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A House Unlocked - Penelope Lively

The book is a mini-social history of England in the 20th Century and straight away I was absorbed into the railway expansion of West Somerset. Lively likes to give the credit to the Romantic Poets who wrote of the beautiful countryside around the Quantocks and Exmoor.
As she says Poets expand our vision. Specific landscapes seem to require the endorsement of literary recognition. Three pages are devoted to the novel Lorna Doone which she recommends heartily. A keen gardener she likens the railway tracks to linear gardens which spread unusual plants to the far reaches of western England. What is called the Oxford ragwort found the granite chips of the track a perfect substitute for its usual home in southern Europe.
All this is in the first of eight chapters about the family home in Somerset. Each chapter is full of facts and information conveyed in a very readable manner. Church attendance for instance - in 1900 it is was down to 25% from the 40% of fifty years earlier. By the mid-1950s it was 10%.
Now I understand why there has been so many churches and chapels converted into homes. Mind you it is usually the inner-city ones that suffer this fate. Little country churches seem to have a protected life from the wrecker’s ball. Over time, with reduced congregations, even the village church may find it hard to provide the funds for basic maintenance.
There is a wonderful chapter about childhood in the late 19th century and the later theories on how children should behave. Lively is not afraid to mention her paternal grandmother’s passion for photos. She was a very good photographer of her six children. It was the thing to have them pose naked - in one example they were on the beach with the Cornish rocks in the background.
This photographic hobby allows Lively to discuss Lewis Carroll at length.
I am pleased she decides that there was nothing sinister in Carroll’s liking for photos of children and dismisses the wilder criticisms of Alice in Wonderland. She believes the book is unique in portraying quite simply how a child looks at the contradictions of adult behaviour.  
Social history can sound like a dull subject but Lively charts the changes and finishes on a positive note.

My thanks to Freyda for her review of A House Unlocked which is on Monthly Reads for February page 7.

Castorboy - I am so sorry - you asked if it were possible to copy and paste Freyda's review, and it's only now that I realise I did nothing about it - don't think I even replied to your message!!

I am sure Freyda won't mind if it is pasted here - but I don't have time right now, just off to teach a class - it would be good to have responses to this book all in one place.

It sounds wonderful!

Evie wrote:
Castorboy - I am so sorry - you asked if it were possible to copy and paste Freyda's review, and it's only now that I realise I did nothing about it - don't think I even replied to your message!!

As we say down under, Evie ‘No worries’.
Writing from a personal point of view I don’t mind if anything, including reviews, of mine is copied onto other forums.
In fact the ‘Quote’ button allows us to do that anyway. In the majority of cases it’s been used for replies within the same forum. But there is nothing to stop us taking a sentence or two or even the whole of a short review and using it on another forum. For example Lovely’s comment above on Lorna Doone could be copied and used in a review of the book on the Fiction  
However when copying ‘stand alone’ reviews to another forum I believe that should be done by the administrators of the Board following a request by a member.
Is that how you see it Evie? Smile

Oh - well, no, not really!  I would just assume that if someone posts something, they don't mind it being copied to another discussion - but then I am not nearly as polite as you, Castorboy!

Anyway, here is Freyda's post:

Freyda wrote:
I have just finished a delightful book by Penelope Lively called "A House Unlocked". It looks at social history in England from the 1920s (and harking back before this era) until now, through her memories of the house in Somerset which her grandmother and aunt lived in for over 70 years. Each chapter takes several resonant household objects as its title and Lively uses these as a jumping-off point to look at episodes in her family's life but also the events of the century and social change. E.g. a refugee boy who came to stay in the late 1930s.

Some chapters are fairly impersonal, like the one which looks at garden design and the plant hunters who brought so many now familiar plants to our shores and gardens. Others - like the one on the changing nature of marriage and relationships between men and women, and expectations about what different classes may do or different genders - is much more personal. Although it has a prosperous upper middle class country house /home as its centre, it isn't all about privilege. Lively's final comments are about being an adolescent plum in the middle of the 20th century which enabled her, through widening educational opportunities,  to meet and marry a man from a council estate in the North east, which could never have happened at an earlier time. She says the book is not a work of scholarship, which it isn't, but it is very perceptive, thoughtful and bang up to date, though written in 2002. She comments on the gap between rich and poor but says now it is bankers and sports stars who have "insolent wealth", which I thought a good phrase. I also learnt a few facts I didn't know before. Wonderful.

Delighted to find my thoughts re-quoted! And delighted that others might also enjoy this delightful book.

All-round delightedness, then.  Smile

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