I owe my fascination with Penelope Lively, the British novelist, to my friend Bob. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve met Bob before: he introduced me to Jules and the Polar Bears and Talking Heads almost forty years ago. I mention his recommendation of Lively’s books just to show that his influence continues to be considerable and far-ranging.
I started reading Lively in the past couple of years, and began with her first “adult” novel, The Road to Lichfield (1977). (She was an established writer of children’s books at the time this work appeared.) Lichfield is a good introduction to the style and themes of her novels: we are often given a woman of middle years who possesses a keen interest in history, whether professional or amateur. Lurking somewhere nearby, either for herself, a family member, or another character with whose fate she becomes entwined, is the temptation or occasion of adultery. The adulterous possibility brings about upheaval and re-examination, thus altering perceptions of history or redefining the way in which personal lives (or histories) are captured in individual memory.
I’ve read about half a dozen of Lively’s novels now, spanning The Road to Lichfield and its successor, Treasures of Time, through the Booker-Prize winning Moon Tiger (1987) to her most recent, How It All Began (2011). Despite the thematic similarities, each is fresh (I almost wrote “lively”), vigorously imagined, and satisfying. The characters have just enough originality and polish and sympathy to make each novel engaging in its own right. As long as I allow a reasonable period of time (a few months) to elapse before I pick up another of her novels, all is well.
Recently, the time was ripe for another Lively, and I decided to go back to her early days. I picked up her third, Judgment Day (1980), and settled down for a stroll through familiar territory. But what I found was something quite different that what I’d expected.
Judgment Day chronicles a few months in the lives of a group of people—families, to a certain, unfulfilled extent—whose homes border the remnants of the village green in the town of Laddenham, a suburban “overspill” from London. In thinking back on the first chapter, I see that Lively was challenging herself to break out of the mold she’d begun to establish in her previous books. She writes in the present tense, and her opening chapter rather didactically introduces each of the major characters in sequence, including the 12th century church, with its crumbling stone, its centuries of accretions, and its diminished status, crouching almost apologetically in the pennant-flapped shadow of a brightly lit Amoco station.
She presents Clare Paling, a new arrival in the town, friendless, agnostic, devoted to her children and quite in love with her frequently-absent-on-business husband. Examining a centuries-old painting of the Last Judgment (or Doom, as the genre is also called), she encounters George Radwell, the man of God who oversees, ineffectually, the Church and its affairs. Cripplingly shy, perpetually unsatisfied and lonely, Radwell is almost immediately overcome with an intense sexual desire for Clare; but she remains oblivious to anything but his social awkwardness.
The other denizens of the green’s perimeter include Sydney Porter, a man of solitary and regular habits, ill-disposed to deviations from his norm of predictability. The Coggans family are shadowy minor characters who epitomize normalcy. In this regard they are foils to the Bryans, who live next door to Mr. Porter. Keith Bryan is an adulterous lout; his wife Shirley is slovenly and self-centered. Their child Martin is left to his own devices most of the time, hiding himself and daydreaming in the long grass, occasionally impinging on Mr. Porter’s solitude.
The need to raise money to renovate the badly maintained church they all (with the exception of Clare) attend drives the action of the novel forward and provides the occasions for interactions among its characters. A volunteer group decides to stage a set of historical pageants that illuminate episodes in the church’s history; Clare, who has been pondering her place in this new town, is surprised to find herself central to these activities.
Or perhaps not surprised, for it is her love of art and, moreover, history that animates her participation. She allies herself with Mr Porter in doing research; she is competent at managing the practical affairs involving in staging the pageants as well. As she becomes involved she attends a service where is appalled by the use of the Good News Bible in preference to the King James. She engages in a spirited conversation (or harangue) with the reverend over the beauty of the King James version, even for a non-believer such as herself.
While the community begins to come together in surprising ways around the Church restoration project, not all is well. The Bryans have come to the end of their rope and Keith departs for a new life with his mistress; Shirley, to nurse her spoiled ego, takes off for her sister’s and eventually for a holiday in Spain. Young Martin comes into the care of Mr Porter, and the story of their friendship open up the older man’s surprising history and tugs at the heart with a sentimentality that is uncommon for Lively’s novels.
Other dangers lurk. There is a gang of motorcyclists that takes to roaring through Laddenham in the dark of the night, circling the village green like a comet orbiting the sun, an evil omen in the village’s cosmos.
When tragedy strikes, the lives of all the characters are upended in some way. Is there any meaning to be wrested from the destruction that is visited on the town and from the death that strikes fear and sorrow into so many of its residents? Is there a reason? What does one’s faith in God, or lack thereof, bring to the attempt to reconcile belief and senseless cruelty?
The answers to those questions are as unique as the characters themselves. Mr. Porter’s nearly lifelong quiet desperation is confirmed; George Radwell finds himself suddenly and surprisingly liberated, both from his dreary mask of faith and from his decidedly secular and sexual attraction to Clare. Clare finds herself liberated as well; she can cast aside categories and perceive her town and her neighbors with new, unprejudiced eyes. She is able to see her beliefs about how and why events overtake us in life as her own; she needs not seek nor defend them from a church. This epiphany (if I may) allows her to make her peace with Radwell, freeing her to see the man and not just the prelate.
Shortly after finishing Judgment Day, and not relishing any of the pile of books I had amassed against the sudden arrival of winter snows, I ventured forth in pursuit of the local library’s copy of Oleander, Jacaranda, Lively’s memoir and investigation of her childhood in Egypt. Born in Cairo in 1933, she lived there until the war’s conclusion in 1945. Much of the story she recounts in this book attempts not only to capture the mix of English and Egyptian cultures that she experienced there but also to explore how a child’s sense perceptions are open, accepting, and unquestioning until they are molded through time by experience.
Writing of the real of approach of war, of the potentially imminent arrival of armies in the heretofore secure environs of Cairo, she notes how little she questioned the enormous changes, the march of history, all around her.
For a child, the world of public events is an irrelevant background clamor. And even when the clamor becomes so insistent as to direct the pattern of daily life, it is still accepted on the whole. It is only later on [in life] that we acquire the gall to argue with the malevolence of fate, and much good does it do.
In the wake of the twin tragedies that bring the action of Judgment Day to a close, Clare, the Reverend Radwell, and Sydney Porter each demonstrate how well they understand that “much good does it do” to argue with the malevolence of fate. Of course, this implies that it does little good to trust in the hand of Providence as well. Life simply happens; we can respond to it, but we can hardly control it. In Judgment Day, this simple, almost childlike acceptance is what allows Claire and Radwell to come to their reconciliation, but it is also what pushes Mr Porter back into his shell.
Perhaps it was the chance juxtaposition of a novel and memoir. Perhaps it was the fact that the plot outlines of Judgment Day differ quite significantly from the others of Lively’s novels that I’ve read so far. But this book seemed quite different than the others, and it seemed more personal, more a statement of the author’s beliefs than a working out of character and plot. It is more emotional, and more affecting. I’m not saying that it’s the best of the lot, but it will hold a special place in my heart among them.