The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively – 20 Books of Summer

The House in Norham Gardens cover

This is my second book from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively was first published in 1974. The setting is Oxford, a large rambling house at number 40 Norham Gardens, where 14 year old Clare Mayfield lives with her two elderly aunts. The 19 rooms in the house are stuffed with artefacts, nothing has ever been thrown away and the attic even has trunks full of her great grandparents’ clothes. Clare’s parents are dead and she has more or less become the carer for her aunts who are becoming quite frail. In the past the aunts had taken a lead in Oxford academic society and they have high hopes for Clare’s future which seem well-founded as Clare is a good scholar. However when Clare finds a strangely painted tribal shield in the attic it somehow preys on her mind. It must have belonged to her great-grandfather who had been a famous anthropologist. A combination of the shield and the money worries of running the household on a shoestring culminate in her schoolwork going to pot.

The aunts had previously agreed to having a lodger to help pay the bills and Maureen adds quite a bit of humour to the book. But more money is required and a young student of anthropology from Uganda moves in to the house too. John Sempebwa becomes a good friend as Clare shows him around Oxford and they visit museums, one of which exhibits tribal art.

This is a really good read and considering it was written 46 years ago it was way ahead of the times as it deals with British colonialism and the plundering of often sacred objects from other countries and cultures, something that academics are now arguing about and often unwilling to give up.

This book is set in winter and if I had realised that I would probably have saved it to read in winter, near Christmas maybe. It seems that Oxford suffers freezing cold and snowy winters. Poor Clare was often battling against snow and ice while on her bike. It helped cool me down during our recent mini heatwave.

A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively

A Stitch in Time cover

A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively was published in 1976. It won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award which isn’t at all surprising as it’s a lovely read. It was apparently aimed at readers between 11 and 14 but of course is for readers of all ages.

It begins with Maria and her parents driving to Lyme Regis for their summer holidays. Maria is an only child, her parents are rather old fashioned and staid introverts and it’s a lonely life for her. In fact she’s so lonely that she has conversations with inanimate objects with Maria supplying both sides of the conversation.

Her life changes completely when she becomes involved with a large and noisy family who are staying in the hotel next door. It’s a different world, but her parents are quite appalled by them, they can’t stand the mayhem, and Maria’s father can hardly recognise his daughter who is running around and having FUN.

Maria and Martin, the eldest boy in the family bond over their interest in fossils and spend time searching for them on the beach. When Mrs Shand the owner of Maria’s rental house discovers their interest she’s happy to show them her collection of fossils, but Maria is entranced by an old embroidered sampler on the wall, especially when she realises that the embroidered house in it depicts the house she’s holidaying in. Mrs Shand’s sister Harriet had embroidered the sampler and Maria feels that something bad must have happened to Harriet, she can almost feel her presence, and is it Harriet that she can hear playing on the non-existent swing?

I really enjoyed this one and it brought back memories of what it was like growing up in the 1960s/70s when loads of kids would pile into the back of a car to go on trips to the beach or wherever. No safety belts, just heaps of entangled limbs, laughs, shrieks and fun. We survived!

Spiderweb by Penelope Lively

 Spiderweb cover

Spiderweb by Penelope Lively was first published in 1998. I’ve read quite a lot of her books in the past couple of years and enjoyed them all, but although I liked this one for me somehow it lacked something, so I was a wee bit disappointed by it.

It begins with Stella Brentwood settling down in rural Somerset, she has bought her first home and is putting down roots, something she has avoided in the past, which is ironic really because her entire life has been taken up with anthropology, studying how other people live in more exotic areas of the world. She has always been an outsider but even as a student she never hankered after a husband and children, unlike her friend Nadine who had her future family life all planned out.

Stella’s closest neighbours are a bit of a problem family. Mrs Hiscox is a bully who is only happy when she’s raging at someone, so she rages all the time and her young teenage sons and her husband sigh with relief when she takes her bad temper outside the family. Stella is still observing human nature, just as she did in her career. When other people want more of Stella in their lives than she’s willing to give she realises that she has made a mistake settling down.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve written and as you would expect there are some great observations on human character, but I think that Stella’s detachment from society, colleagues and friends was a problem for me.

Recent Book Purchases

Books Again

I mentioned earlier that I only bought two books in Wigtown (Scotland’s book town – allegedly). I managed to get a lovely hardback copy of Dorothy Dunnett’s Scales of Gold, it’s one of her House of Niccolo books. I also bought a Virago, The Flint Anchor by Sylvia Townsend Warner in a shop called Byre Books which is hidden away behind some houses on the main street.

Jack had looked up an online list of secondhand bookshops in the UK. There was a shop listed in Gatehouse of Fleet, a very small town with not a lot in it, but a very wee shop on the High Street has a mixture of art and old books for sale. I managed (just) to stop myself from buying any of the art but I couldn’t resist buying three books.

Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook. I don’t have any of her books but I used to read her articles and when we lived in Essex for a couple of years we were close to her garden, but I used to always just catch a glimpse of it from the bus to Colchester. She died just last week but she was a good old age, over 90.

Peeps at Many Lands is a series of travel books and I bought the Corsica book which was published in 1909. It was written by Ernest Young and illustrated by E.A. Norbury. Published by Adam and Charles Black. It has some nice colour illustrations.

I think the man in the bookshop thought that I just bought books with pretty pictures because the other book I bought there is The Englishman’s Castle by John Gloag with charming illustrations of various sorts of grand homes by Marjory Whittington. This was was published in 1944 and has that Book Production War Economy Standard logo on it. I have quite a lot of books published in wartime and I must say that although the paper was supposedly not the best quality they’ve all fared well over the years, much better than modern paperbacks anyway. They seem to begin to deteriorate after just ten years or so.

Incredibly there’s another bookshop in Gatehouse of Fleet although it’s a bit more difficult to find as it’s housed in part of an old mill by the edge of the River Fleet. It’s a lot bigger and has mainly old books, I don’t think there is much at all in the way of modern-ish paperbacks which suits me fine. I bought a book by J.I.M. Stewart called The Man Who Won the Pools. Also The Garden of Ignorance by Mrs. Marion Cran which was published in 1917 I believe.

The last one I bought there is called Recording Scotland, published by Oliver and Boyd in 1952 and has loads of lovely illustrations of places in Scotland by famous artists. Somewhere I bought a copy of Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time, one of her books she wrote for children.

On the way back home we drove along the Ayrshire coast and into Lanarkshire with the intention of visiting Garrion Bridge, an antiques centre that we hadn’t been to for years. To be honest there’s very little there that could be described as an antique but we did find some books there. So I came away with a couple by D.E. Stevensons – Five Windows and Sarah’s Cottage and also a couple of old but pristine orange Penguin books by the Bradford author Oliver Onions,Widdershins and The Story of Ragged Robin, but those ones are gifts for a friend who collects that author. We were so chuffed to find those ones.

I think you’ll agree that that was quite a haul.

My Blog’s Name in TBR Books

I’ve never done this meme before but lots of the blogs that I enjoy frequenting have been doing it including Margaret at BooksPlease and I decided to join in. The idea is that you choose book titles from your TBR pile which begin with the letters of your blog name. So, here goes – sixteen of them. I intend to read them before the end of this year.

TBR Books

PPapa-la-bas by John Dickson Carr

IIf This Is a Man by Primo Levi

NNicolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

IIf Not Now, When by Primo Levi

NNot So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

GGuest in the House by Philip MacDonald

FFor the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil

OOld Hall-New Hall by Michael Innes

RReputation for a Song by Edward Grierson

TTroy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

HHow Late It Was – How Late by James Kelman

EEdinburgh by Robert Louis Stevenson

WWinter by Len Deighton

EEverything You Need by A.L. Kennedy

SSpiderweb by Penelope Lively

TTrooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell

Have you read any of these books and if so where should I begin?

Passing On by Penelope Lively

Passing On cover

Passing On by Penelope Lively was first published in 1989. Her previous book Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987, but I think that Passing On is even better than that one.

The book begins with the funeral of Dorothy Glover. It isn’t a massive funeral as she had been disliked by everyone she came into contact with, for good reason as she’s a nasty piece of work. Dorothy was a manipulator and a domineering bully who obviously got a lot of enjoyment out of making other people’s lives miserable. Her oldest children Helen and Edward are in their late forties and early fifties and they’ve never been able to get free of her grasp on them. This has had a terrible effect on their lives, particularly Edward’s. Louise, the youngest of the family is married with two children and she managed to get away from her mother because she has her mother’s determination and bad temper.

Their father is long-dead but he had been a mild-mannered man and Helen and Edward must take after him. It’s a mystery to the ‘children’ how their parents got together in the first place. With Edward and Helen’s lives more or less being on hold until their mother’s death they both need to widen their horizons, and hope to enjoy new experiences. But will it be possible?

All through the book everything that Helen does is accompanied by a running commentary by her mother in her head. It seems as if Dorothy is still getting at her from the grave, which indeed she is because the will is not what they all expect it to be.

I’ve read quite a few of Penelope Lively’s books now and they just keep getting better.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe cover

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively is the first of her many books for children that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. It was first published in 1973.

It’s the story of the Harrison family who have recently moved into an old cottage in Oxfordshire. There’s mum and dad and two children James and Helen and Tim the dog. James and Helen have a typical brother/sister relationship, often at loggerheads but occasionally united.

The house had needed a few repairs to be done to it before they moved in, James’s attic bedroom hadn’t been used for years, in fact the workmen had had to remove nails from the door to get in, it had been well blocked up.

James likes his bedroom but strange things happen in it. Things move and get broken, there are often cold draughts, and old fashioned writing appears in various places and Tim barks at thin air. With his reputation of being a bit naughty it’s not surprising that James’s parents blame him for all the nonsense that’s been going on. He’s in trouble and knows that there’s a poltergeist which has travelled from his room and is broadening its horizons, beginning to cause trouble in the village too.

It seems that the poltergeist is the spirit of a 17th century sorcerer called Thomas Kempe and he wants James to be his apprentice, but Thomas is not happy with the way modern life has evolved since he was last on the loose.

I would have loved this book as a child but like all well written children’s books it’s just as enjoyable a read for adults too. Lively won the Carnegie Medal for this book. I think the only other of her children’s books I have is The House in Norham Gardens. Have any of you read any of her books for youngsters?

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively

Life in the Garden cover

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively was just published earlier this year and it has also featured on BBC Radio 4 extra, you might still be able to listen to it here if you’re interested.

I loved this book and this time of the year made it a perfect read for me as it has suddenly got too cold to do anything in my garden, reading this was a good way of dealing with my withdrawal symptoms.

Penelope Lively was born into a family of keen women gardeners and from them she inherited the genetic tendency to plan and plant gardens wherever she could. Her first garden experiences were in Egypt where she grew up but eventually her family moved back to England where her grandmother, a very wealthy woman, gardened on a grand scale. It sounds like it must have been a wonderful place but as is often the way with gardens, it no longer exists, having been built on. I think that this is something that all gardeners realise – no matter how much work you put into them, in the end they’re very ephemeral and all it takes is a few seasons of neglect and that garden begins to disappear back into a wild state.

Penelope Lively talks about the various large gardens she has planned in different parts of England before settling in her vintage years in a small London garden. It’s a bit of a memoir of the gardens she has known and the books she has read. This is one of those dangerous books that mentions lots of other books and I found myself noting titles down for future reading, in fact I’ve already purchased one of them, English Flower Garden by W. Robinson, but a lot of the fiction books she mentions because they feature gardens. They’re mainly classics and most readers have probably read them all – Alice in Wonderland, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden. Authors such as Beatrix Potter, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West and lots more.

She talks about the changing fashions in plants, and roses of course feature quite heavily. She mentions that as she’s now 83 she can’t do everything in her garden herself and sometimes has to rely on getting a man in to do some jobs, with some disasters ensuing. She has admiration for gardeners in other parts of the world who aren’t lucky enough to have a climate such as Britain’s as we don’t have to cope with really awful low temperatures.

I really enjoyed this one, I’ll give it 5 stars on Goodreads I think, the only gripe I have about it is that although it’s a hardback and has an attractive cover, it was published by Penguin and has been bound so tightly I found it quite difficult to hold it for any length of time. I was the first person to borrow this one from the library so probably it will ease up eventually, but the actual paper used isn’t very good, I don’t think it will age well. Having said that I will probably buy Life in the Garden at some point as it’ll be great for dipping into during bad weather.

If you haven’t tried Penelope Lively’s fiction you should give her books a go!

City of the Mind by Penelope Lively

City of the Mind cover

City of the Mind by Penelope Lively was first published in 1991 and the setting is London where the Docklands area is undergoing massive changes with large buildings going up everywhere. The development has more or less torn the heart out of the place, that’s something that Matthew Halland recognises but he’s one of a firm of architects who have a huge project there in the shape of a vast turquoise glass building.

They’re also renovating a Georgian terrace and so he has a foot in the past and the present – in more ways than one because he has split up from his wife, they have a nine year old daughter and his thoughts keep flitting back to a time when he was besotted with his wife. When did it all start to go wrong? They both seemed to just fall out of love for no apparent reason now he has become aware that there’s something missing in his life, he has a void to fill.

At one point he inadvertently gets involved with a completely immoral developer, a hark back to the days when property owners used to use dirty tactics to rid their buildings of poor tenants, I suspect that that never has gone away though.

Matthew takes his daughter out every Saturday, to the various museums in London and he’s always amazed by the questions she asks, quite philosophical really and he’s proud of this daughter who obviously likes to think. He’s discovering just how intelligent young people can be, something he might never have done if he hadn’t split up from his wife in my opinion.

I’ve read quite a lot of Lively’s books now and have always enjoyed them. This one is a bit of a love letter to London I think, both past and present. A very enjoyable read.

I have some of Lively’s books for children in my TBR pile and I’ll be reading one soon – for Halloween probably!

Guardian Links

You might be interested in these links from today’s Review section in the Guardian:

There’s a Penelope Lively interview by Susanna Rustin which you can see here.

I was also interested in this article – Do we read differently as we get older? by Julian Barnes which you can see here.