Passing On

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 revealing character through action. Because Louise’s husband, Tim Dyson, has suggested that they consult someone about investments, Helen and Edward go up to London for the first time in twenty years. There they discover that their remembered world with moderate price tags and familiar, friendly restaurants has vanished. They feel like Rip van Winkles. Lost and alone in a foreign city, they cling to each other like children, and when they are separated from each other in a department store, Helen feels as she did when five-year-old Edward got lost. This chapter emphasizes the fact that Dorothy Glover robbed these two children of more than their confidence and self-respect; she robbed them of the entire thirty years they lived with her in Long Sydenham. During that time, the world developed and they did not. Now, with Dorothy’s death, they are not equipped to live in the world which lies beyond their door. This, then, is Lively’s variation on her usual theme of history: She explores a kind of time-warp experience in which middle-aged children are propelled into an alien environment. Accustomed to their surroundings, which Dorothy has decreed must never change, they are naturally terrified.

Helen’s relationship with Dorothy was more complex than those of the other two offspring. Like Cassandra, the legendary daughter of King Priam who was given the ability to foresee the future but fated never to be...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Passing On is the story of two middle-aged children who are struggling to free themselves of their dead mother’s malicious influence. In their attempt to understand current circumstances, Helen and Edward, who are almost fifty when the novel opens, recall many earlier events in their lives. The constant juxtaposition of contemporary action with memory emphasizes how isolated Helen and Edward have become. They have lapsed into dependency on their mother and each other, and they have ignored the changes and demands of the outside world.

Helen, who is working as a part-time librarian, has become immersed in books. As a child, she viewed reading as a way to escape any confrontation with her mother, but the habit developed into a genuine love of all types of literature. Only after her mother’s death does Helen recognize that her fascination with books has been a way of defying Dorothy, who is hostile to education in any form. Ignorant and opinionated, Dorothy sees reading as a waste of time and an excuse for inaction.

Edward retreats from conflict by maintaining vigilant observation of the Britches. An amateur naturalist, he keeps detailed records of the changes that occur over the years in the woods. Reviewing his notes, Edward finds little that is truly meaningful because he refuses to write anything personal. His indignation about the exploitation of the natural world and his deep sympathy for endangered species are genuinely felt, but they also indicate the extent to which he has misplaced his own emotional life. His habit of avoiding close relationships takes a huge toll by the end of the novel; he has nightmares, experiences periods of insomnia, and behaves spitefully toward Helen, who has always protected him. Finally, his unnecessary struggle to repress his sexuality and need for intimacy erupts into a crisis that could threaten both his and Helen’s future.

The novel is about many of the practical matters that follow a death. Inheriting the Britches, Helen and Edward must decide whether to sell the property or to continue to resist the pressure of Ron Paget, an unscrupulous builder who wants to develop the site for new housing. They must face, for the first time, their financial state. Neither makes enough money to live elsewhere or to remodel the aging family home to contemporary standards. Unless they sell the Britches, they will be trapped in the same circumstances that have...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Penelope Lively is a brilliant practitioner of the domestic novel. A literary genre well established by Jane Austen and practiced by twentieth century writers such as Barbara Pym, domestic realism focuses on the lives of women at home. Often exposing the economic and social inequities facing women, the domestic novel attempts to recognize the realistic hardships and accomplishments of characters who typify the times in which they live but are not represented in the public sphere.

In most of her novels for adults, Lively, who has also written extensively for children, addresses the concerns of women in middle-class circumstances who are going through a period of change. The heroines of nineteenth century novels would often work to achieve marriage proposals, but Lively’s characters have different aspirations, reflecting the wider choices available to today’s women. In Passing On, Helen develops a greater sense of self-worth by withdrawing from a demeaning relationship. In Lively’s novel Cleopatra’s Sister (1993), the most developed female character recognizes the importance of trying to balance a career with an intimate relationship.

Although her work is not overtly feminist, Lively demonstrates great sensitivity to the roles women play in twentieth century society, and she is one of the few contemporary writers to examine the complexities of parenting from both a female and a male perspective. She demonstrates great skill at revealing the emotional background to human action, as well as delineating its historical context. A historian by academic training, Lively often uses her novels to explore the relationship between individuals and the historical moment. Her most experimental treatment of history occurs in City of the Mind (1991), which uses London’s architecture as a device to recount episodes from different periods of the city’s development.

Despite having won Britain’s most prestigious annual literary award, the Booker Prize, for Moon Tiger (1987) and having received high praise from book reviewers, Lively has been the subject of little critical analysis. Because of her emphasis on realism, she may not invite as much scholarly attention as do writers who challenge familiar novelistic devices and structures. By choosing to write about subjects that are within ordinary experience, however, and by doing so with talent and insight, Lively is contributing to the rich tradition of literature by and about women in a new way.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bausch, Richard. The New York Times Book Review, February 11, 1990, 12. A review that focuses on Lively’s scathing portrayal of Dorothy Glover, typing her as a nearly Dickensian villain. Bausch praises Lively’s gift of capturing what takes place in the most private moments, especially the small nuances of emotion.

Birch, Dinah. The London Review of Books 11 (April 29, 1989): 20. A review that praises the particularity with which the characters of Helen and Edward are drawn but suggests that the conclusion of the novel is unconvincing.

Le Mesurier, Nicholas. “A Lesson in History: The Presence of the Past in the Novels of Penelope Lively.” The New Welsh Review 2 (Spring, 1990): 36-38. A brief discussion of the relationship between the individual and the past in Lively’s novels. Mentions also the changing historical perception of children.

Moran, Mary Hurley. “Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger: A feminist ‘History of the World.’” Frontiers 11 (1990): 89-95. An article that notes the lack of scholarly interest in Lively and identifies Lively’s place in the developing tradition of the feminist novel. Calling the novel a “subversive attack on established assumptions about reality,” Moran demonstrates how the heroine attacks linear notions of history and challenges male expectations of female behavior.

Walker, J. K. L. The Times Literary Supplement, April 7, 1989, 363. A review that assesses Lively’s ability to write about apparently dull characters and make them interesting and sympathetic.