Kinds of Courage

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage. So I noticed when Bill Nighy, a character in the movie made from Penelope Fitzgerald’s book, “The Bookshop,” told the heroine, the young widow Florence: “You possess the trait I admire above all in a person – courage.”

Florence has a courage born of her essential goodness, her tolerant nature, her assumption that others are as kind and accepting, as she is. But the residents of the village where she sets up her new bookshop in an old house are not, and she faces petty-minded meanness meant to defeat her. The movie tries for a little redemption lacking in the book, but this is Penelope Fitzgerald, and the story captures a moment, a place, and particular people.

To me, this movie was perfect, but I am in a distinct minority. A friend thought it wasn’t good, another said the reviews were terrible. (I’d be so curious what you thought if anyone watched, it’s streaming on Amazon.) The cast is stellar – in addition to Nighy, Patricia Clarkson is the softest-spoken evildoer ever, nearly whispering her potent threats. And Emily Mortimer as Florence, wounded by the death of her beloved husband, brims with the courage and enthusiasm of a new venture. Courage calls to mind wonderful words – pluck, mettle, spunk, spirit – those are Florence.

So one can have courage in the face of emotional or physical pain or in the case of Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, as told in her memoir, “The Salt Path” – in the face of both. The Winns are an ordinary couple in their 50s with children in college, living in a house they’ve restored in Wales with rental cottages providing their income. And then, in nearly unimaginable circumstances, through a bad investment and a failed legal case, they find themselves losing the property. Hoping the marshal come to evict them will leave, they huddle in a closet under the stairs, and Raynor’s eyes fall on a book at the top of a box – Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path around Cornwall.

Their next blow comes just days later when Moth receives a terminal diagnosis of corticobasal degeneration. And so, why not, they embark to walk the coastal path (it makes a sort of desperate sense) – a 630-mile trail stretching over headlands rising above the Atlantic, dropping to sandy coves, and repeating – again and again and again. They walk through blistering heat and rain, “shards, thundering against waterproofs,” heavy pounding rain, a drumroll without conclusion,” rain – furious and horizontal,” “sheets of grey falling from cloud to sea, a visible cycle of water.” Campgrounds being out of financial reach, they sleep “rough,” surviving on noodles and rice, and the occasional kindness of strangers.

The book is a meditation on homelessness (they learn to not reveal that fact to people), and fine writing about their experiences and about the natural world – dolphins, sea birds, and seals, cliffs, hedgerows, and weather – in this most beautiful area (Poldark country). I loved this hard-to-put-down memoir of courageous survival and growth.

Hermione Lee’s “Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life”

Spring startles me this year. I’m agog at blooms and birds, and most of all the light – early and late – already the sun sinks into the sea far to the north.

Winter was long and dark – but full of books. For Christmas I hinted about the new Hermione Lee biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I loved her novels “Offshore” and “The Bookshop” years ago, but wanting to know more of her novels before the biography, I read “The Beginning of Spring” and “The Gate of Angels.”

Born into a distinguished family, but sidetracked from writerly ambitions by marriage and children, Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize at the age of 60 – a total surprise to the literary community. Lee calls Fitzgerald’s life partly “a story about lateness – patience and waiting, a late start and late style,” and finds her to be “not quite like anyone else.” Lee writes how the novels use Fitzgerald’s experiences, but hide Fitzgerald herself.

Sometimes Lee has a hard go. Fitzgerald “didn’t like full explanations,” but Lee has great investigative and analytical skills (on view earlier in her masterful biography of Virginia Woolf) and her sources are deep. Fitzgerald’s family cooperated with Lee, and it’s intriguing to read about notes and scraps of paper, clippings, and bits of fabric preserved and discovered in Fitzgerald’s working papers. Lee sometimes traces Fitzgerald’s notes and thoughts right into a book, a complication of thought becomes a memorable Fitzgerald sentence: “So sure an instinct has the human heart for its happiest time.”

Photos illustrate the book, but it’s also illuminated by Penelope Fitzgerald’s own artwork, little drawings and watercolors. That’s one of my favorite parts about Fitzgerald, the way she “took pleasure in every detail of her life, in arts and crafts.” “There is always a job to be done in her novels: running a bookshop or a school, keeping a barge afloat. She enjoyed painting or making things more than she enjoyed writing.”

Fitzgerald is fascinating and a little obscure, and likely to be unknown to even avid readers. In her preface Lee tells that while some people speak of Fitzgerald as their “greatest literary hero,” others, specially young readers, are likely to say, “Who?”

Lee says she wrote her book to answer that question, out of “love and admiration” for her work, and “curiosity about her life and a belief in her genius.” It’s a great read.robin