Penelope Lively: deep thoughts, friendship, and ghosts

Penelope Lively knew what it was like to be a child.

That’s my main impression after reading, no, devouring, three of her books, all written in the 1970s: The Whispering Knights (1971); The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973); and A Stitch in Time (1976). Lively’s child protagonists are independent of adults, toward whom they have their own definite opinions. They are imaginative, often absorbed in the games, beliefs, and worlds they create, which true-to-life are as much present and real as the world that adults inhabit. And these protagonists, or some of them, are full of vast thoughts, wonderings, and knowledge that somehow cannot be translated into words that anyone else would understand. But the thoughts and discoveries are there all the same, below the surface.

Lively’s tales have a strong sense of place and time. Although her books were written and set in the 1970s, the setting and characters’ outlooks are concrete and do not feel dated.

  Lively - The Whispering Knights

In The Whispering Knights, William, Susie, and Martha make the potion from Shakespeare’s MacBeth in a place where a witch was said to live. William, whose idea it was, is sure that this is merely a scientific experiment. Susie is game for anything. Martha is not at all as sure as the others.

Miss Hepplewhite touched the ask with her stick. Feathery grey curls writhed, and fell apart. “I don’t know that you have done anything wrong,” she said. “But you may have done something very unwise.”

They all looked at her, startled. Susie, beginning to collect things up, put the empty tin down again suddenly. Martha’s stomach lurched again and she thought: “I knew we shouldn’t! I knew we shouldn’t, but they wouldn’t listen!”

William said, “But it’s all superstition. Witches and that. It was just for fun. There wasn’t ever a witch here.”

“Really?” said Miss Hepplewhite. (p. 17)

The potion ingredients that Susie, William, and Martha come up with are ingenious. Absolutely brilliant, and perfectly logical. Pointed commentary and humour are generously sprinkled throughout the stories: look for the scene early in The Whispering Knights in which the children and Miss Hepplewhite discuss their enemy’s attack on television. The children find that most adults are blinkered in their perceptions, which becomes a problem in The Whispering Knights and in The Ghost of Thomas Kempe.

Lively - The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

In The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, the ghost of a sorcerer who died in the reign of James I is released. Most displeased to find that doctors, policemen, and persons of other processions have usurped his business, Thomas Kempe attempts to drive out his rivals. Unfortunately, much of the blame for the ghost’s activities is placed squarely on the shoulders of James Harrison, whose attic bedroom was once Thomas Kempe’s prison.

James is a solid, explorer-type Personal Notebook-keeping protagonist with a philosophical attitude toward parental discipline – when he has done something to earn it. Undeserved punishment is another matter. Unlike his older sister, James does not immediately have hoards of mates. Something to watch for here is the very different relationships James has with the two boys his age that he becomes friends with.

Here is a passage early in the book when James is sent on an errand for his mother:

The [pharmacist’s] assistant turned away, glancing at it. Then she stopped, frowned, and looked more closely.

“Here,” she said. “Someone’s been fooling about with this. I can’t take it like this.”

“Let’s have a look,” said James.

She handed the prescription back to him. Sure enough, at the top it said, in Doctor Larkins’ neat handwriting, “Mist. Pect. Inf., Tinct. 1pecac. m II, Syrup Squid m V, Syrup Tolu. m V, 1 teaspoonful t.d.s to be taken twice daily,” which presumably meant cough mixture. But somebody had drawn a bold blue line through that, in biro, and written underneath, in the same crabbed, old-fashioned looking writing as the words on the apple blackboard, “Take the leaves of Lungwort, which is a herb of Jupiter, boile them and make fo them a syrupe which will much ease a cough. I counsell thee also to saye certein charmes over the sicke childe.”

James gaped at it. (p. 18-19)

Lively - A Stitch in Time

For an imaginative, scientifically-inclined (or at least inclined to learn the proper scientific names for things) protagonist, you can’t do better than A Stitch in Time‘s Maria, who is maddeningly unable to say what she wants to say to people, and who holds conversations with inanimate objects (and a cat), instead.

Behind her parents’ travelling heads, with Dorset unrolling tidily at each side of her, Maria hoped there would be something to talk to at this holiday house her parents had rented for the month. You can always talk to people, of course. It’s usual, indeed. The trouble with people is that they expect you to say particular things, and so you end up saying what they expect, or want. And they usually end up saying what you expected them to. […] She herself quite liked to talk to her mother, but somehow her mother was always about to go out, or into another room, and by the time Maria had got to the point of the conversation, she had gone. Her father when she talked to him would listen with distant kindness, but not as though what she said were of any great importance. Which, of course, it might not be. Except, she thought, to me. And so for real conversations, Maria considered, things were infinitely preferable. Animals, frequently. Trees and plants, from time to time. Sometimes what they said was consoling, and sometimes it was uncomfortable, but at least you were having a conversation. For a real heart-to-heart you couldn’t do much better than a clock. For a casual chat almost anything would do. (p. 14-15 in the 2011 HarperCollins edition)

Need I say more? Go on, read them! Meanwhile, I’m going to hunt up more books by Penelope Lively. I can’t wait to read them all.