Penelope Lively was born in Egypt and ‘trapped by the war’ lived with her family on the outskirts of Cairo until 1945 when they returned to England. She was twelve and had never been to school. Home teaching instructions were frequently sunk in the Mediterranean.
‘So it used to end up just with reading. As a system of education it leaves a lot to be desired – as a background for a writer it was perfect.’ An only child, with no one to play with, she read and read and has gone on doing that ever since.
Boarding school in England was a miserable experience. But reading history at Oxford was very different; she loved it. ‘I didn’t realise at the time the sort of effect it was having on me. I wasn’t a particularly good student of history – wasn’t aroused by it at that point, but obviously something very curious happened because what I did during those three years has utterly changed the way I’ve thought about things ever since. It certainly turned me into a writer in the sense that it bred a kind of lasting interest in and concern with not so much history but the operation of memory, what people do with the past and the uses and abuses that people make of the past, and the ways in which memory functions.’
The exploration of these ideas in novels for children and adults was part of the future. ‘I came out of university without any proper sense of the reality of the past’ – all that came much later. It was a gradual unfolding over years which included marriage to Jack, two children, living in a sixteenth-century house in an Oxfordshire village, getting in touch with the landscape and the past beneath it, and putting down roots – most important for her she thinks because of the years spent abroad.
Then with the children, 9 and 13, ‘clearly it was time to get going again.’ Teaching seemed the obvious thing so it was back to reading history. The more I read, the more I realised that what history had to do with me wasn’t going to be anything to do with teaching it. It was to do with some very odd personal response. In a very muddled way I thought there might be something I could write that would help me to sort that out. I started writing for children out of a kind of humility. It didn’t seem to me that anything I had to say about the operation of memory could be of interest to people who knew more about it than I did.’
‘In the first place I suppose I was doing it for me – that’s probably quite the wrong thing.’ The early books look ‘wrong’ to her now – ‘hamhanded’. ‘But I’ll say this for them, they tell a good story.’ In the early books (Astercote, The Whispering Knights), ‘I was learning how to do it. It takes a long time to learn – the learning is the doing.’
The date on a beam in the kitchen at Duck End says 1628. Penelope Lively vows not to become attached to this house as she did to her first which was painful to leave. ‘I’ve only just recently been able to go back to see it without feeling distressed.’
The house sits on the side of the hill and at the back, beyond the lawn and a thick yew hedge, the garden falls in steps down to the stream. Here too is the vegetable garden, a fairly recent obsession and the source of great satisfaction and pleasure.
Penelope Lively works in the room off the kitchen. The deep window recesses are filled with plants – she likes growing things –and her collection of Victorian samplers hangs on the walls. Beside the typewriter are the exercise books which contain all her notes for the current novel. The Snoopy card was ‘a lovely surprise’ – it arrived recently signed by 25 children and simply said ‘Happy Birthday – we enjoyed reading Thomas Kempe.’
What sort of a person is Penelope Lively?
She likes talking to people, being with friends, walking but not travelling (this year’s new year resolution was ‘Must travel more’), exploring London (‘There’s a London book coming soon I think’), listening to music (‘I’m musically illiterate but have very musical children who are patient with me’), reading and writing. ‘I’m not happy if I’m not writing. I can’t conceive of not doing it.’ She hates ‘waiting for reviews’ and ‘going in aeroplanes’. If you gave her thousands of pounds, ‘I would hire a van, go to Blackwells in Oxford, park on the double yellow lines outside and spend an afternoon choosing books and having them loaded up – that would be lovely.’
A sense of time
A sense of place
A sense of humour
Three aspects of all Penelope Lively’s novels for adults and children. How does she define them?
‘The notion that there are points in time at which people are fossilized as themselves at any particular age seems to me both dangerous and ludicrous. We all carry within us all the ages that we have been and all the ages that we may yet become. Nobody is frozen at any point in time. I hoped to suggest this to children.’
In Penelope Lively’s novels the past comes to meet the present: Thomas Kempe, a seventeenth-century sorcerer/apothecary reacts to the twentieth century. ‘I don’t like stories where they go bumping people back into the past. What is the point unless it’s going to enlarge commentary on the present in some way. That kind of excursion seems to me pointless.’
‘It’s a difficult thing to define. It’s a sense of being enlarged, inspired by and dependent on a physical place – it doesn’t have to be beautiful. Some places have a “charge” – I don’t mean anything to do with ley lines. If I know about the history of a place, something in me responds to if and the place responds back – it gives me something. It’s faintly mystical but rational too.’
Penelope Lively’s places are usually those she has known well – her grandmother’s house in Somerset (Going Back), Exmoor (The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy), the B4525 (The Driftway) – but not always.
‘I fell onto Lyme Regis by mistake. I was so taken with it, I knew I was going to set a book there. I had to work out what the book was going to be.’ The place, Victorian samplers, Charles Darwin and fossils all came together in A Stitch in Time:
‘One fossil remained to be identified… just a hint of patterning on a lump of the blue rock that at first glance appeared to be nothing in particular. What I need, she thought, is a book.
“Stomechinus bigranularis,” said the writing, “an extinct form of sea urchin. Found below the west cliff 3rd August 1865.” And it’s August now, thought Maria, a different August. And she sat thinking about someone else (a girl, I’m somehow sure she was a girl… ) who had held the same book just about a hundred years ago.’ From A Stitch in Time (winner of the Whitbread Award).
The Rollright stones – one of the sources of The Whispering Knights. The stones’ powers help to protect the village from the evil accidentally aroused by three children’s amateur witchcraft.
A clay pipe and a pair of ancient spectacles, dug up in James’s garden, link him even more closely to the ghost in The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (Carnegie Medal winner 1973). This clay pipe was dug up in Penelope Lively’s garden.
‘I like the proposition of the impossible, that kind of dottiness. The book I’m working on at the moment is like that. It’s about a housing estate built on the site of an eighteenth-century picturesque landscape with a park and house – it’s a Stourhead kind of place. It’s been destroyed for ages, the house has burned down, the landscape has vanished. Then it starts coming up again through the estate, growing up through it owing to the machinations of the landscape gardener (a kind of Humphrey Repton figure). I’m having a lot of fun with greenhouses that turn into classical temples. It’s considerably wilder than Thomas Kempe. I hope it’s going to be funny.’
She also enjoys satire – ‘but there’s a way in which you can be more consciously satirical in an adult novel. You can be sharper, crueller, the claws can be put out a bit further. I suppose QV66 is the nearest I’ve come to satire in a children’s book.’
The Voyage of QV66
‘I felt I’d written a lot in a short time. I was worried that perhaps I might be beginning to write the same book again and again. I’m not entirely sure now that that’s a bad thing. Some people always write the same book; they just do it better and better. But I wanted to do something utterly different. Writing about animals is a splendid way of writing about people. Why not have a go?’
There was a memory of a barge seen on the Thames in London. ‘I remember thinking for no reason at all, if you wanted to you could get a cow and a horse on that. It didn’t occur to me that that might be of any significance but when I started looking for the book, as it were, the whole thing drifted back into my head.’
‘The book was a chance to have a bit of fun in al! sorts of directions – Stanley is the archetypal child, Freda the archetypal parent – the fun is at the expense of both. Stanley is every little boy I’ve ever known – every person even. He’s supposed to incorporate all human virtues and vices. There’s a lot of me in Stanley. I got much involved with him.’
Her son Adam also got involved with the book. Every day after school he wanted a progress report. ‘At one stage he said, “There’s something missing – it needs another character.” What character? “A parrot.”’ And so the Major was created and the book was dedicated to Adam.
What about the end? ‘I knew it was going to end in the zoo but I wasn’t quite sure how. So I went to London Zoo on a March day to watch monkeys – an afternoon of seeing what they all did just wrote the last chapter.’ The crew of QV66 sailed off down the Thames because ‘I imagined there might be a sequel but it has never come off. I’ve started writing it but I can’t get it off the ground.’
Penelope Lively has published two novels, The Road to Lichfield and Treasures of Time, and a volume of short stories for adults. ‘I needed a change. I’m a restless writer – I like to move around from one kind of thing to another.’ She doesn’t see writing for adults as a progression from writing for children. ‘People underestimate children massively. The kind of things I wanted to explore in The Road to Lichfield would not necessarily be difficult for children –but rather mysterious without being intriguingly mysterious. The more I thought, the more I realised this was going to be an adult novel.’
She is fascinated by the short story as a form and sees many connections with children’s books. She is also pleased when reviewers of her adult novels refer to the books for children.
Penelope Lively meets her public, children and adults, quite often. ‘They always ask, “Where do your ideas come from?” What I’ve seen and heard, how people behave, how I behave myself, from books. Children see this as cheating. It’s difficult to explain. Constant reading is absolutely essential – a roaming around kind of reading. When you’re working on an idea for a book, there’s a wonderful sense that everything you see or hear will be in some eerie way relevant to it, suddenly give you further ideas, and everything that you read will feed it in some way.’
Penelope Lively’s books are published in hardback by Heinemann and in paperback by Piccolo.
All photographs by Richard Mewton.