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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 7th, 2002


A House Unlocked


A review by Brooke Allen

Many of Penelope Lively's fine novels, stories, and children's books, notably Moon Tiger (1987) and A Stitch in Time (1976), have dealt in one way or another with the subtle but tenacious links between historical forces and personal memory. Now, with A House Unlocked, she presents herself and her family as direct participants, albeit frequently passive and unconscious ones, in the feverish drama of the twentieth century.

Lively has chosen to examine the century through Golsoncott, the large Edwardian country house in west Somerset that was occupied by her grandmother and then her aunt from 1923 to 1995. Going through the familiar rooms in memory and imagination, Lively picks out particular objects and observes their significance in terms of larger trends. "The entire place -- its furnishings, its functions -- seemed like a set of coded allusions to a complete sequence of social change and historical clamor." Quiet, rural, intensely conservative, Golsoncott would appear to have been untouched by the modern world; yet, guided by Lively, we can see unmistakable traces of international tragedy and upheaval. There are, for example, the framed photographs of the foreigners who sought refuge there and became, for a time, part of the family: a Russian woman and her children who fled the Bolsheviks in the 1920s; a Viennese boy who fled the Nazis in 1939. A sampler stitched by Lively's grandmother in 1946 depicts not only the estate's lily pond and stables but also six cockney children, billeted at Golsoncott during the London Blitz. Thus the house bears witness to "one of the great human themes of the twentieth century -- that of those displaced in time and space."

The advance of the railway; the unprecedented familiarization of city dwellers with the country and vice versa; an equally unprecedented social mobility; the drastically declining role of the Church in English life; a radical reconception of the family: all these find their symbolic referents in Golsoncott's furnishings. The sideboard's stash of now tarnished, neglected silver -- including arcane items such as bonbon dishes and grape scissors -- is a visible emblem of the great postwar "trauma of the middle class occasioned by the death of domestic service." "When I examine my grandmother's deepest assumptions," Lively observes with a certain amusement, "it is her attitude towards household management that seems to be the one that removes her farthest from me." As for drudgery like washing dishes, she continues, "My grandmother considered that it should be done for her by others, and furthermore that such others would always be available, in the natural order of things; I find this viewpoint almost as inaccessible as Creationism." Lively writes the sort of graceful, unobtrusive English that is rare these days -- almost as redolent of time's passing, in fact, as her grandmother's tarnished silver. A House Unlocked is a very personal book, and the personality that shines through is an attractive one: diffident, thoughtful, gentle.

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