I’ve been enjoying reading some of Penelope Lively‘s novels this year so when I saw A House Unlocked sitting in the biography section of the library I just had to borrow it.
Actually I was expecting something quite different from the title of the book, I thought it would be about the house she had grown up in, but the house of the title is her grandparents’ house, a large and very grand place which was run with the help of umpteen servants and gardeners. Lively grew up in Egypt but was sent back to the house for holidays, she was an only child of divorced parents so there were no reminiscences of the things that she and siblings had got up to in the house. She tells the story of the house through objects that were in it, but at times it’s more about social history, as an embroidery sampler stitched by her grandmother reminds her of the evacuees that had stayed in the house during the war. But instead of writing about those specific children Lively chose to explain how the evacuation of millions of children and some women had been achieved, and the consequent shock to all concerned. That may be news to some readers I suppose.
The locals were appalled to discover that all of the city children seemed to have lice and Lively comments that that is something that has changed since her younger days as now even middle-class children have nits, including her grand-children. That was news to me as I’m very thankful that I’ve never had to deal with such things, despite having had two boys. Prevention is best, comb their hair with a fine toothed comb at least four times a day and you’ll have no problems is what I suggest!
The hymn book reminds her of the church and that leads her to go into detail of the statistics of the church attendance of the Church of England over the years, it has dwindled drastically although church going was never in a healthy state, not even in Victorian times. Although she herself is a non-believer, she attends the church more to support the actual upkeep of the building and stop it from being deconsecrated and turned into flats or a wine bar.
I found the parts detailing the garden most interesting, how such a huge place was set out and planted. As she freely admits, if it hadn’t been for the very many Scottish plant hunters of the 19th century lots of the trees and plants would never have arrived in Britain’s gardens and estates.
It wasn’t until almost the end of the book that Lively explains what financed the very comfortable life style. Her family name was Reckit, which I immediately recognised as the well known manufacturer of household cleaning/laundry products such as Reckitt’s Blue, Silvo, Brasso and Robin Starch – do you remember that? It was obviously a very lucrative business although as the family was ‘trade’ they wouldn’t have fitted in with some snooty people’s idea of high society.
Social mobility that came about post World War 2 meant that her husband Jack Lively had been able to get to Cambridge despite being brought up in a council house and in an earlier generation she would have been very unlikely ever to have met him, never mind married him. I found those observations quite depressing as over the last forty years or so things have definitely gone backwards, with first evening classes having to be paid for and more recently university education no longer being free.
So as I said, I found this book to be a wee bit disappointing, I think fiction writers often don’t hit the right spot with me when they turn to memoirs, I suspect some of them hold too much back. But I might be being unfair as I immediately started reading Diana Athill’s book Alive, Alive Oh! after this one and for me that one was much better – but that’s for another day!