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Monday, 8 June 2020

Review - Penelope Lively: A House Unlocked

Penelope Lively: 
A House Unlocked (4*)

As a child, Penelope Lively often stayed at her grandparents’ country house, Golsoncott, between Dunster and Watchet in Somerset. Years later, when the house was sold, the contents brought back memories of the people who had lived there, and caused her to reflect upon how life had changed. It is twentieth century social history.

Bill Bryson used a similar idea in At Home (reviewed here) in which the layout of his nineteenth century Norfolk house triggered a collection of topics about the history of private life. It is interesting to contrast the two. Bryson is readable and entertaining; Lively is weightier and more demanding. Bryson writes about anything that takes his fancy, especially the eccentric or sensational; Lively is focussed and thorough. Bryson leaves me amused but wondering why I bothered; Lively leaves me with much to think about; Bryson is the livelier writer, Lively the deeper and more sentient.

At Golsoncott, plants in the garden lead to tales of Victorian shrub collectors who roamed Asia in search of new specimens. A picnic rug and a painting generate discussions of the differences between town and country, how they regard each other, and how these things have altered over time. A prayer book sparks off an account of churchgoing and its decline, contrasting Lively’s own ambivalence with her grandmother’s certainty.

In other chapters, Lively writes of wartime evacuees, a Russian friend who had fallen upon hard times, and an orphaned teenage boy who had escaped from Vienna just before the war, all of whom lived for a time at Golsoncott. She tells how they came to be there: “It is fascinating to contemplate with the wisdom of hindsight the trajectories of utterly disparate lives that will one day intersect” (p87).

The book becomes more personal as Lively compares her grandparents’ marriage with her own and contemplates how the roles of husbands and wives have changed. She, herself, grew independent of traditional expectations by taking a post as a research assistant at Oxford University. There, she heard talk of a bright new research fellow called Jack Lively whose name “sounded like a character in an eighteenth-century novel.” They were married within a year. As she says, they met “in the clear blue air of higher education, both … freed from the assumptions and expectations of [their] backgrounds.” It would have been nigh impossible for a girl from the southern gentry to meet and marry a young man from the northern working class in a previous age.

There was, however, an earlier independent-minded woman in the family, her aunt, the artist Rachel Reckitt, who had little time for convention. She was the last inhabitant of Golsoncott before its sale in 1995.  Lively’s grandfather was a grandson of the Hull industrialist Isaac Reckitt who made his money from the manufacture of starch: the firm later became known as Reckitt and Colman. Her grandfather, an architect, did not go into the firm, but one his sons became chairman.

The book visits Lively’s recurring themes and concerns throughout: memory, past and present, and personal history. Moments that once were the present are overlaid by re-interpretations. Sometimes, “it seems that the sunlight through the wisteria spattered the veranda tiles in exactly the same way in 1995 as … in 1945” (p83). She finds a rusting iron bedstead in a pigeon loft and sees the room where the fifteen-year-old Viennese boy slept, “thinking in another language, his head full of images far removed from west Somerset, hearing the same peaceable pigeon rumblings … heard still”.
“Now I am the commentator … I have double vision: fifty years ago is both now, and then. It is all still going on, quite clear and normal, the world as I know it, but those other eyes see a frozen moment … ahead lies everything that will happen … life and death, and beneath that the shifting sands of public events.” (p202).
She is right. For example, I could go back to Leeds and walk the route I used to take to work fifty years ago. I would see both what is there now and what used to be there, all still going on, clear and normal, but that would be another blog post. 

I picked up A House Unlocked from the books that came from my late mother-in-law, after reading Treasures of Time (reviewed here), and have now sent off for Moon Tiger.

STOP PRESS - 10th June 2020
Golsoncott is currently on the market. The estate agent's pdf has external and internal pictures. Oh to win the lottery! See https://media.onthemarket.com/properties/1969509/doc_0_0.pdf 



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 


24 comments:

  1. It sounds like something I'd enjoy reading, as it treats subjects that I find utterly fascinating.
    As for time travel by walking a route or visiting a place familiar from long ago, I keep doing that recently with my after-work-walks; the other day, I crossed my old school yard and knew exactly what it felt like being 12, or 17; going to school there every day and struggling with the onset of puberty and then the inevitable dawning of the truth, that one day soon, those days were going to be over forever.

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    1. I'm looking forward to reading her novel Moon Tiger which is concerned with the same themes, perhaps more intensely because it's fictional.

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  2. I too like the quotation you included about "double vision" -- it is evocative and resonates with me a great deal.

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  3. I moved right away from Lincolnshire and have now ended up in North Yorkshire. There is no reason to go back and my mobility does not allow it anyway. My one friend there and I speak regularly - she talks of people and places we knew - I presume they are the same - they certainly are in my head but I suspect if I were there I would hardly recognise either the people or the places.

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    1. I like visiting places I once knew using Google StreetView. Sometimes when you then think about them again you aren't sure whether you are remembering your last visit or the StreetView visit.

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  4. This book sounds fascinating. We recently sold our family home, and it was sad to see it sold, where so many memories were made.

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    1. Hi Terra. Thanks for visiting. Selling a family home must be very difficult - like dismantling a lifetime. I like the sound of the Clementine Churchill biography you write about on your latest blog post.

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  5. I think I would enjoy this book. I love the concept of the passage of time in the same location. Personal histories like this take me back to a long gone place in my history.

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    1. She covers a lot of things, some of which are only loosely related to the objects in the house or the people that lived there. I found some chapters more interesting than others. But at least she never tries to find the cheap entertainment like the Bryson book I compared it with.

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  6. I can't put a name to a book that I have read by her but I know that I compartmentalised her as somebody I didn't want to read again after the last one I read.

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    1. I can understand that. I wouldn't want to read too much of hers. She can be too literary and intellectual. I wouldn't have gone looking for it if it had not already been lying around. But as a memoirist I'm interested in her themes of past and present etc., and her Moon Tiger is now on my to read pile.

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  7. Lively is a wonderful writer, and if you haven't yet read Moon Tiger you are in for a treat. Bryson is an easy read, but not very nutritious.

    Lively you can return to over and over and find more. She respects the intelligence of her reader.

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    1. I agree with all that, although it can be nice to have a Bryson-type easy read sometimes.

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    1. I hope I have not recommended something you don't get on with.

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  9. Penelope Lively is a national treasure. All the comments hover over the mystery of time and place. And change. The past is never *over forever* as Librarian now thinks. When she is old she may feel the past returning, as if time, like space, is indeed curved. The past is not over, it is not even past. J.B. Priestley dealt with the mystery of time in his book *Midnight on the Desert* and in his autobiography *Rain on Godshill*. Science may reveal some surprises. The cover of this week's New Scientist says: Why the final truth about the cosmos has yet to be revealed. Daniel Dennett on YouTube says the final truth will be astonishing. May we all live to enjoy double - or multiple - vision!

    John Haggerty

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    1. I read several Priestley novels about 30 years ago and might search them out again, and when I have the mental energy I might give Daniel Dennett a look too. What sometimes annoys me about the idea of the past returning, or continuing in parallel, is when it is dismissed as tearful nostalgia. It isn't: it's a recognition of where one has come from, which is the basis of the stuff I write.

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    2. I agree. It is not mere nostalgia. There must be a word in German for one's past returning in the present. Not everyone feels it. Priestley's wife Jacquetta Hawkes wrote about Neolithic man as well as the Minoan civilization, but she said, *I don't feel my own past is close the way Jack does.* On the other hand the young need to learn that opportunities may never come again. Thomas Kempis said: *Remember always the end, and that time lost will not be returned to thee.*

      John Haggerty

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  10. What an excellent review, it makes me want to sit down straight away and read the book. I find Bill Bryson's writing annoying and am surprised by how popular it seems to be, so am pleased to read that you wondered why you bothered after completing one of his books!
    My father built our family home before I was born. It was sold when I was in my twenties and living elsewhere, but I sometimes dream about it and walk through the rooms and around the orchard together with my daughters, who have never been there.

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    1. Thank you. So many people say Bryson is their favourite writer and I expected criticism for what I've said. I enjoy them while reading, but stop thinking about them as soon as I've finished. You must live fairly near to Golsoncott - I've just looked it up and it's on the market. There are external and internal pictures. Now there's a house for a 'share my garden' blog. See https://media.onthemarket.com/properties/1969509/doc_0_0.pdf

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    2. I have only just read this comment, Tasker. I am always embarrassed to say I can't stand Bryson's style as everybody appears to have not a bad word to say about him. His book on a journey around Britain, can't be bothered to look up title, had me so angry I threw it on the fire.

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    3. I know what you mean. It's because he can't stop trying to be funny even when he isn't - like a whole book full of my "buy two get one free" comment about ear syringing on your blog.

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    4. Yes, exactly. It was made worse for me because he is an American and I kept thinking what right does he have to come over here and talk about us like this and think it is funny. A fellow Brit might have been able to get away with it.

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