Friday, February 12, 2010

Road to Lichfield

New York: HarperPerennial, 1992, c1977.
216 p.

Another Lively to begin the year, and another novel about adultery. I seem to have had a streak of those this month. This was Lively's first novel, and it was shortlisted for a number of awards. Having begun with her most recent work and made my way back to the beginning, I didn't see this novel as being as powerful some I've already read. It deals with some of her preoccupations: history, identity, families, memory and so on.

Anne Stanway Linton's father lives in Lichfield. He has had a bad stroke and is in nursing care. She takes the road to Lichfield repeatedly this year in order to visit him and clear out his house, as it seems he will not likely be going home. This act of clearing up his papers reveals a new side of her father, one which she was not always aware of. She finds things out that perhaps she didn't really want to know, primarily the existence of a mistress in his past.

Anne also discovers a part of herself she wasn't familiar with. She meets a local schoolteacher, one who had been a good friend to her father although he is Anne's age. There is an immediate attraction, though Anne tries to rationalize it. Eventually they become lovers, on the weekends when she is in Lichfield. Their relationship is drawn with some passion at the beginning but as it progresses slowly, their real lives get in the way. Family vacations must be taken; secrets must be kept; and the everyday facts of shaving, eating, getting lost on a day trip, having to be home for their spouses and children, all begin to wear on the relationship.

Meanwhile, Anne is dealing with the trauma of an ill father, a philandering brother with medical issues of his own, and a cold and remote husband who does not like scenes or any passionate communion. She has just been let go from her job as a high school history teacher, as her style of teaching is no longer au courant with the new theories of education in the Seventies. She is being rounded up by the local activist who is attempting to save an old 16th century cottage from being bulldozed for a new development. All this allows for great moments of skewering the academic circles in which she moves as well as the minutiae of the Seventies (decor, clothing, etc.)

It is a deceptively quiet novel, as so many of Penelope Lively's books are. It is a smooth surface with so much going on beneath. Anne's loss of her job, due to the changing ideas of what history is and what it means, reflect also the questions about what purpose local history holds, in the form of the to-be-bulldozed cottage. The idea of personal history, that of the family and of a marriage, also comes under question. What should we hold onto and what should we let go? What exactly makes us who we are? These eternal themes of Lively's work are given their first airing in this novel, and it made for interesting reading in light of all the later novels of hers which I've read. The men come off rather poorly in this one, but Lively always seems most interested in women's interior lives as well as how they shape their communal identity, and that is really what I love most about her work. Another enjoyable read from my newest favourite author.


  1. I love the fact that I keep coming across Lively's that I haven't read yet. I don't even want to look at her catalog to see what she has written. I just want to run into them along my way.

  2. I've definitely decided to start reading all of Lively's books. So eventually I'll get to this one.

    Although I somewhat agree with Thomas (above) that it might be nice to just "find" her books rather than look for them.

  3. Thomas - I've looked at her catalogue closely, just to be sure I remember what to look for on my book shopping expeditions ;)

    maryb - I "found" her 1st book through a few mentions by others and then just got addicted to her. Now I get Lively cravings regularly.


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