The Road To Lichfield Themes
by Penelope Lively

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The Road To Lichfield Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although social concerns and social satire play a role in all of Lively's novels, her dominant theme is always the relationship between the past and the present. In The Road to Lichfield Lively first expresses the attitudes toward the historical past that will be found in all her subsequent novels. With her imagination steeped in history (her field of study at Oxford), she has a keen eye for the historical vestiges that linger in contemporary life: in the landscape, in architecture, in place names, in dialect. Her protagonists generally share this sensibility. Thus, Anne, driving the road to Lichfield, gazes at the passing scenery and sees it as "a palimpsest, suggesting another time, another place. Edgehill recalled the Civil War; Tamworth, lurking over to the right, had something Saxon about it, she seemed to remember."

Lively believes that it is important for people to know about history, but she also realizes how difficult it is to see the past clearly. She is alarmed by the contemporary tendency to distort and prettify earlier eras. It is this that television does, turning history into "[g]ood old bread-and-butter costume drama," as Anne's brother puts it. And it is this that the current mania for antiques and nostalgia does. Lively is very skeptical of those who, like many of Anne's acquaintances, affect an old-fashioned decor for their home, ornamenting it with historical artifacts and tools whose original function these people know or care little about.

Similarly, Lively criticizes those who distort the past by glorifying it, who believe that anything old is intrinsically better than anything new. She points out the misguided motives of a historical preservation group in Anne's suburban community who make a fuss about saving an ancient, dilapidated cottage that would really be better off demolished and replaced with low-cost housing for the needy. Although Anne is initially part of this group, she becomes increasingly skeptical of its tendency to "sanctify the past just for its own sake," and eventually quits, explaining, "It's just I feel worried about indiscriminate hanging onto the past — in the form of buildings, or — or anything else. Sometimes I think we're not too sure why we're doing it — and we may not even be clear what it is we're hanging onto. But at the same time I...

(The entire section is 573 words.)