Writers

Add to researchPenelope Lively

Penelope Lively

Jane Brown

Born
Cairo, Egypt
Genre
Short Stories, Non-Fiction, Fiction, Drama, Children
 
 
Biography
Novelist and children's writer Penelope Lively was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1933 and brought up there.

She came to England in 1945, went to school in Sussex, and read Modern History at St Ann's College, Oxford.

Her many books written for children include Astercote (1970), The Whispering Knights (1971) and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973), which won the Carnegie Medal, A Stitch in Time (1976), which won the Whitbread Children's Book Award. Her retelling of The Aeneid, entitled In Search of a Homeland, was published in 2001 with illustrations by Ian Andrew.

Her first novel written for adults was The Road to Lichfield (1977), shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. It was followed by Treasures of Time (1979), winner of the Arts Council National Book Award and Judgement Day (1980). According to Mark (1984) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. She won the Booker Prize for Fiction with Moon Tiger (1987), the story of a woman journalist's reflections on a troubled life as she lies dying in a hospital bed, overshadowed by the memories of a love affair with a young soldier during the Second World War. More recent novels include Cleopatra's Sister (1993) and Heatwave (1996).

Spiderweb (1998) is the story of Stella Brentwood, a retired anthropologist, struggling to settle in a small village in Somerset after a lifetime spent travelling through Egypt, Greece and the Mediterranean. Nothing Missing but the Samovar (1978), a collection of short stories, won the Southern Arts Literature Prize. Many of her short stories are collected in Pack of Cards: Collected Short Stories 1978-1986 (1986).

She has written two volumes of autobiography, Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived (1994), a description of her childhood spent in Egypt, and A House Unlocked (2001), which continues the story in England.

Penelope Lively contributes regularly to a number of national daily newspapers and literary and educational journals including the Sunday Times, The Observer and the Times Educational Supplement. She has written radio and television scripts and was presenter for a BBC Radio 4 programme on children's literature. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of PEN and a former Chairman of The Society of Authors. She was awarded an OBE in 1989 and a CBE in 2001. Her novel, The Photograph (2003), is the story of a chance discovery that reveals the secrets of a woman's life. Recent books include Making it Up (2005), a form of anti-memoir, in which she imagines alternative outcomes to her life; and Consequences, a novel published in 2007.

Her latest novel, Family Album, was shortlisted for the 2009 Costa Novel Award.

Critical Perspective

Since the publication of her first novel in 1970 (a children’s book entitled Astercote), Penelope Lively has developed into a writer who is as prolific as she is wide ranging.

She is the author of over forty novels, short story collections and children’s fiction and has published in everything from The Literary Review to Woman’s Own, from Cosmopolitan to Books and Bookmen. As such diverse publications suggest, Lively’s work appeals to both a youthful, popular audience keen to find escape within a good yarn and to an academic audience interested in her experimental narrative techniques and her creation of what postmodern scholars sometimes refer to as ‘historiographical metafiction’.

Lively is especially concerned with the relationship between the past and memory, a concern that can be traced back to her years as an undergraduate when she read modern history. Speaking on the subject of memory, Lively has said she is interested in 'the ways in which the physical world is composed of memory, the ways in which it’s an encumbrance and the ways in which it is an asset … I can hardly decide which it is. But it is something that I’m constantly aware of and constantly seeking new ways of exploring fictionally'. It is the element of what she refers to here as ‘undecidability’ within her fictional prose that characterises her best work such as her Booker prize winning Moon Tiger (1987).

The protagonist of Moon Tiger is, fittingly enough, an historian. Claudia Hampton is dying of stomach cancer and from her death bed decides to preserve her past in the form of a novel. This leaves Claudia struggling to distinguish between official, public history and more personal recollections of love and loss during the second world war. Cairo is key to her narrative, and here Lively might be said to be drawing on her own experiences of Egypt as a child. Cairo is an ambivalent post-colonial space in Moon Tiger, a landscape in which Egyptians and Europeans alike seem both liberated by and shackled to a colonial past.

History and memory also combine to powerful effect in Lively’s more recent novel, The Photograph (2003). When Glyn Peters discovers an old photograph of his wife holding the hand of another man, his world is turned upside down. Like Claudia Hampton, Glyn Peters is an historian, but where Claudia struggles to write the past, Glyn struggles to reimagine it. The history he thought he knew seems to have deserted him like an unfaithful lover.

Lively’s next novel is an alternative history of the author, a sustained speculation on where she might have ended up had she done things differently at key moments of his life. Making it up (2005) is, in the author’s words, a work of anti-memoir which abandons linear causal history for a sense of the past and its pathways as both arbitrary, random and of deadly serious consequence.

Consequences (2007) is both the title and subject of Lively’s latest work. Exploring how ‘destinies can change in an instant’ through the lives of three generations of woman across the twentieth century, the book is in some ways a extension of the biographical departures witnessed already in Making it Up.


In contrast to the sad, sophisticated prose of much of Lively’s mature work, her earliest books are for children. Although she has continued to write for children ever since (her work appears regularly on school reading lists), her adult novel, The Road to Lichfield (1977) is often cited as a turning point in her career. Like Moon Tiger, this novel is also centred upon a figure on their death bed (death is a recurring theme in Lively’s work). This time it is Ann Linton’s father who has been taken to a nursing home in Lichfield. Within the midst of this sombre story Ann falls unexpectedly in love with David Fielding. The Road to Lichfield is a moving story that skilfully articulates the death of one relationship alongside the birth of another.

In more recent work such as Cleopatra’s Sister (1993), Lively has developed different points of focus, tension and intersection such as those between class and sexuality. The subject of Cleopatra’s Sister is Callimbia, an imaginary Middle Eastern country. This war-torn landscape is also the subject of the work of Howard (a palaeontologist) and Lucy (a journalist). Howard and Lucy are ambitious, career-minded protagonists, yet despite and because of their training both fail to comprehend (or render comprehensible) the landscape in which they find themselves trapped. As gaps gradually open between the pair’s perceptions of Callimbia and those of the omniscient narrator, Cleopatra’s Sister emerges as a novel about the politics of interpretation and the largely untranslatable boundaries between self and other.

More than just a novelist, Lively is a master of the modern short story, not to mention a popular practitioner of the ghost story, from Uninvited Ghosts and Other Stories (1997) to her recent contribution in Spooky Stories (2008).
Lively is also an accomplished writer of non-fiction. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived (1994) is a compelling, critically acclaimed autobiography of the author’s youth in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s. Like Cleopatra’s Sister however, and as its subtitle suggests, this is a text concerned with perceptions, glimpses and interpretations of the past, rather than a singular authoritative history. Among other things it offers a vivid depiction of World War II from a North African perspective that readers of Moon Tiger will find particularly illuminating.


Dr James Procter, 2009

Bibliography

2009
Family Album, Fig Tree
2008
Spooky Stories: Three Stories in One, with Mary Hoffman and Gillian Cross, Egmont
2007
Consequences, Viking
2005
Making it Up, Viking
2003
The Photograph, Viking
2001
In Search of a Homeland, illustrated by Ian Andrew, Frances Lincoln
2001
A House Unlocked, Viking
1999
One, Two, Three Jump!, illustrated by Jan Ormerod, Puffin
1999
May Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge Short Stories, editor, Varsity Publications, Cambridge
1999
Dragon Trouble, illustrated by Kevin Rowland, Mammoth
1998
Spiderweb, Viking
1998
Beyond the Blue Mountains, Penguin
1997
Uninvited Ghosts and Other Stories, Mammoth
1997
Two Bears and Joe, illustrated by Jan Ormerod, Puffin
1997
Staying with Grandpa, Puffin
1997
Goldilocks, editor, Macdonald Young Books
1997
Ghostly Guests, Mammoth
1996
The Mythical Quest, introduction, British Library
1996
My Antonia/Willa Cather, introduction, Everyman
1996
Heatwave, Viking
1996
Good Night, Sleep Tight, illustrated by Adriano Gon, Walker
1995
Two Bears and Joe, Viking
1995
Staying with Grandpa, Viking
1995
Disastrous Dog, Macdonald
1994
The Cat, the Crow and the Banyan Tree, Walker Books
1994
Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, Viking
1993
Princess by Mistake, Simon & Schuster
1993
Judy and the Martian, Simon & Schuster
1993
Cleopatra's Sister, Viking
1993
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Lewis Carroll, introduction, Everyman
1991
City of the Mind, André Deutsch
1990
The Stained Glass Window, Julia MacRae Books
1989
Passing On, André Deutsch
1988
The Age of Innocence/Edith Wharton, introduction, Virago
1987
Moon Tiger, Heinemann
1987
Manservant and Maidservant/Ivy Compton-Burnett, introduction, Oxford University Press
1987
Debbie and the Little Devil, Heinemann
1987
A House Inside Out, André Deutsch
1986
Pack of Cards: Collected Short Stories 1978-1986, Heinemann
1984
Uninvited Ghosts and Other Stories, Heinemann
1984
Dragon Trouble, Heinemann
1984
Corruption, Heinemann
1984
According to Mark, Heinemann
1984
A Father and his Fate/Ivy Compton-Burnett, introduction, Oxford University Press
1983
Perfect Happiness, Heinemann
1982
Next to Nature, Art, Heinemann
1981
The Revenge of Samuel Stokes, Heinemann
1980
Judgement Day, Heinemann
1980
Fanny and the Battle of Potter's Piece, Heinemann
1979
Treasures of Time, Heinemann
1979
Fanny and the Monsters, Heinemann
1978
The Voyage of QV 66, Heinemann
1978
Nothing Missing but the Samovar, Heinemann
1977
The Road to Lichfield, Heinemann
1976
The Presence of the Past: An Introduction to Landscape History, Collins
1976
Fanny's Sister, Heinemann
1976
A Stitch in Time, Heinemann
1975
Going Back, Heinemann
1975
Boy Without a Name, Heinemann
1974
The House in Norham Gardens, Heinemann
1973
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, Heinemann
1972
The Driftway, Heinemann
1971
The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Heinemann
1971
The Whispering Knights, Heinemann
1970
Astercote, Heinemann

Awards

2009
Costa Novel of the Year Award, Family Album, shortlist
2001
CBE
1989
OBE
1987
Booker Prize for Fiction, Moon Tiger
1984
Booker Prize for Fiction, According to Mark, shortlist
1979
Arts Council National Book Award, Treasures of Time
1978
Southern Arts Literature Prize, Nothing Missing but the Samovar
1977
Booker Prize for Fiction, The Road to Lichfield, shortlist
1976
Whitbread Children's Book Award, A Stitch in Time
1973
Carnegie Medal, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

Author Statement

'In writing fiction I am trying to impose order upon chaos, to give structure and meaning to what is apparently random. People have always sought explanations and palliatives for the arbitrary judgements of fate. I am an agnostic, and while I would not suggest the construction of fiction as an alternative to religious belief, it does seem to me that many writers - and I am certainly one - look at it as an opportunity to perceive and explain pattern and meaning in human existence. I am also deeply conscious of the limitations of experience - the sense in which the writer is fettered by gender, age and social and historical context. It seems to me that the challenge of writing novels and short stories is to transcend and translate personal experience, to try to give a universal and comprehensible significance to things which seem part of the fortuitous scenery of one's own life. But a view of the world is essentially and inevitably a personal one, conditioned by circumstance; I write within the English tradition of saying serious things in a relatively light-hearted way. Two of the qualities I most admire in other writers are accuracy and concision - the ability to say most by saying least; with this in mind what I am always trying to do is to find ways of translating ideas and observations into character and narrative. The short story can act as a concentrated beam of light; the novel is a more expansive and dispersed reflection. They do different things, I think, but both depend upon selection and metamorphosis - taking from life the situations that seem to offer insights, and then giving them the form and discipline of fiction.'