Penelope Lively Lively, Penelope - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Susan Hill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Patricia Craig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

John Naughton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗

Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Bryn Caless

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Angela Huth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Clancy Sigal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Frances Hill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alida Becker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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