Once again, I am delighted and impressed by Penelope Lively’s effortless skill in winding me into her story. In this case, it really is her story. A House Unlocked is her ruminative ramble through British (and Russian) history, prompted by objects, plants and memories of her grandmother’s house in rural Somerset, where Lively spent much of her adolescence during school holidays and other occasions, from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Golsoncott was bought by her grandparents in 1923, and Lively first lived there properly after she and her parents arrived from Cairo during the Second World War. She had visited as a baby and a young girl, of course, but her real memories begin as a bewildered and probably rather sulky teenager, pitched into the gentry lifestyle and expectations of an autocratic grandmother and a mildly eccentric but impressively independent maiden aunt, the artist Rachel Reckitt. Lively unfolds the story of her family in small steps and casual glimpses: this is not a book to read if you want the complete history of her family. But if you want a story of how one house can resonate with the effects of the Russian Revolution, feminism, the shrinkage of the Anglican church and the history of embroidery and garden design, this is a wonderful book.
It’s organised in chapters: ‘The Children on the Sampler’ (about the wartime evacuees, and Aunt Rachel’s phenomenal evolution into a social worker and Socialist); ‘The Woman in White and the Boy on the Beach’ (about the Russian exiles who came to visit and had to stay, and the 15 year old German refugee whom Aunt Rachel brought home when he arrived from Germany in 1938 at Toynbee Hall in London, where all refugees from Nazi Germany turned up, with an Agricultural Trainee Permit but no place to go); ‘The Cedar of Lebanon and Erigeron karvinskianus’ (about Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and 20thC country house gardening); ‘The Gong Stand, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Potted-Meat Jars’ (about the decline in church attendance and the misery of decorating the pulpit with wet ivy in winter); ‘The Knife Rests, the Grape Scissors and the Bon-Bon Dish’ (about how Lively’s small granddaughter Rachel was delighted to be given her great-great aunt’s napkin ring engraved with her own name, but didn’t know was it was for, and how the gentry coped when there was no-one to cook the meals any longer).
Lively is such a good teller of her own family’s story. I’ve written about her memoir Oleander, Jacaranda, and have just this moment ordered Dancing Fish and Ammonites as the third of her memoirs. I would recommend this to anyone looking for history by surprise as well as by example. A lovely, humane, sensible book, forgiving and critical at the same time, because the effects of time are Lively’s perennial passion.