Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Life of Lively

Again with Penelope Lively! I know, I am going through a definite Lively phase. I have just read, side by side, her two books based in her childhood, both not strictly memoir but more essays springing from her experiences. They reflect what I've come to think of as her major themes in fiction: memory, perception, the role of physical objects in one's recollections, history, women's lives.

Oleander, Jacaranda / Penelope Lively
New York: HarperPerennial, 1995, c1994.
133 p.

This is Lively's attempt to reconstruct a child's perception of the world. She had an unusual childhood, growing up in Egypt, unable to travel back to England until after WWII. Her parents suffered a nasty divorce when she was 12, and she was sent back to England to go to school, remaining with her father's family. She didn't return to Egypt for 40 years.

Near the beginning, she states:

I have tried to recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood -- in so far as any of us can do such a thing -- and use this as a vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive. I believe that the experience of childhood is irretrievable. All that remains, for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity. But it has seemed to me that it might be possible to take these pictures in the mind -- those moments of seeing -- and, by turning them into language, to look both at the way in which a child sees and at how this matches up with what it was that was seen.

And this book is a series of moments; memories recalled with clarity, and sense perceptions. Things smell, or have sounds, textures, bright colours, attached to them. Egypt is rather taken for granted, as it was just home, after all. Some of these moments come with philosophical enlightenment: the title derives from a car ride in which the young Penelope was watching the trees go by, naming them "jacaranda, oleander" and then suddenly realizing that in the near future, on the way home, she would be doing the opposite, "oleander, jacaranda". The concept of a person in time broke in upon her consciousness at this young age, and hasn't seemed to desert her since.

It is definitely a childhood from a different time. Even in England things were moving ahead during and after the war, but out in Egypt an Edwardian childhood seemed in order. Penelope rarely spent time with her parents, rather being cared for by Lucy, her nearly heroic nanny. The separation from Lucy upon her return to England seems to be the great trauma of the entire situation, but as usual Lively tells us the facts without attendent sentimentality. Another of the traumas she suffered in England was being sent to a girls' school; from a solitary child being schooled alone by her nanny/governess, she was thrown into a crowd of adolescent girls from which there was no escape. It was a very sporty school -- literature was not highly regarded, revealed especially in the fact that one punishment was to be sent to the library for an hour to read. Horrors!

This was not a memoir which attempts to reveal the private person, or assign blame for any character flaws. It is a look at memory, at the possibility of regaining the perspective of a child when looking back. It was a brief glance at an intriguing life, shaped by the interests and philosophy of a mature writer, and thus of great interest.

A House Unlocked / Penelope Lively
London: Viking, c2001.
221 p.

In this work, Lively moves forward to the years she spent in England, living at her grandmother's Somerset house in between school terms. Golsoncott looms large in her recollections, and she paints a picture of a dreamy, old fashioned English society where children were not the centre of attention. Her grandmother and Aunt Rachel (a spinster and well regarded artist) cared for her there, but Lively also introduces us to her two bachelor uncles with little use for women, who lived together and spent their time reading and writing rhyming verse.

The book is really a collection of essays, on various topics which arise from the study of objects in the house. Lively references Frances Yates' The Art of Memory, and turns the idea of building mnemonic rooms into using actual rooms as prompts for memory. The chapters begin with items such as a hand embroidered firescreen, which records the presence of six child evacuees in the house during WWII, and then moves on to talk about the differences between the health of rural children and those from poor London families. Or she looks at the garden and begins a discussion of design trends and the results of shaping landscapes in rural England. Or then, after examining her grandmother's prayer book, laments the loss of small village churches decommissioned due to lack of a congregation. It's a wide ranging and intriguing approach to the history of England through the 2oth century; personal and yet about everything.

The lack in this book is mainly in its dearth of photos -- there are none. Talk about physical artefacts would have been bolstered by a few images of said items. The most evocative item for me was the embroidered firescreen which by a great coincidence is shown in the Guardian's article revealing Penelope Lively's modern writing space. It's lovely.

Reading these two books together has given me a good overview of Lively's concerns and preoccupations in her writing life. It has also revealed the genesis of some fictional events in her novels, and was a great duo to read before I tackled her recent collection of stories, Making it up. Fiction based on alternative outcomes to real pivotal moments in her life, I've just finished that one and will be talking about it soon.


  1. Having recently finished my first Penelope Lively, I'm definitely interested in reading more. Even judging by The Ghost of Thomas Kempe alone I can see what you mean about memory and history.

  2. Nymeth - exactly, those topics come up in all her books in various ways. Maybe that is why I've been so fascinated by her the last few months; I am really intrigued by personal history and how it is remembered.


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