Since she left the juvenile field and began publishing novels for adults in the late 1970’s, Penelope Lively has gained a distinguished reputation for her penetrating character studies and thematic preoccupation, the relation between individuals and what is generally called history. In According to Mark (1984), she followed a biographer as he sought the truth about his subject and himself and was changed in the process. In Moon Tiger (1988), winner of the Booker Prize, Lively followed the mind of a dying woman as she re-created her own life against the background of her tumultuous world. In Passing On (1989), Lively’s focus is far more private, involving neither an imagined subject for biography nor a real World War II. Except for the minor theme of the destruction of nature by developers, the emphasis in the book is on personal history, the attempt of two middle-aged children to shake off the destructive influence of their mother, now dead.
The youngest of the three Glover offspring, Louise Glover Dyson, escaped early. In childhood, she had dared to bite her mother; at seventeen, she had run away from home. When she returns for the funeral, she is largely free of her mother’s influence and therefore both concerned and impatient because her older sister and brother still obey the dead Dorothy Glover as if she were present.
The son of the family, Edward Glover, had taken refuge in passivity. Spurned by his cold and spiteful mother, he found his only affection in his relationship with his sister, herself a child though three years older than Edward. Although he was later attracted to young men and boys, Edward realized that this possible outlet was interdicted by his Society and by the demands of his profession. After an unfortunate episode at the boys’ school where he was teaching, Edward realized that he must avoid male companionship and, obviously, male love. His passivity, then, is willed. In order to avoid temptation, Edward avoids looking at anyone; he teaches at a girls’ school, the only male on the faculty. Although he has always genuinely loved nature, there is an additional reason he so loves the Britches, the private, overgrown woods owned by the Glovers. There he need not fear any accidental encouriters that might prompt him to approach a boy, as he had done at a school where he taught, with disastrous results. Living with Dorothy Glover, Edward, though taunted and minimized, felt safer from his own impulses. When she is gone, he is afraid of what he may do with his freedom.
The protagonist, Helen Glover, is the most complex and sympathetic of the three siblings. Like Louise, she made an attempt to get away, but she returned. After her mother’s death, she feels compelled to search her soul for the reason. When she thinks about it, Helen admits that the need to be with her dependent younger brother was merely her excuse, not her real motive. She concludes that her difficulty must have been a kind of apathy, a lack of will or resolution. The fact that she lacks the ruthlessness shown by Dorothy and by Louise in her defiance of Dorothy, without being weak like Edward, makes Helen an interesting and appealing character.
Instead of devoting long passages to psychological analysis, Lively prefers to put her characters into situations in which their internal conflicts can be dramatized. These situations may seem trivial. For example, one of the most touching episodes in the novel is Helen Glover’s attempt to buy a becoming blue sweater. At fifty-two, she has long accepted her mother’s assessment of her. Her color is brown, she hears her mother saying. It takes courage for her to purchase the blue sweater; indeed, after Helen returns home, the mocking voice of her mother becomes overpowering, and Helen puts away the sweater, planning to give it for the next church “jumble” or rummage sale.
A memorable chapter in the novel illustrates Lively’s fascination with the themes of time and history, as well as her skill in...
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