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Friday, 27 March 2020

Review - Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time

Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time
Penelope Lively: 
Treasures of Time (4*)

Sometimes, it can be difficult writing these occasional book reviews, but it helps in reflecting upon what I have just read and what I understand of it. This elaborate tale was harder than most.

Treasures of Time is about the truth of our perceptions and memories. Do we live the lives we think we live? Are things as they seem? Penelope Lively deftly handles multiple points of view and multiple time frames to show how different people can experience and remember the same places and events differently – edifying stuff for a memoir writer.

Laura Paxton is approached by a BBC documentary film maker planning to make a programme about her late husband, the acclaimed archaeologist Hugh Paxton. She still lives in their idyllic Wiltshire cottage close to the site of the excavation that made her husband famous, and remains stunningly beautiful. But she is no intellectual. She is one of those classic comic creations, like a Jane Austen character, who seeks social and cultural approval and belittles those beneath her standards. She accepts the BBC’s approach with alacrity, unaware of the misgivings of her historian daughter, Kate, and her invalid sister, Nellie.

I’ve come across too many people like Laura. They want to take over and organise your social life and cannot understand why you might not want to comply. They disapprove of your sense of humour and take offence when your opinions differ from theirs. When the television crew arrives, she engages them in genteel sherry parties with her society friends, although they would much prefer a pint at the local pub and being left to get on with their work. “Ma has always found people’s tendency to work a nuisance,” her daughter Kate explains. “It stops them doing other things she might be wanting them to do.”

I identify with Kate’s boyfriend, Tom, who is just about to complete a Ph.D. thesis on William Stukeley, the eighteenth century investigator of Stonehenge. Tom has climbed to Oxford from an ordinary upbringing and observes things most clearly. He wonders how Laura has “so extraordinary a knack of instantly putting everyone else at a disadvantage … You could go far, with a talent like that.” And, as one does when you find yourself unexpectedly in the company of those of more advantageous background, Tom says and does the wrong things, such as outspokenly criticising one of Laura’s friends for selling off a historically significant family heirloom. I’ve been similarly tactless, it has given me sleepless nights, but what I like about Tom is that he is not troubled by imposter syndrome or self-doubt.

So, we have archaeology, academic research, history, social mobility, the impact of the past upon the present and an almost farcical mesh of contradictory perceptions. Laura, Kate and Nellie look at a scene and see or remember it differently. From these differences we learn that Laura’s marriage was far from perfect. She had no interest in archaeology. It was her sister Nellie who was Hugh Paxton’s soul mate. She worked with him all his life, accompanied him on digs and co-authored academic papers. Kate has vague flashbacks of their intimacy, and of her mother’s indiscretions too. Hugh Paxton had been bedazzled by Laura’s beauty, and married the wrong sister.

The novel, originally published in 1979, is now in the Penguin Decades series, considered landmarks of their time. At under 200 pages it is relatively short. Written more recently it might be three times as long with extensive period detail and sumptuous descriptions of archaeological artefacts. It keeps to what it is, essentially a miniaturist tale in which nothing much happens, or as the blurb says, “an acutely observed story of marriage and manipulation.”


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

35 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. If you like literary novels such as A.S.Byatt's Possession I think you could become be a big fan.

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  2. This does sound like a good book and perhaps a bit sad too. I can especially relate to your second paragraph. It is true that our perceptions and memories are not necessarily the same as others who shared that part of our lives. Some people remember what they want to remember rather than the actual occurances. Laura Paxton sounds like such a person.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this book and I enjoyed your review.

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    1. As Rachel says below, memory and how the past affects the present are recurring Penelope Lively themes.

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  3. You made me want to read the book, I loved the review it was almost as if you were part of the family.

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    1. Not sure I'd want to be part of this family. I try to fit these reviews of what I read into the general idea of this being a memoir blog.

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  4. Human memory, the difference between self-perception and what others perceive about us - endlessly fascinating subjects!
    Ask any police officer about the reliability of memory, and they will just sigh and roll their eyes.
    The book sounds good but, like Bonnie says, a bit sad. Thank you for the review.

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    1. There is also the psychology stuff such as Elizabeth Loftus and false memory syndrome. The book seems like a domestic drama at first, but then draws you in. It's very clever.

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  5. I like stories and films which combine archeology and ancient monuments - particularly the early, Stukeley type - with personal stories and relationships. 'A Month in the Country' is a good one for that.

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    1. I saw the film of 'A Month In The Country' when first released and liked it.

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  6. More than an ordinary book review, perhaps you should rename it to "reflections about you and a book you once read". A regular theme of hers, looking back and memories. I am not a great fan. Thanks for reviving a memory of a book I never finished of hers, The Photograph.

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    1. I tend to review books I probably should have read a long time ago but am only catching up with now. I try to relate them to the idea of this being a memoir blog. It's the first of hers I've read, and enjoyed it, so might look at more.

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  7. Türkçe olursa okuyabilirim. Teşekkürler:)

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    1. Sorry, I don't know whether there is a Turkish translation.

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  8. I saw Penelope Lively some years ago at Keswick literary festival. She was a fascinating speaker.

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    1. I've just spotted her memoir in a pile of my late mother-in-law's books. I'm tempted.

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  9. I've liked some others she's written and this sounds good, too. Must search...

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    1. This is the first of hers I've read but it has interested me in others.

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  10. Oh that sounds good. Is it 'intellectual'? Or light enough to read last thing at night?

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    1. Not difficult to read but lots going on underneath the surface.

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  11. I love England. Penelope Lively celebrates the English landscape as much as the photographs of Fay Godwin or the essays of William Golding. It has been years since I read Treasures of Time. Now I must hunt down my old copy.

    Penelope Lively belongs to a cluster of Penelopes ... Penelope Mortimer, Penelope Gilliat, Penelope Fitzgerald.

    Remarkable, the number of brilliant women who lit up the sky in postwar letters. Rosamond Lehmann, Nancy Mitford, Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Taylor, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Catherine Cookson, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Edna O'Brien, Julia O'Faolain, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Caroline Moorehead, A.L. Barker, Fay Weldon, Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Thomas Ellis, Ann Quin, Margaret Drabble, Rachel Billington, Margaret Forster, Victoria Glendinning, Livi Michael, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Julia Blackburn, Angela Huth, Caroline Slaughter etc.

    And all the Penelopes ...

    John Haggerty

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  12. I forgot one of my favourite writers, Gillian Tindall, novelist and social historian, with roots deep in England and France.

    Gillian Tindall is fascinated by the genius loci. She published a long essay on that very theme - Countries of the Mind: The Meanings of Places to Writers.

    Her non-fiction books are deeply imbued by a sense of place.

    England ... Three Houses, Many Lives; The Fields Beneath; The House by the Thames.

    France ... Celestine, Voices From France; The Journey of Martin Nadaud; Footprints in Paris.

    Being fearful of long flights, I like to keep my travels within limits. England, France, western Europe.

    John Haggerty

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  13. Shame on me that I left out Susan Hill who moved from spare enigmatic novels to haunting thrillers. I liked her book on the Cotswolds where my sister lives.

    And Jennifer Johnston: I must have read The Old Jest, The Christmas Tree, and The Captains and the Kings three or four times each.

    And the inimitable Barbara Pym who could not get her work published in the 1960s which shows you how stupid fashion can be. One of her best, Jane and Prudence, has been reissued by Virago.

    John Haggerty

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  14. And Barbara Comyns, author of Mr. Fox. The Juniper Tree, We Left Our Spoons at Woolworth, and The Skin Chairs. Wonderfully eccentric, beady eyed novelist.

    J Haggerty

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  15. And lastly, Pamela Hansford Johnson, author of The Good Husband, The Good Listener, and A Bonfire.

    And Ursula Holden, author of The Cloud Catchers, String Horses, and Tin Toys.

    Good fiction together with photographs, old newspapers, film documentaries, and home movies are all we have of the past.

    YouTube films of London in the Fifties and Sixties take me back. And I have watched amazed at film footage of Halifax from the Edwardian period!

    Good fiction is like time travel. I can't understand why readers dismiss certain writers as *dated*. I for one feel the need to escape the present. It isn't *nostalgia* it is social history.

    J Haggerty

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  16. YouTube: January 1902 - Street Scene in Downtown Halifax, England.

    J Haggerty

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    1. John, you are much better read than me. I'm reading some of these books for the first time. I probably should have read more in the past but I used my time in other ways instead. I'm currently reading Margaret Drabble (The Millstone) and have read Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn (reviewed somewhere on here), and hope to be able to continue catching up on books from earlier decades. You've just pointed me at a whole load of other stuff I need to consider.

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    2. Goodness, that film is wonderful.

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  17. I am glad you are impressed by the 1902 archive film, Tasker. It is like walking into Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger, isn't it? Except it's the West Riding and not Arnold's Five Towns. How hard life was for working people in those days. But those characters in the film are legendary!

    Margaret Drabble grew up in Sheffield and there is, or was, a BBC TV profile on her, available online. It's as good as the BBC film on John Braine, The Magic is Here and Now. Room at the Top is a great novel.

    Ms Drabble wrote a biography of Arnold Bennett and is married to Michael Holroyd who wrote a magnificent three-volume biography of Bernard Shaw.

    John Haggerty

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    1. John, I am enjoying Margaret Drabble's unusually toned first-person Millstone. But, yes, Holroyd. His biography of Strachey is one of the most personally formative things I've ever read. I posted an enthusiastic piece about it several years ago. If I may plug my own stuff it's at https://www.taskerdunham.com/2016/06/lytton-strachey.html

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  18. BBC Archive. One Pair of Eyes. Margaret Drabble.

    J Haggerty

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  19. Holroyd's well-crafted Strachey, like his Augustus John, was compelling. I shall consult your own post today, Tasker.

    There's a shrewd take on Strachey in the biography of G.M. Trevelyan by David Cannadine *(1992):

    *Trevelyan had in fact been appalled by the supercilious and dismissive tone of Eminent Victorians. He hated its zestful iconoclasm and self-conscious irreverence ... Trevelyn believed in great men and women, and he was enraged that Lytton cut them down to size in such a sneering and dishonest manner.*

    John Haggerty

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    1. Strachey could be cutting with those he didn't like, and even with those he did like.

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  20. Yes, the cutting iconoclast.

    In the preface to Eminent Victorians he insisted that the biographer has to have a clear and definite point of view.

    He holds to his view of Cardinal Manning as the man who blocked Newman's advancement, true enough, but does he really understand Manning's doubts about Newman? (Manning never doubted Newman's moral character.)

    Strachey created a master narrative that influenced Newman's subsequent biographers such as Muriel Trevor in her two-volume opus. I wonder if the Strachey technique would have worked on someone as complex as Robert Browning? Browning won't fit into anyone's meta-narrative.

    DJ Taylor has a 1994 review (online) in The Independent on Holroyd's revised Strachey biography: A Jolly Way of Honouring the Dead.

    A book I never got around to reading is Gertrude Himmelfarb's (1995) The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values.

    I will order it as soon as the bookshops reopen, but now I must look up your own contribution, Tasker. Thanks.

    John Haggerty

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  21. Meriol Trevor not Muriel.

    J Haggerty

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