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Penelope Lively 1933–
Egyptian-born English novelist, short story writer, and author of books for children.
An award-winning author of literature for children, Lively is rapidly gaining recognition for her adult fiction as well. Her novels reveal her deep interest in history, time, and memory and their effect on human relationships and individual perceptions of life. For example, in The Road to Lichfield (1977), Lively's first adult novel, a young woman's fond memories of her deceased father are suddenly challenged when she learns that he had a lengthy extramarital affair.
While Lively maintains her thematic focus on the patterns of time and the importance of memory in all of her novels, she also explores a variety of other issues. In Judgement Day (1980) she confronts the difficulty of believing in a benevolent God when considering life's inexplicable hardships and tragedies, and in Next to Nature, Art (1982) she satirizes artistic pretensions. Perfect Happiness (1983) centers on a woman who comes to terms with the death of her famous husband.
(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev, ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 7; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)
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There is nothing very original about the plot [of The Road to Lichfield]….
The book is lifted out of the ordinary by its author's treatment of her two main themes: continuity and memory. Is the past 'something people carry around like a millstone' or 'what they prop themselves up with'? Does memory distort or preserve?… Is domestic harmony gained only by 'the deft avoidance of all those rogue subjects that can shatter the smooth passage of a meal'? Penelope Lively has an easy, unobtrusive style, throws light from unexpected angles on large issues, and leaves the reader concerned about her characters' future.
John Mellors, "Acceptance Won't Do," in The Listener, Vol. 98, No. 2520, August 4, 1977, p. 158.∗
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In one of the 14 stories in Nothing Missing but the Samovar, an elderly spinster makes a habit of walking in Hyde Park: 'She studied her fellow walkers with avid attention … She delighted in novelty: eccentricities of dress, perplexing snatches of conversation. She moved up and down the wide paths, across the grass, between the neat flowerbeds, alert and expectant—an inquisitive ghost foraging among the walkers.' It goes without saying that people who write about people are inquisitive, but not all writers have Penelope Lively's knack of effacing herself to a ghost's invisibility. She is as tactful as her cathedral officials in 'Interpreting the Past', who are careful never to intrude on visitors: 'The past has no right to impose itself on people; it is there to be taken or left, as we see fit.' Penelope Lively does not impose her stories on us, and as a result of her unobtrusive skill we see fit to take them, not leave them.
She is particularly good at showing how one generation looks at, or ignores, the activities and preoccupations of another…. [One] story, 'Party', is all about the mingling without mixing of different age-groups. A 63-year-old woman, thinking of her husband, who died ten years ago, feels 'a faint, fragrant gust of sexual memory'. She finds that she has nothing in common with her daughter and her elder grandchildren, but with her 11-year-old grandson she is happy to sit up until morning making model aeroplanes. (p. 174)
John Mellors, "Inquisitive Ghosts," in The Listener, Vol. 101, No. 2595, January 25, 1979, pp. 174-75.∗
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[In Treasures of Time, Lively] reveals a gift for highlighting character-types, picking out revealing details of social behaviour, manner and conversation, and a certain ability to hit a nail ironically on the head. She is technically inventive and assured, and her book reads a little like the work of Elizabeth Jane Howard—a compliment indeed. Yet I do not think she has yet proved that she possesses a talent for writing adult fiction of anything like the high order of her children's books.
Treasures of Time is enjoyable, perceptive, shrewd, but it collapses badly, and scurries towards a rather arbitrary conclusion, as though she had lost interest or run out of steam—grown bored, long before her readers. Having created a completely convincing social world, with past and present filled in intrinsic detail, she fails to exploit its full potential…. (p. 22)
Her novel concerns the family of a celebrated archaeologist, now dead, and a television profile film being made about his life, work and personality. Mrs Lively goes into some detail about the historical period, and significance of Paxton's researches which, being singularly lacking in any historical sense myself, I read with a rather abstracted interest, and some incomprehension. But to many people, they will add a further dimension to her novel. The accounts of Paxton's character and behaviour, the descriptions of his surviving family, are the most fascinating…. Laura Paxton is pretentious, snobbish, stupid, and deeply dissatisfied, bored and unhappy, and Mrs Lively traces her present discontent convincingly back to her childhood, in a series of neatly encapsulated flashbacks, at which she is extremely skilled. Laura's sister, Nellie, was intelligent, plain, devoted to archaeology, deeply in love with Paxton. Now, she is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke, and lives an uneasy life with Laura…. [The] portrait of Nellie is the most acute, shrewd and compassionate one of a person with a handicap and affliction, I have read for many a year. How Nellie's thoughts, observations, emotions, memories, exist like an absolutely clear, flowing stream, below the flat rock which has shut down upon her, trapping her in slow, blurred speech and paralysed movement, is most beautifully conveyed.
The other central relationship in the book is between Paxton's daughter, Kate, an awkward, fierce, graceless, defensive girl, and Tom, a thoroughly honourable nice, mature young man, who loves her, and finally, cannot cope with her. (pp. 22-3)
Mrs Lively handles all the separate threads of her book with ease, and there are some delightful vignettes of incidental character, and other worlds, perfectly caught, though she has not yet learned when to be ruthless about removing pleasant, well-conceived and written but ultimately redundant, or irrelevant, episodes. I read her novel in a single evening, immersed in it totally, sorry when it ended so prematurely. (p. 23)
Susan Hill, "Steady Stuff," in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 24, No. 12, September, 1979, pp. 22-3.∗
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[An] orthodox television production is the subject of Treasures of Time. The overt subject at any rate: Penelope Lively has always been preoccupied with time, continuity and patterns of accretion, and these are no less integral to her adult than her juvenile fiction. History and archaeology provide the means to rationalise the obsession, and these disciplines loom in the background of her new novel. A documentary series is to feature the work of the late Hugh Paxton, celebrated for his excavations at a site in Wiltshire named Charlie's Trump. Relatives and associates of the famous man are invited to take part. His daughter Kate introduces into the group a research student named Tom Rider whose perceptions and presumptions are central to the theme. Tom's moderately sardonic views on the national heritage, the wry conclusions he comes to after spending a day with a party of Japanese tourists, his half-mocking relation with the image of himself as a clever working-class boy—these are among the highlights of a story that is never dull, though it is too often glib and easy-going. It lacks the build-up of psychic pressure and the clarity of tone which are the hallmarks of her children's books.
Patricia Craig, "Battery Iron," in New Statesman, Vol. 98, No. 2531, September 21, 1979, p. 429.∗
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Penelope Lively gets better with every book. In Treasures of Time she raises all sorts of issues about the past. Does a place have an atmosphere given by its history? Or is the genius loci entirely subjective, dependent on the onlooker? Tom, the postgraduate student of 18th-century antiquarianism, is asked by a party of Japanese tourists to accompany them round Oxford and its environs—and 'explain'. Almost everything is misunderstood by the visitiors…. Tom concludes that 'what you feel about what you see depends not on what it is, but who you are. A place is an illusion.'
When the characters in Treasures of Time are forced to reexamine their own and one another's past, identity is shown to be as illusory as place. An elderly spinster has a second stroke and dies. Her sister, apparently a completely self-contained, insensitive person, with a 'knack of instantly putting everyone else at a disadvantage', is shattered by the death. An engagement is broken off, Tom deciding that he is unfitted to cope, for ever, with his fiancée's 'fatal compulsion always to put herself in the least favourable light'. Like Sir Thomas Browne, whom she is fond of quoting, Penelope Lively is ever heedful of 'the wheel of things'.
John Mellors, "Banned Books," in The Listener, Vol. 102, No. 2630, September 27, 1979, p. 425.∗
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[Judgement Day is about decay]. Set in a credible modern (i.e., socially heterogenous) English village, it chronicles the impact which the arrival of an intelligent young couple has on the circle of dead-heads who manage the affairs of the local church. The focus of the action is a fund-raising project designed to provide the kind of cash needed to restore the ancient fabric.
That this project has a rather ambiguous conclusion is neither here nor there, for Ms Lively's quarry is really the forces of change in British society and their differential impact on different age groups and social strata….
Judgement Day is an impressive piece of work, sharp and surefooted on the nuances of class and of personal conflict. Choosing a modern village … was a good stratagem, not only because it provides a natural stage, but also because the fissiparous villagers attain a fragile unity whenever threatened by the onslaught of the wider society (in this case, motorcycling yobbos from the nearest town). If a Martian anthropologist were to ask for a quick guide to the essence of British society in the 1970s, then Ms Lively's book would do almost as well as the entire output of Nuffield College.
John Naughton, "Empty Houses," in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2688, November 20, 1980, pp. 700-01.∗
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[Penelope Lively's] quality can best be conveyed by saying that she is the kind of writer that Barbara Pym might have been if she had married and had children. The setting of Judgement Day … might be that of a Pym novel; and that, at the centre of this village and the events that take place in it, there should always loom up the church of St Peter and St Paul, with a 14th-century wall-painting, the Doom, as 'its glory and surprise', is precisely what one might expect if Barbara Pym had been the author. Also reminiscent of Pym, in its undemonstrative tenderness, tentativeness and frustration, is the relationship between Clare Paling, a newcomer to the village, and the vicar of the church, a lonely and unloved man of 40, who has never married.
But whereas, if this were a Pym novel, Clare would be some churchy spinster, here she is both an agnostic and the possessor of a frequently absent husband and two children. She is cultivated enough to object, on a visit to Matins, to the ghastly flatness and triteness of the Good News Bible in use …; she is sensitive enough to overcome her initial distaste for the vicar and to pity him in his uncertain isolation. She is tough enough to give a tongue-lashing to a callous brute of a man, who parks his car in such a way in front of hers that she is stuck for more than an hour while waiting for his return.
Both she and her two precocious, self-conscious children are perfectly realised; and the vicar, increasingly living in a world of fantasy in which all the unattainables of his barren existence are realised in daydreams, is drawn with the same decisiveness of line and vividness of colour. (p. 24)
The lower-middle class man with whom Clare has her row over the car, his wife, Shirl, and his brassy girl-friend are less subtle and less convincing creations, viewed without either much compassion or, more important, much understanding. Clearly, Mrs Lively finds them a rubbishy trio….
Clare makes a declaration of her credo to the vicar: 'I believe, insofar as I believe in anything, that we are quite fortuitously here, and that the world is a cruel and terrible place, but inexplicably and bewilderingly beautiful.' Is it presumptuous to assume that it is also Clare's creator who is speaking here? Certainly the book is full of the unjust fortuitousness with which human happiness and misery are apportioned, and of Clare's consciousness of the unjustness of this….
This is a book unobtrusively expert in its craftmanship, as the author slips into this character and now into that, in what are often sections of less than half a page. Thought-processes of people as different as the vicar's churchwarden, the doomed child and Clare are cunningly differentiated. There are smooth changes between past and present tense.
Because the whole tone of the narrative is so discreet and because, until the desecration of the church, little that is showily dramatic happens, it would be easy to underestimate the merit of Mrs Lively's novel. But in its constant awareness both of the joy and beauty and of the sadness and hideousness of life, it is a work of real, if self-limiting, accomplishment. (p. 25)
Francis King, "Look Lively," in The Spectator, Vol. 245, No. 7950, November 22, 1980, pp. 24-5.
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In Laddenham, a neat village near the light industrial township of Spelbury in the southern English heartlands, Penelope Lively has set a nicely pertinacious account of the secular assumptions and irrational impulses which govern the way many of us live now. Judgement Day centres on the relationship the agnostic Clare Paling forms with a well-meaning and feeble man of God, and his church…. The ostensibly tidy lives of the retired, the respectable burghers, the young marrieds and their children, are more complex and fraught than appears; Clare's motives in seeking to graft her goodwill on to this community are more ambiguous than she realises; and the pageant [she plans in order to bring the townspeople together] is doomed to failure when violent forces impinging on village life suddenly erupt to shatter all the good intentions. It might sound like an honourably observant novel written to a formula; but it is much better than that.
It is better than that mainly because its aerial survey of a familiar sector of English existence is done with an almost flawless accuracy, but no inclination to point easy morals. Penelope Lively places every incident scrupulously, arranges the minor faults and decent virtues of her characters in a sequence leading somehow inexorably to frustration and tragedy; and in so doing sorts out ordinary living in the present in England in a way that makes moving sense without thrusting conclusions on the reader. Clare Paling—horrified at the ditching of the Authorised Version by the parson's superiors—has to tell him that words "are all we've got." It is the nearest to a message that Judgement Day reaches. But the ending of the novel leaves an unpleasant feeling that even the abiding potency of language is in doubt: Miss Lively's chilling cameo has wider reference than the village green of Laddenham. (p. 90)
Alan Brownjohn, "Breaking the Rules," in Encounter, Vol. LVI, No. 5, May, 1981, pp. 86-91.∗
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Penelope Lively exemplifies her name and [with Next to Nature, Art she] surpasses her previous achievements in fiction. She has produced a splendid satire on the pretensions of the early 1970s in Britain, and made a number of timely sideswipes for sanity in her cool and didactic appraisal of talent. Framleigh is a 'creative Study Centre' run by Toby, a bisexual poseur, who screws money out of what he calls 'ordinary people' who come for week-long courses in art, pottery and sculpture. He is truly one of the most appalling of human beings. Talentless himself, he resents and puts down the glimmerings of merit in others. He is aided by Paula, sculptress and easy of virtue, Greg, American self-styled poet ('the poet is the message'), and Bob, potter and lecher, who makes his money out of 'Toby' jugs and honey-pots for the local department stores. These constitute the 'faculty' of teachers, who impart their lofty ideals about 'doing your own thing' and 'being yourself to willing and rather pathetic acolytes—a week at a time…. Penelope Lively writes elegant, incisive prose which often conceals the genuine savagery of her attack. Her satire is direct and believable, the wit is profound. This is a splendid novel, with so few faults they are not worth remarking. (pp. 576-77)
Bryn Caless, in a review of "Next to Nature, Art," in British Book News, September, 1982, pp. 576-77.
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In Perfect Happiness Penelope Lively concerns herself with the subject of loss. This, so often in the past, has proved a dangerous subject, particularly in the hands of women writers. It induces characters with that modern disease of scurrying to find themselves, and delivering us with the unedited findings. It deprives many a writer of all humour.
Miss Lively has achieved a considerable triumph, therefore, in managing to cross such tricky terrain without so much as a stumble. In her exploration of three different kinds of loss, while shirking no gloomy corner, she engages nothing but respect and admiration for her heroines. Her art is to examine their various plights with great sympathy, yet never to swop her role of writer for that of psychiatrist.
Frances Brooklyn, middle-aged and recently widowed, has a practical approach to bereavement. It is, of course, something to be endured, suffered, lived through—there is no escape from its pangs. (p. 22)
On a visit to Venice, near to cracking, she responds to the friendship of a trouser-suited American tourist, Ruth Bowers (a superb portrait, this) the kind of woman for whom the dead Steven would not have cared. She discovers things about her husband's past she did not know. Perfect happiness, was it?… [After] a while, most touchingly, she finds she has become the love of a kind, bearded gentleman, a feeling she cannot yet bring herself to reciprocate, but time may bring its changes. Possibility of new kinds of light in the darkness is a strong theme of the book.
Frances's sister-in-law, Zoe, a brusque and friendly unmarried lady, a hectic journalist, is left by her lover of ten years for a younger woman. Zoe has a hysterectomy and carries on with her job as merrily as she is able. Aches, but no moans. Then Frances's teenage daughter Tabitha 'furiously intent among the second violins' is abandoned by her boyfriend: she deals as sensibly as her mother with practical aids for the internal void.
The three women represent different shades of loss; their particular sufferings, universally recognisable, are handled with an extraordinary freshness of approach and keenness of observation…. In all her wisdom, Miss Lively never depresses through her characters' sadness. Perfect Happiness avoids none of the bleakness of its subject, but leaves the reader with a feeling of optimism, encouragement for when our turn comes. It is a marvellous book. (pp. 22-3)
Angela Huth, "Love and Magic," in The Spectator, Vol. 251, No. 8097, September 17, 1983, pp. 22-3.∗
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Penelope Lively has chosen to write about the painful problems facing a woman after the sudden death of her husband…. The book's title, Perfect Happiness, refers to the past. Frances has to adjust to the loss of that happiness and the near-certainty that, at her age, 49, she will find no equivalent.
Perfect Happiness is not depressing. Nor is it sentimental. Frances fights back in two ways. She learns how to summon up, deliberately, past moments of happiness, instead of letting them come at her and knock her off balance. Also, she begins to admit into her life people and possessions her husband had never known….
Penelope Lively has created characters in whose reality we believe and about whose fortunes we care. In very tricky terrain for a novelist she never puts a foot wrong. She knows that those who feel grief do not feel it all the time. They still have to choose what clothes to wear, make scrambled eggs, answer the telephone. The strongest among them will make conscious decisions towards achieving a new independence. When Frances is introduced to people with the words 'Frances was married to …', she knows that she must not be 'made to wear Steven for ever like a regimental brooch'. At the end of Perfect Happiness, Frances is 'neither happy nor grieving, looking not backwards into the day but on into the next'. The reader is left the richer for sharing Frances's experience.
John Mellors, "Today's Taboos," in The Listener, Vol. 110, No. 2827, September 22, 1983, p. 25.∗
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[In "Next to Nature, Art," something] is wrong at Framleigh Hall, deep in the Warwickshire countryside. And we soon discover the problem is that the 18th-century manor house is now the Framleigh Creative Study Centre, an "artistic sanctuary."… Toby, Paula, his mistress, Bob, a potter, and Greg, a pretentious Yank poet, talk endlessly about art while having almost no talent themselves. But they are shrewd salesmen of the "Framleigh Ideal," and they impress the rather humble and confused nonartists who, fleeing their mundane lives, pay good money to spend a week there. It's a con, of course. As the middle-aged housewife Mary Chambers—the author's voice of English common sense—soon discovers. Cunningly contrasted with the guests and Toby and his self-involved crew of failed artists is the spontaneous play of Paula's small son, Jason, and a prankish village kid named Kevin…. Through the children the author seems to be suggesting that adult art is impossible without unselfconscious, even juvenile, play. Penelope Lively … is gaining a reputation and an audience for her serious adult books. She deserves both; she has a wickedly comic touch. Her amused, amusing look at England's subbohemian culture is clear and sharp.
Clancy Sigal, in a review of "Next to Nature," in The New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1984, p. 20.
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The American Jewish immigrants of Bernard Malamud's stories inhabit a world of their own spiritual past and an unanchored present. Anxious, needy, pathetic, blinkered, faltering, kindly, they stumble through life with only the most tenuous links with the places they live in. Penelope Lively's characters are set solidly in and against market towns, Saxon churches, Aldeburgh beaches, High Streets with Smiths, Boots and Sainsburys in them. Yet Malamud's favourite theme—of giving and taking, requesting, withholding, often relenting—also leavens and moulds several stories of Lively's.
In 'The Ghost of a Flea', Angela, doggedly treading the borderline between madness and sanity, reaches out towards Paul and, when he takes hold, hangs on like a leech. He retains enough freedom to fall in love with another girl but does not shake off his burden. Angela after a while attempts and fails at suicide. Paul and his wife-to-be, 'separated and tethered' by Angela, know at the end of the story that she is part of their future.
In 'The Art of Biography', Edward Lamprey requests information of Lucinda Rockingham, 'eighty if she was a day', on her late employer, a poet. Miss Rockingham offers Lamprey far more than he guessed she could give. As a result, he spends a whole week in her house, neglecting his girlfriend. She, in turn, finally leaves him. (p. 29)
It is no accident that one of Penelope Lively's main themes in these stories is the one that dominates Bernard Malamud's fiction. Her people, like his, though so differently formed by their personal and cultural histories, stand in similar relations to chance and events. Their lives are governed very largely by circumstance…. It is natural that in their helplessness in the face of circumstances both Malamud's and Lively's characters should spend a fair amount of their time pleading with each other and then giving or withholding what is asked. It is natural, too, that both should show human blindness combining with chance to produce ironic, or tragic, results.
Penelope Lively's best story, 'Grow Old Along with Me: The Best is Yet to Be', is about looking, and not seeing. Sarah and Tony, young and callow, trying to decide whether or not to marry, visit a Saxon church. They express deepest respect for the church's antiquity. But when they come across two old people, locked in a clandestine, passionate embrace, they are filled with contempt, even horror. The story is full of intertwined ironies. (pp. 29-30)
Each of Penelope Lively's stories is beautifully written, full of irony and gentle, pointed humour and perfect descriptions. Characterisation and dialogue are excellent. But 'Corruption', 'Customers', 'Yellow Trains' and 'The Emasculation of Ted Roper,' unlike the stories already described, stay on the surface. 'The Darkness Out There' is marred by the desire to explain what has already been shown. This is a sure sign of uncertainty and crops up elsewhere in the stories that are less than first-class. 'Venice Now and Then' and 'The Pill Box' are 'experimental', the one technically, the other in terms of subject matter, and neither quite works. Penelope Lively still seems to be finding her feet as a short story writer, despite the … excellent tales in this collection. (p. 30)
Frances Hill, "Blinded," in The Spectator, Vol. 252, No. 8123, March 17, 1984, pp. 29-30.∗
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[The main theme of "Perfect Happiness" is not] just the matter of bereavement, as experienced by her fiftyish heroine, Frances, who, when we first meet her, is "recollecting not in tranquility but in ripe howling grief her husband Steven dead now eight months two weeks one day." The theme is also how the past is changed by the present, the way time intersects with and refracts our feelings, the way the physical world around us can be both a "solace and a mockery." Weighty matters, these. But Mrs. Lively handles them with quiet wisdom, graceful goodheartedness and understated wit. Best of all, she firmly anchors them with an absorbing story and a group of vividly drawn, mostly likable and always affecting characters….
We also view deft variations on the theme of loss through Frances' adopted daughter Tabitha, suffering in the throes of her first love affair, and through Frances' beloved sister-in-law Zoe, a spunky journalist who has never married, has always done precisely what she wanted, and suddenly finds herself regretting everything she had so blithely given up.
All three women look back at what they remember as "perfect happiness, past perfect, pluperfect." Resilient and unsentimental, they manage to make their memories, complex and illusory as they may be, a way of sustaining the present and the future.
Alida Becker, "Life After Loss," in The New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1984, p. 34.