In her book, A House Unlocked, Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively opens up her past through a personal journey, triggered by the memories of a special, much-loved house. The result is a unique and revealing snapshot of the times, both personal and social. We asked Penelope to uncover more.
Can you tell us a little bit about A House Unlocked?
It's a mixture of social history with a bit of memoir. What I was trying to do was see a way in which this house, which had been of central importance to me all my life, could perhaps prompt a strange kind of social history. I found I could take objects in the house and use them as triggers to discuss how life in this country has changed over 80 years; social life, cultural life, the ways in which we look at the difference between town and country. My aunt [the artist Rachel Reckitt] lived there all her life and died there recently (she was in her 80s). It was a great big rambling inconvenient house on the edges of Exmoor, and so it had to go.
The family, my daughter and I especially, were distraught about this because we were so fond of it, then we realised in fact although it had gone it hadn't, because we had it still in our own heads; we could still move around the house. We knew exactly where every piece of furniture, every picture every furnishing was, nothing had been changed in over 80 years. So, in a way, it's very personal but in other ways quite abstract. The first chapter, which is called 'The Hall Chest, The Photograph Albums and The Picnic Rug' is really a discussion of how my family came to be in West Somerset, how they arrived there 100 years ago. It springs off into a discussion on the reason why people came to West Somerset in the 1880s and started using Exmoor as a kind of playground. Each chapter does the same sort of thing triggered by objects in the house.
There is a chapter called The Children on the Sampler, can you tell us a little about who they were?
The children on the sampler are not as one might think my grandchildren [the sampler was Penelope's Grandmother's]. She [my grandmother] was a wonderful, extremely skilled embroideress and she made this sampler of the house and the garden, at the bottom of which are 8 little embroidered figures. These are wartime evacuees. My aunt was working in London during the War, helping with getting mothers and children out of Stepney at the time of the blitz. She cabled her mother and said "you have 6 evacuee children arriving next week".
There was a special scheme for under-5s who were being sent off, pathetically one might think, without their mothers; if you took in 6 or more you got a matron and, I think, an under-matron to look after them. So, my grandmother wasn't actually changing the nappies and so on and so forth herself, but she gave over half her house to them. They had the run of the place and were there for several years during the war. That chapter is entirely about the whole astonishing, amazing evacuation movement which had such profound effects on the social life of this country. It opened people's eyes about how other people lived - the town about how the country lived, the country about how the town lived - and was a revelation to many people about urban poverty.
You seem to suggest that seemingly unimportant objects can also have an enormous resonance...
Oh absolutely, for instance, the potted meat jars that are part of the decoration of the church. My grandmother and other local people were always responsible for the flower decorations at Easter and Christmas and so forth, and the potted meat jars were what I had to do. I had to tie potted meat jars to the vertical struts of the lectern, which would then be filled with water and the whole thing would be swathed in ropes of ivy and so forth. Fresh jonquils and primroses would then be put into the potted meat jars...these things are still with me. I can remember what it was like with frozen hands at Easter trying to tie these wretched slippery things with raffia onto the pulpit.
It's not just objects that were in the house itself. A number of years ago, when the Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union, I went there with a group of British writers as guests of the Soviet Writers' Union to have round table discussions with them. There had been a lot of anxiety about whether or not this invitation should be taken up, whether it would just be turned into an opportunity for the Russians to make political points, in fact it was alright. On one occasion we dined in the apartment of one of the Soviet writers, although he was in a privileged position because he was a favoured writer of the regime, it was a tiny little apartment but we all squeezed into it somehow. We privileged Westerners looked at the assembly of what one would call, in this country, poverty- stricken objects around us, and I remember noticing amongst all the mismatched crockery on the table, one rather beautiful little 19th century coffee cup. I said to my hostess "what a pretty cup" and she said "that is all that I have from my mother, there was nothing else left after the War", and you realised this colossal difference. There were no objects left, all that had filtered down to her in the wake of the War was just this one little coffee cup.
In this country the bits and pieces that accrue identify us; there's something very important about physical objects if your life is totally stripped of all the objects that have meaning. They're not necessarily going to be valuable objects, but just all the little things that relate to something in your life, the thing given to you by somebody, the thing that you acquired somewhere. If all of those vanish it would be quite difficult to hold on to your own identity.
You write very powerfully about memory, do you think that's connected with the fact that your childhood took place in one country and your adolescence in another? Have you had to work quite hard at memories?
Being born and growing up in one place and then being uprooted at a sort of traumatic point in early adolescence and put in another place, and then having to learn how to conduct yourself and learn its codes and so forth, I think that this has a dramatic effect on anyone young. In a sense it's a pale version of the immigrant experience or the refugee experience. And I think it probably does, yes, it probably colours your attitude towards memory, the sense you have that memory is kind of enshrined within you. It's frozen there, not in any kind of linear sense but like a whole lot of slides in the mind, as it were. That certainly has always interested and preoccupied me. So you're absolutely right, a lot of the fiction has been about the operation of memory about the way in which it works, whether we control it in any way or whether it controls us.