The only child of divorced parents, Penelope Lively was often sent to stay at her grandparents’ country house, Golsoncott. Long after the house was sold out of the family, she begins to piece together the lives of those she knew fifty years before.
As her narrative shifts from room to room, object to object, Lively paints a moving portrait of an era of rapid change—and of a family that transformed with the times. Charting the course of the domestic tensions of class and community among her relatives, she brings to light the evidence of the horrors endured during the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust through accounts of the refugees who came to live with them.
“An elegiac yet resolutely unsentimental book, the house becomes a Rosetta stone for the author’s familial memories and an unwitting index of social change” in this eloquent meditation on place and time, memory and history, and tribute to the meaning of home (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times).
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 17, 1933
Place of Birth:Cairo, Egypt
Education:Honors Degree in Modern History, University of Oxford, England, 1955
Read an Excerpt
The Hall Chest, the Photograph Albums and the Picnic Rug
The hall chest was carved oak, some four feet long and three feet deep. Late nineteenth-century, I would guess, and brought to Golsoncott from my grandparents' previous home in St Albans. Indeed, it features in a photograph in one of the albums, doing duty in that other hall. At Golsoncott the chest housed the albums, a great pile of them, the hefty leather-bound objects favoured in the early part of the twentieth century. Here was the pictorial history of the house and garden, and their predecessors at St Albans; through the pages troop family and friends, from the 1890s onwards. Edwardian skirts and Norfolk jackets give way to twenties shapeless dresses and Oxford bags. People are decked out in silks and morning dress for weddings; young mothers pose with babies by the sundial in the rose garden. The babies grow up and are wed in turn; more babies peer down into the lily pond.
At the other end of the chest was a welter of dog leads, brown wrapping paper, lengths of string and bald tennis balls. On the top of the contents lay the picnic rug, stained and weathered tartan, veteran of many a moorland lunch or tea and potent symbol of how it all began – the family's hundred-year addiction to north-west Somerset, now into the fifth generation.
You could say that this addiction was fuelled by the advent of the Great Western Railway. Wordsworth and Coleridge had a hand in it, which would perhaps have been news to my grandmother and her siblings – not a bookish lot – whooping it up on the moor in their youth around the turn of the century. There they are, the Hewetts, in the earliest album, the late Victorian family incarnate, their names alone pinning them firmly to a time and a class: Walter, Gilbert, Maud, Beatrice, Harold and Douglas. On a Sunday afternoon in 1895, having tea on the lawn of Wootton Courtenay Rectory, rented for the summer, the party expanded with a couple of friends. Most of them are sitting on chairs, but the two youngest are sprawled on a rug similar to the one I knew in my adolescence. There is a table with white cloth and silver kettle; on the grass is a three-tier cake stand, the cakes largely demolished. The girls – all are in their late teens or early twenties – wear hats, round straw with shallow crowns and brims and wide petersham bands. All have long skirts and sumptuously swollen leg-of-mutton sleeves, either on their white-frilled and pin-tucked blouses worn with a dark ribbon tied in a bow around the neck, or on their jackets. Other photographs are less posed – here they are on Larkbarrow in the autumn of 1901, on a moorland hike, in deerstalkers and straw boaters, Norfolk jackets and long skirts. Here is Harold in a larky pose with his head on one side and boater tipped jauntily to the back of his head, beside his nicely smiling sisters, a pipe jutting incongruously from his youthful face. And here he is flat on his back on the shingle of Porlock beach with Maud leaning over him, bespectacled and wearing a man's tie, apparently admonishing. Often some or all of them are on horseback – the horse always named in the handwritten caption: Lorna, Hard Bargain. Dogs too are meticulously identified.
In all these photographs the family is defined by dress. What they wear and how and where they are wearing it tells you who they are: upper class. They may be on holiday, in an isolated spot, engaged in strenuous country pursuits, but they cannot be without their badges of identity. The girls must have their matching coats and skirts, their hats, the men their tweed jackets, their collars and ties. Looking at family parties in summer Somerset today, I note that everyone is again clad very much alike – in jeans, leggings, chinos, T-shirts, trainers. But nothing tells me where the wearers fit into the social system – they are classless, anonymous. Until they open their mouths, and even then distinctions are blurred. Back in 1900 that family's dress and utterance set them apart instantly. Anyone seeing and hearing them could have told you what sort of home they occupied and their manner of living.
The story of Golsoncott over the seventy years of its occupancy by this family has two dominating themes, and those are social change and absence of change. The style of its habitation over time reflects in microcosm the shifting sands of this country's class structure. Things are done differently now – up to a point. The structure remains, but at the end of the twentieth century it is opaque, furtive, lurking behind the engineering feats of educational opportunity and social mobility. We all know who we are and whence we came, but it is harder to define others. This subtle reconstruction of how people view one another is nicely expressed, for me, in those sepia photographs of six twenty-somethings on Exmoor back then.
Sepia. A descriptive term for a kind of early photograph, but also a loaded one. The photographs themselves are loaded, indeed. I have to look at them with a cool dissecting eye because images such as these are tainted. They have become the currency of the remembrance industry – the stock of grainy postcards for sale by the bundle, the furnishings of souvenir guidebooks, representing a past that is reinvented in tune with the requirements of the present. Heritage. Nostalgia. Freighted words – nostalgia especially, a term itself subject to reinterpretation over time. Pejorative today, implying a distorted vision to be avoided, but a term that carried a clear and precise meaning once, in the eighteenth century: 'homesickness', German Heimweh, a condition recognized as requiring treatment and thus, when diagnosed in a soldier, entitling him to a spell of home leave.
So I look at the photographs for what they can tell me about their time, trying to extract information, to see beyond the obscuring sepia haze that gives them nostalgia status. But they have a further dimension. Those people fossilized in that particular fraction of a second subsequently stepped out of the frame, assumed flesh and personality. Several of them are vibrant within my own head – my grandmother, my great-uncles – reconstructed for the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Nostalgia in any sense of the term is out of place.
Four members of that turn-of-the-century group would eventually settle in west Somerset. My grandmother brought her family there in 1923 to Golsoncott, a Lutyens-style house built some ten or fifteen years earlier at the foot of the Brendon Hills, and set about creating a large Gertrude Jekyll-style garden to complement it. Aunt Maud set herself up in a gloomy house in Porlock that matched her aloof, acerbic style – I remember visits to her in adolescence, neither of us finding anything to say to the other. Douglas and Harold, the youngest of the siblings, became Uncle Chuff and Uncle Herk, pursuing brief parallel careers in the Burmese and Indian Civil Services before retiring at a comfortably early age to live together in a house overlooking Porlock Vale, purpose-built for them before such refinements as planning permission. They were bachelors in the old-fashioned sense of the word – not a woman in sight, nor anything else. Their long and gleeful retirement was devoted entirely to walking and riding on the moor, rising to the seasonal high of stag hunting, on which Uncle Herk published a small but definitive work, The Fairest Hunting. The house was astonishing, a cross between a London club and an officers' mess somewhere in the East – huge battered leather armchairs, brass coffee tables, moth-eaten oriental rugs, bamboo screens, a tiger skin. Bits of foxes and stags sprouted from the wall – grinning masks, tattered brushes, a forest of antlers. We used to go there for tea – the uncles served copious schoolboy teas: jam puffs, doughnuts, sponge rolls, rock cakes. They wore ancient hairy tweeds deeply impregnated with cigarette smoke. Uncle Chuff was purple-faced and convivial, Uncle Herk was beaky, weather-beaten and equipped with a silver cigarette case on the back of which each fag was briskly tapped before being lit. They addressed each other as 'brother' and my grandmother as 'sister', treating her with joshing affection, as someone deeply familiar but of another species. And, looking again at the photographs, I see that she and Maud are always standing together but slightly apart from the others. Their brothers in plus-fours and jackets are a uniformed brigade: the Men.
My great-uncles seem to have hammered their sex drive into total submission and settled to a satisfactorily uncomplicated alternative of pursuing red deer over the moor. I remember them fondly and admire their genial treatment of a young and awkward female relative – they can't have had much to do with schoolgirls. Indeed, when I knew them in the forties and fifties they had not had much to do with a good deal of twentieth-century England, holed up down there, and hence were relatively untroubled by what was going on elsewhere. There were ritual fulminations about the horrors of a Labour government after 1945, but with a certain detachment, as though they could not conceive that they themselves would be severely inconvenienced, as indeed they probably were not. Rather surprisingly, both of them went in for versifying – carefully typed selections survive still, some of them dating back to 1900. Cod verses after Tennyson and Kipling. Heavy-handed Edwardian humour – 'Apology to a Lady' makes you wonder for a moment about their bachelordom: 'If you met an angel / You would surely find / You for once had lost your head / Got confused in mind / Now perhaps you understand / Why I always put / Into every social trap / My ungainly foot.' But another poem by Uncle Herk sets the record straight by pondering the advantages of marriage, and then deciding that his horse is preferable as a companion – biddable, controllable and, it would seem, more congenial. A somewhat ham-handed Longfellow parody has Hiawatha out with the Devon and Somerset staghounds and failing to be in at the kill: 'Very wroth was Hiawatha / To have missed the glorious finish.' But a high proportion of their verse is jingoistic stuff hymning the glories of Empire and the virtues of being English. I read it now with bewilderment, thinking of those jovial figures, plying one with jam tarts and talking to my grandmother about their dahlias – realizing that the climate of their minds is as alien as that of another century.
The attractions of Exmoor and west Somerset for those turn-of-the-century young people were sternly physical. They would pursue their favourite activities – riding, walking, cycling. Walking, above all – punishing long-distance walks across the moor, the ritual morning ramble. My grandmother considered a daily walk an essential part of civilized existence – she continued the regime into her eighties and lived to the age of ninety-seven. In the Golsoncott cloakroom was a stack of walking-sticks, their handles burnished with use, the necessary props for swiping nettles, lifting gate latches, hooking down a high spray of blackberries. The family took walking seriously, and in that sense they were eerie descendants of those great walkers, the Romantic poets, and also precursors of the early twentieth-century passion for hiking and rambling, when striding out into the landscape ceased to be a middle-class preserve and became a leisure occupation for the masses. Type the keyword 'rambles' into the British Library on-line catalogue for publications before 1975 and up come a dizzying 969 entries, some indication of the spread and intensity of interest. In the twenties and thirties the urban young and fit poured out into the countryside, on cycles and on foot, perfectly enshrined by those Shell posters of the period in which rosy-cheeked figures in shorts, shirts and hiking boots pause to consult the map on a five-barred gate.
But that particular revolution was a long way off in the 1890s. Walking for pleasure was a socially restricted activity. Furthermore, Exmoor itself was a relatively recent discovery, opened up by the railway in much the same way as the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Nevada. People had not realized it was there – except of course those who had been living and working in those parts for centuries. But from the moment Isambard Kingdom Brunel's line snaked west towards the toe of the country, and in due course threw out tentacles to net the whole of the peninsula, nothing would be the same again.
My great-grandparents were West Country holiday pioneers, beneficiaries of the Great Western Railway. At the turn of the century they started to remove there with their brood, renting a house and settling in for a season of determined activity. Exmoor was ideal – it had overtones of Scotland but was now more accessible and was furnished with equivalent fauna, some of which you could slaughter on horseback rather than with a gun, thus combining two favoured activities, riding and blood sports. The men shot, rode and walked. The women walked and sketched. They were after all late Victorians and knew what was expected of them – my grandmother indeed went briefly to art college in London (where she attended classes given by Gilbert Tonks) and had a talent which was later expressed in superb needlework. But, most importantly, they were celebrating the scenic glories of the place – the great curves of the moor, the melting colours, the green tapestry of the combes. West Somerset had arrived as somewhere you visited for aesthetic enjoyment.
It had not always been so. For centuries discriminating travellers seldom set foot further west than Bristol and Bath and those who did steered well clear of the barren wastes of Exmoor and Dartmoor. The ecstatic discovery of the Quan-tocks by Coleridge and the Wordsworths was the beginning of the gathering perception through the nineteenth century that there was much to be said for points west, but initially this was a revelation restricted to a small number of cognoscenti. Philip Gosse trawled for seashore specimens on the north Devon coast. The Tennysons visited Lynton on their honeymoon and explored the Valley of the Rocks. Large-scale visitation of the area was still a long way off; the three counties, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, got on with what they had been doing for centuries, agriculture and local industry – a world apart. The moorland was simply there, the soft grey ridge on the horizon – rising from green distances and crowned with a fleece of cloud along its length – that one sees from the train today.
Early topographical travel writers steered clear of the moor. Celia Fiennes, indomitably riding west in 1698, ignores it entirely as she travels from Taunton to Wellington and Cullompton and thence deeper into Devon. The charms of Exeter merit several pages ('spacious noble streets and a vast trade is carried on') and the plunging Devon hills are noted in passing but the distantly looming moor is of no apparent interest. Daniel Defoe was also inclined to focus on town descriptions but with a distinctly wider range and depth; and he did at least notice the moor, travelling north-west from Taunton to take a look at the coast and thus, by the way, 'Exmore [which] gives, indeed, but a melancholy view, being a vast tract of barren, and desolate lands; yet on the coast, there are some very good sea-ports.' He also nails the perceived otherness of the west with his comments on local speech in Somerset:
It cannot pass my observation here, that when we are come this length from London, the dialect of the English tongue, or the country way of expressing themselves is not easily understood, it is so strangely altered; it is true that it is so in many parts of England besides, but in none so gross a degree as in this part.
Later eighteenth-century travellers paid hardly any attention to areas off the beaten track. Dr Richard Pococke was a clergyman whose duties were sufficiently undemanding to allow for frequent and extended travels. Indeed, he cut his teeth as a travel writer with the grandly titled A Description of the East and Some Other Countries, an account of a journey to Egypt and the Levant. But in later life he concentrated on home territory with Travels through England, a busy and informative survey which included a tour right down through the West Country into Cornwall. He sticks to the south coast of Devon, sternly (or wisely) avoiding the interior and is mainly interested in cathedrals, castles, the seats of the aristocracy and country gentry. He was writing with an eye to his readership, presumably, and was well aware that they would be no more inclined than he himself was to risk a foray into the wastes of the moor.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A House Unlocked"
Copyright © 2001 Penelope Lively.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Hall Chest, the Photograph Albums and the Picnic Rug,
The Children on the Sampler,
The Gong Stand, The Book of Common Prayer and the Potted-Meat Jars,
The Woman in White and the Boy on the Beach,
The Cedar of Lebanon and Erigeron karvinskianus,
The Sunset Painting and the Harness Room,
The Dressing-Room, the Nursery and the Grand Piano,
The Knife Rests, the Grape Scissors and the Bon-Bon Dish,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An intriguing way to write both history and autobiography.
It's hard to categorize this book. Penelope Lively herself describes it as fiction, but it's not really. Not in the traditional sense. It's imagined social history, based on observations and facts. Faction? I broke the "Rule of 50" on this one. I read only 30 pages before giving up, and I'm not yet (and probably never will be) 70 - the age declared by Nancy Pearl's rule as one at which you only need to read 30 pages to make a decision. Of course the principle behind Pearl's rule is that the older you get, the less you can afford to waste time reading books you really don't like. I claim an exemption because I started reading late in life, and I expect to die young. OK, on to my next book in my Festival of Lively Reading: "According to Mark" (by Penelope Lively, of course!)