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There is nothing cosy about Penelope Lively

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

Metamorphosis: Selected Stories Penelope Lively

Fig Tree, pp.324, 20

At one time, Penelope Lively was routinely shortchanged by critics. Her protagonists are often middle-class professionals — historians, archeologists, scriptwriters and the like — and her Booker-prizewinning Moon Tiger was notoriously dismissed as the ‘housewife’s choice’. Now, gods, stand up for housewives!

Lively is not a cosy read. The word which keeps coming to mind to describe these stories is ‘beady’ — though I may be influenced by ‘The Purple Swamp Hen’, in which the narrator is a wise old bird in the garden of a household in Pompeii (AD 79). A bird’s gaze is bright, speculative and disconcertingly dispassionate. Ted Hughes found the ‘attent sleek thrushes on the lawn’ to be ‘terrifying’; and Lively has more than a touch of that ‘poised/ dark deadly eye’. She elegantly pounces, and skewers; but the cruelty that thrills Hughes is largely absent. She does not regard her characters as a bird regards a worm, with cold greed: there is compassion, though of a distinctively Olympian aloofness.

What is disconcerting about Lively is the creative tension between her representation of individual experience — limited, fallible, fragmented — and her authorial voice, urbane, amused and semi-omniscient. Characters are shown from their POV — in the jargon of the scriptwriter in one of these stories, ‘Point of View’ — but are also set in the context of their class, their generation, the zeitgeist of their age. With this double perspective, Lively shows what she once called the ‘intimate debris of people’s lives’ left by the tides of history.

Metamorphosis is a collection of stories culled from Lively’s career, allowing an overview of her evolution as a writer; but the first and the last stories are new. The opening story, ‘Metamorphosis, or the Elephant’s Foot’, highlights some distinctive themes. The heroine is a character who, like Emma Woodhouse, is, all in all, pretty pleased with herself, ‘managing her own life nicely’. We first meet Harriet as a child, in 1915, with button boots, hat and ringlets, walking past an umbrella stand made from an elephant’s foot. It is typical of Lively that the child fails to notice this ‘unappealing metamorphosis’: she is self-absorbed, not sensitive. (Lively is unsentimental about children, whom she once described as ‘beings apart, impenetrable’, though maternal instincts play their part in shaping several of these stories.)

Metamorphosing into a purposeful adult, Harriet takes as much control of her life as she can. She is a ‘pioneering woman student’ at a time when they did not get drunk or have sex (‘well, there may have been a few who lapsed’). She becomes a bookseller, marries a travel writer and lives in a cottage ‘entranced with her own liberated condition’. Motherhood is an affront; giving birth is ‘painful and undignified’. Her child is quickly shunted off to her parents and an old nanny, then to boarding school; and the husband is discarded as Harriet finagles a glamorous wartime job in Cairo and Jerusalem. Post-war, she becomes a publisher and a writer, unerringly choosing topics that are ‘nicely attuned to the zeitgeist’; and she even finds love at the age of 54.

We are not invited to disapprove of Harriet exactly, as she rides the waves of change, a cultural buccaneer. But she exploits other people as well as trends; and her tale is framed by outdated artefacts plundered from now endangered species — the elephant umbrella stand, a whalebone parasol, a tortoiseshell mirror. Humanity —fallible, greedy for change — is seen from another perspective.

In ‘A World of Her Own’, the exploitation is central, the disapproval stronger. ‘My sister Lisa is an artist’, and ‘once Mother realised about her being artistic, she made allowances’. Lisa expects her mother to fund her, and her sister to look after her children: the long-suffering narrator is on the verge of disillusionment and rebellion — a sharp, uncomfortable edge, expertly drawn. But middle age creeps up even on the wilfully childlike Lisas of this world; and it is easier to judge the worth of art with hindsight.

The stories are particularly gripping when describing escalating panic. This might be unexpected, given the cool precision of Lively’s writing; but it effectively captures the heightened clarity of tension or shock. The plight of two characters is especially vivid. A lecturer is lost as darkness falls on a Yugoslavian mountainside (the story is precise in time as well as place: the break-up of the country is imminent); and an exhausted mother, working night shifts as a carer for the elderly, is frantically micromanaging her schedule to the last precious minute, while her clients, and her daughters — who are ‘doing’ the Victorians at school — condescendingly tell her that modern women have it easy.

Lively is at her best, too, when the fragility and contingency of our culture are felt in a foreign country. In ‘A Clean Death’, an adolescent girl is caught between childhood memories of India and a cold winter, with ‘skeletal hedges’, in Suffolk, where she has been sent to spend Christmas with an unfamiliar aunt. That adolescent sense of not-belonging — in one’s own body or in the social mores of the world — is intensified by exile.

In ‘Abroad’ a couple of young soi-disant artists set off to paint peasants: ‘Fifty years ago, there were peasants in Europe,’ still doing picturesquely peasanty things. Like Lisa, the couple believe that ‘artists can’t be hampered by the dailiness of ordinary life’; but they are brought into unexpectedly close contact with the realities of the life of their subjects. The lesson learnt is, characteristically, not what one might hope for or expect. ‘I’m glad I realised when I was young that actually money signifies. I’ve been able to — well, organise my life so much better.’

Occasionally, an ending is too foreseeable. Sometimes, the authorial control is overriding, and smacks of comeuppance, as in ‘The Third Wife’ — though there can be housewifely pleasures in such neatness. But in every story there are the incidental pleasures of sharp observation, specific to time, place, class and character. An elderly cat-owner sees the belly of a pregnant cat ‘soft and sagging like the bag of a vacuum-cleaner’, and we are looking through the eyes of a woman old enough to visualise a vintage Hoover — a housewife, indeed, though not to be dismissed when she dons her gardening gloves (the story is called ‘The Emasculation of Ted Roper’).

Underestimate these stories at your peril, indeed. In ‘Licence to Kill’, the teenage helper of an 86-year-old woman is startled to discover that her charge was once a trained spy, and even in old age is ‘doomed to pry, and make informed guesses’.

It is the déformation professionelle of a writer, too. Lively’s guesses combine a thoroughly modern sense of how little we can know of each other, even (or especially) within a marriage, with an old-fashioned delight in the transitory specifics of time and place, snatched from the changing sweep of history.

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