Penelope Lively Biography

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(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 is James able to exorcise the ghost. Here, as in many of her other children’s stories—most impressively in A Stitch in Time—Lively juxtaposes the attitudes and beliefs of different historical periods to suggest the significance of any one point of view in explaining the world at large. In most cases, the supernatural becomes the medium by which the past shows through the thin fabric of the present.

While continuing to write children’s stories, Lively made the shift toward adult fiction with the publication of The Road to Lichfield. This novel describes the experiences of a middle-aged history teacher, Anne Linton when she discovers that her dying father, whom she regularly visits, has been having an affair for many years. Marked by Lively’s characteristically polished style, The Road to Lichfield, like much of her later work, uses a shifting third-person perspective to portray events—often, as in Moon Tiger, the same event—from a number of different points of view. This technique is strongly reminiscent of Virginia Woolf.

Along with many of her contemporaries—notably Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, and Graham Swift—Lively displays a fascination for the workings of history and memory. Whether her protagonist is the literary biographer of a 1920’s man of letters, as in According to Mark, or an architect concerned with the impact of his work on the centuries-old architecture of London, as in City of the Mind, Lively is concerned with the palimpsest nature of existence, with the inescapably allusive quality of a present pervaded with a sense of the past. In all of her novels, the world of the mundane is transformed by these perceptual shifts in the consciousness of her characters. Lively’s Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger brilliantly expresses these themes. Here an elderly historian lies on her death bed, creating a “history of the world” that turns out to be the story of her own life, recollected in the fragmented and achronological manner of memory. Claudia Hampton recalls her life in a complex network of flashbacks, many of which focus on the defining experience of her life when during World War II she fell in love in Egypt with a soldier who is later killed in action. In Moon Tiger , through the consciousness of a single character, Lively reveals something about all human beings. Lively’s stylistic and thematic concerns grow...

(The entire section is 1,090 words.)