Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The House in Norham Gardens: Penelope Lively

It's odd, the way we happen across the books we decide to read. Sometimes, of course, you can't miss a book, particularly if it's by a celebrity or an already successful, best-selling author: to those who have shall be given (and yes, there is just a smidgeon of a hint of envy there), and such authors are given posters on the underground and prominent positions in bookshop windows.

Penelope Lively is a well-known author, both of adult and children's books, and I certainly read some of her books a fair few years ago. But I hadn't read this one, which first came out in 1974 but has very recently been republished. I heard about it when a friend on Facebook said she had just read When Marnie Was There (reviewed below), and demanded to know why she hadn't heard of it before, and what she could read now to keep her in the same mood?

In the comments, a couple of people mentioned this book, The House in Norham Gardens. They mentioned others too, but this was the one I noticed - because, by a strange coincidence, I had stayed the weekend before in Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford - whose entrance is in Norham Gardens. (If you ever need a place to stay in in Oxford or Cambridge or Durham - and quite possibly in other university towns too - it's worth checking out university rooms if you're travelling outside of term-time - they're very reasonable, and often very tranquil places to stay.)

I checked, and yes, it was the same Norham Gardens. So I ordered it. It's about Clare Mayfield, aged fourteen, who lives with her two elderly aunts in a rambling Victorian house in North Oxford. The aunts - really great-aunts - have never married; they have both had successful careers as academics. Their father had been an anthropologist, who'd studied tribes in New Guinea. Nothing had been thrown away in the house, and the attic is a treasure trove of Clare's great-grandmother's beautiful clothes, and objects brought back by great-grandfather from his travels.

One day, Clare and the lodger, Maureen, are poking about in the attic, when Clare finds an oval piece of wood, painted with a design that is something like a face. It was a painting, but it was also a carving, because the lines had been gouged into the wood before they were painted. It seemed to say something: if you understood its language, if this kind of thing, this picture, this pattern, was a language, then it must have been a shout, once, to someone. Now, up here in the attic, to them, it was a whisper, a whisper you couldn't even understand.

Somehow, Clare feels she mustn't put it back in the trunk where she found it - it mustn't be hidden again. She begins to dream of her grandfather's visit to the place it came from. Each time she sees it, the colours have become more bright; each time she dreams, it becomes more difficult to escape back to reality. She realises that a wrong has been done, and that somehow, she must put it right.

In some ways, it's very obvious that this book is set at least forty years ago. There's an obvious lack of technology, of course. But there's also a sort of innocence about it. Clare lives in a sort of genteel poverty which could hardly exist today. The house is huge, but the aunts can't afford to keep it properly repaired, and there comes a point at which Clare realises that they no longer have enough money to buy food. So she consults with Mrs Hedges, the lady-who-does. They both agree that Mrs Hedges' services are indispensable; the aunts - fragile and elderly, though still with sharp and enquiring minds, have to be cared for - and they hit on the plan of finding lodgers. First comes Maureen, then later, John Sempebwa, who is a mature student studying anthropology. In some ways it's a much more innocent time - the aunts are perfectly happy for John, whom they've only recently met, to take Clare off to London for a day. And they're right to trust him - he's a great help to Clare. When the teachers at school notice that Clare is looking tired and behaving differently, they just tell her to have a rest - no social worker turns up to check out her home life. (And indeed, there's nothing wrong with her home life; the problem is the tamburan, the wooden shield...)

But there's nothing old-fashioned about the writing. The characters are wonderfully realised; I particularly liked the banter between Clare and her formidably clever aunts. Penelope Lively doesn't write down to her readers. For instance, this: Clare is in a school performance of Macbeth, and is watching from backstage. 

Clare, costumed for the banquet scene, sat on a pile of mats while people came and went - ordinary, familiar faces and shapes oddly translated into the shadow of something else. Not the substance, because in no way were these really Shakespeare characters, or even actors, but the shadow of such a thing faintly cast upon faces seen every day, talking, eating, singing, yawning. Faces distorted by make-up, but perfectly recognizable beneath, familiar voices inexpertly proclaiming thoughts and beliefs that could hardly be more inappropriate to a lot of people aged about fourteen leading uneventful lives in the South Midlands...

Nothing massively dramatic happens - no-one dies. Yet the tension mounts inexorably, the strangeness seeps through, the intermingling of the two world is completely convincing.

There's so much more to think about with this book, so much more to say. It considers the nature of time and memory. And absolutely central is the issue of ownership of a culture, and the artefacts created by that culture: Clare's uncle didn't steal the tamburan - but was he right to ask for it, and to take it away? It's a very topical subject - but here's Penelope Lively writing about it over forty years ago.

I loved it. I've already read another of Penelope Lively's books - an adult one - and I'll be seeking out more.


  1. I must re-read this book. I did read it once, a long time ago, and don't remember it too well, but I do love Penelope Lively's short stories, and as you say she is a wonderful writer. Thankyou for reminding me of it!

    1. About 20+ years ago, Penguin did a whole series of books called the 60's (60p). I've got a bunch of them, including 'A Long Night At Abu Simbel', by Penelope Lively. Just pulled it off the shelf, read a couple of pages. Time for a full re-read.

    2. Hope you enjoy it, Andrew. I've just read two books for adults by her. They were both good, but one - Judgement Day - was just so depressing at the end. She must have been in a bad place when she wrote that one, I think. I don't think I'd recommend that one.

    3. Indeed. To be fair, that book I mentioned comprises 3 short stories. The first two do seem to convey a rather baleful view of life. The 3rd, 'Pack of Cards', I rather enjoyed, It's about someone who visits a house where the occupants own all the classic books, all the latest books, all beautifully, scenically, and meticulously arranged , unread, on beautiful shelves.

      Course, that isn't like me at all. I had to peel away the Lively book from the others piled up against my living room wall. Dust covered, cobwebs everywhere. As I moved the pile, little scurrying figures. I did it all very gently to let them hide again. Very important not to have homeless spiders.

  2. One of my favourite reads! I went to do my PGCE in Norham Gardens.

  3. I read all Penelope Lively's children's books around the time they first came out, when I was about 30. I loved them all, but this one was far and away my favourite. It's not one of her better-known books, so I'm glad to hear there is a new edition. Must get it and re-read... Thanks for this review, Sue.