Penelope Lively Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Penelope Margaret Lively became one of Britain’s most popular and prolific twentieth century writers. Growing up in Egypt, she received no formal education until the age of twelve when, after her parents divorced, she was enrolled in an English boarding school. Although she hated the school, Lively read widely and eventually obtained a place at Oxford University, where she graduated with a B.A. in modern history in 1954. Following her marriage and the birth of two children, Lively began to write children’s stories, discovering in that genre a scope for exploring her favorite and enduring concern: the complicated relationship between the past and recovery of that past through collective and personal memory.

After publishing her first story, Astercote, in 1970, other children’s books quickly followed. Of these, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which was awarded a Carnegie Medal, became particularly popular. In that work, Lively describes the experiences of James Harrison, a ten-year-old boy who is blamed for various mysterious occurrences—including breakages and misplaced items—in the old cottage to which his family has recently moved. James discovers that the real culprit is the ghost of a former inhabitant, Thomas Kempe, who is angered by the modernization of the cottage and of the village. James also finds a collection of letters describing the similar experiences of Arnold Luckett, a boy of about his own age, in the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike James, Arnold apparently had little difficulty convincing his elders of the ghost’s existence. Only through the information he gleans from Arnold...

(The entire section is 666 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Penelope Lively was born Penelope Margaret Low to British parents, Vera and Roger Low, who were living in Cairo, Egypt. She spent her childhood in the suburbs of Cairo, where her father worked for the National Bank of Egypt. An only child, she received no formal education but was taught at home by a personal tutor in an apparently rather haphazard fashion. She was encouraged, however, to read voraciously the great classics of children’s literature as well as the Bible and ancient mythology. The ardent interest in the past that Lively exhibits in all her works may well have been engendered by the family’s weekly visits to the Egyptian pyramids. During World War II, the family evacuated to Palestine.

After her parents divorced in 1945, she was sent at the age of twelve to live with her paternal grandmother in rural Somerset, England, and soon after that she became a student at an austere English boarding school. Although the school emphasized physical over intellectual activity—she once was admonished by the headmistress for reading poetry outside the classroom—Lively continued to read widely and obtained a place at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University. There she felt a sense of liberation among Britain’s best scholars and students. Her field was history, but she also read a good deal of contemporary fiction. She graduated in 1954 with a B.A. in modern history.

After working for a short time as a secretary for an Oxford University...

(The entire section is 424 words.)