite the difficulties and the personal discomfort.

Leader of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., was known for his ‘courage to dream.’ He says,

“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on despite it all. And so today I still have a dream.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

The courage to believe:

Courageous people believe in themselves. They know who they are and understand what they are capable of.

Florence valued kindness above everything.  She was a kind person so it came as a harsh awakening to realise that kindness would never be enough. It was said,

‘She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.’

She was also a passionate person of strong values. Florence believed in books and the power of the written word to expand people’s lives and to renew communities.

In a letter to her solicitor, Florence quotes the endpaper of her Everyman editions:

“‘A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life,’ and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.”

The courage to accept:

Florence found her support in the lonely, the unpretentious, people indifferent to social status. She was comfortable with the likes of Mr. Raven, the marshman, who asked for her raincoat while attending to an old horse who needed his teeth filed. Wally was another, who, as Florence observed, was often riding his bike. He seemed to have the role of ‘general messenger’ and was good at deliveries.

There was a lot of work needed to get the shop ready for opening. Florence was surprised when the Sea Scouts called by to help put up the shelving. She was accepting of their work even though they covered most of the books with a quarter-inch layer of sawdust.

Mr. Raven concluded that Florence would need help in the shop. He recruited Christine Gipping, a ten-year-old schoolgirl who, like her sisters, was ‘handy.’ Christine did not like books but took an interest in the greeting cards and bookmarks. She was good at organizing and managed the lending library. Florence welcomed her help even when she underpriced the Chinese silk book markers. 

Florence was appreciative of every act of kindness. She was mindful of the pleasure and satisfaction giving brings to the giver. Giving, in her mind, was an act of generosity, an expression of love. 

The courage to risk:

Courage is being bold and doing hard things. It is moving beyond our comfort zone. It has been said,

‘It is courage, not comfort, that brings change.’

When Florence conceived of the bookshop in Hardborough she understood the risk. The bank manager, Mr. Keble, was quick to point out some of the challenges a new venture might experience including ‘cashflow.’ He said,

‘If over any period the cash inflow cannot meet the cash outflow, it is safe to predict that money difficulties are not far away.’

In purchasing 250 copies of a controversial novel written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov Florence took a huge gamble. But it was a considered decision. She gave a copy to Mr. Brundish for his appraisal. He said,

‘It is a good book, and therefore you should try and sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They will not understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.’

The courage to fail:

Failure is part of the reality of life, and to dare to fail takes courage. If we can embrace failure, we are given a great platform for growth. Never be ashamed of failure. Failure is just trying something that did not work as expected.

This was Florence’s experience. The failure of her business enterprise was not due to a lack of commitment. She loved the bookshop. We can see her devotion in the following words.

‘Opening the shop gave her, every morning, the same feeling of promise and opportunity. The books stood as neatly ranged as Gipping’s vegetables, ready for all comers.’

The business was brought down by the underhanded and uncharitable activity of some who wanted it to fail. Florence was faced with the stark reality that ‘the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.

The courage to move on:

Florence was robbed of choice. There was only one path left for her to take and it was humbling.

When Florence departed Hardborough she was a single, middle-aged woman of significantly reduced means. She had lost her home, her business, her books, not to mention her friend Mr. Brundish, but she would never let go of her courage.

COVID-19 has asked a great deal of all of us. The challenges have been immense. For some it has been the economic uncertainty, while for others, the emotional turmoil. Like Florence, the attacks have felt personal and we have been forced to look within for the courage to survive.

‘Her courage, after all, was only a determination to survive.’

Cultivate a friendship with courage. With courage by your side, you can go on.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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