A site for the study of twentieth century British children’s books, particularly historical fiction, and their relationship to social change
Clive Barnes

The House in Norham Gardens, Penelope Lively

I have neglected this blog in the last few months, partly because I have been involved in deciding IBBY UK’s nominations for the 2017 List of Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities: a process that has meant reading a number of books which are either produced with disabled children in mind (e.g. books in braille or for dyslexic children) or which feature disabled characters. In the end our panel of four, Becky Butler, Suzanne Curley, Carol Thompson and myself, decided to put forward 23 titles for possible inclusion in the international list, out of twice as many that we considered this year. This is the largest number that we have nominated for the list. For the 2013 list we nominated 8; and for the 2015 list, 12. Hearteningly, the increase in our nominations reflects the increasing number of books, particularly for older children, that feature children and young people with various disabilities.

Returning to a prNorham Gardens 001eoccupation with the past in children’s books

The next two or three blogs will be devoted to The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively (1974), a book about, among other things and like most of Lively’s books,  the relationship of past and present. My re-reading was prompted by the July 1 children’s literature conference at Roehampton University: Archiving Childhood.

The House in Norham Gardens is concerned with fourteen-year-old Clare Mayfield’s relationship with the great aunts who have brought her up and her fascination with her Oxford house that contains so many objects from the lifetime of her aunts and her Victorian great-grandparents, including ethnographic artefacts from her great grandfather’s expedition to New Guinea in the early twentieth century. As in Lively’s much later non-fiction memoir A House Unlocked (2001), various household objects – photographs, portraits, old clothes, furniture – are used, alongside the ethnographic artefacts, in the manner of a domestic museum or archive, to reveal aspects of past lives and their relationship to the present.

It is a remarkably short novel,  just 154 pages, but it is both dense and allusive; and, although it was published as a book for young adults, it is not surprising that some critics, and even Lively herself, have doubted whether it is really a novel for young people. It is certainly not a novel just for young people and, in Lively’s writing career, along with Going Back (1975), also published for young adults (and considered elsewhere on this website) and A Stitch in Time (1976)  it might be said to mark Lively’s transition from writing for children to writing for adults, although she continued to write for children alongside her writing for adults after the publication of her first adult novel, The Road to Lichfield in 1977.

The House in Norham Gardens was republished by Jane Nissen Books in 2004, with a preface by Philip Pullman. He puts the novel in the context of “a vogue” in 1960s and 1970s children’s literature for time-slip stories in which “a character – often a sensitive girl – acquires some object which magically takes her into the past” and which, he says, have mostly not stood the test of time. In contrast, The House in Norham Gardens is a book about memory that seems to have lodged itself in the memory of many of those who have read it. Last year in The Daily Mail, Christopher Hitchens turned from a short consideration of the July Budget to a long appreciation of the novel, which included memories of Oxford in the 1970s and musing on how the city has changed: the kind of contemplation of the passage of time that is at the heart of  the novel. 

I remember reading it myself when it was first published and regarding it, just as Pullman suggests, as one of many novels at the time which features the chance discovery of an object from the past that exercises a haunting and disturbing fascination on the central character. In this case it is the shield-like tamburan, an object of ancestor veneration in New Guinea traditional culture, which Clare’s great- grandfather collected on an ethnographic expedition and which Clare discovers in the attic. Subsequently, Clare has vivid dreams in which New Guinea and Oxford disturbingly merge, and also fearful waking misapprehensions: for instance, eerie sounds and shadows in the garden like the rustling of spears and angry shouting; and a brush salesman at the door whose face momentarily resembles that of a New Guinea tribesman. And the story is not just about Clare, for every chapter opens with a paragraph in italics which traces the life of the New Guinea tribe who offered up the tamburan, from a time before contact with the outside world, through its contact with great grandfather’s expedition, and into a time contemporary with Clare’s Oxford, when its way of life has been transformed by the impact of modern communications. By then, the tamburan, and what it meant to the tribe, has been forgotten.

The book has attracted critical attention: most recently, in Charles Butler’s Four British Fantasists, (2006) where Lively is one of the four writers – Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper are the others – whose work is examined in detail. And Butler links The House in Norham Gardens to a strain in British fantasy writing for young people in the late twentieth century in which an adolescent search for identity is linked to found artefacts of various kinds. The aspects of the book that have excited most interest are Clare’s reaction to the tamburan and what it may reveal about a fraught relationship with Britain’s  imperial and colonial past and the related question of Lively’s representation of the New Guinea tribes people.

These aspects of the novel receive what might be called a hostile reception in Clare Bradford’s The End of Empire? Colonial and Postcolonial Journeys in Children’s Books ( Children’s Literature Vol. 29, 2001, pp 196-218), where Lively’s representation of the tribes people is seen as eurocentric and primitivist. Bradford argues that their traditional culture is represented as isolated and unchanging and that their contact with the outside world brings only cultural collapse. For them, at the close of the novel, according to Bradford, “there is a dim consciousness of tradition and a nostalgia for it, but the culture is incapable of adapting and transforming itself” (205). There is a more sympathetic assessment in Anthony Purdy’s Like People You See in a Dream” Penelope Lively and the Ethnographic Ghost Story” (Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, March 2002, pp 35-51). He, like Bradford, accepts that, in the italicised New Guinea passages in the book, before the arrival of the infrastructure of the modern world, “the tribe is consigned, without agency, to a timeless present”, reproducing a view of indigenous peoples as primitive and “other” that would be recognisable to Clare’s great-grandfather and early twentieth century ethnographers. However, he argues that Lively’s description of the fate of the tribe in contact with the modern world is a dynamic one, which supposes that they will make a future different from their past: Lively “does not idealize the traditional past in order to denounce a hybrid present…There is nothing romantic about her ‘primitives’ and she does not mobilize them to mount a critique of Western modernity. Nor does she foreclose their future to deny the effects of modernization, or attempt to recover them for ethnography by arresting their development in the present” (47). And he quotes from Lively’s final italicised passage that looks forward to the future: “One day, they will discover again the need for tamburans, and they will make a new kind of tamburan for themselves, for their children, and their children’s children” (The House…165).

Purdy points out that the novel also draws an analogy between the situation of the tribe and Clare’s own situation: “Like the tribe, she has to learn how to live in a present-becoming-future  in which her agency is severely limited without being foreclosed;” and, further, “Clare’s situation in many respects is that of the first generation of white middle-class children raised in post colonial Britain – a generation whose capacity to embrace a present-becoming-future marked by increasing cultural hybridity depends in part on how successfully it can come to terms with the ghosts of its own colonial legacy.” So, in Clare’s life, the tamburan has come to possess a new meaning “mediating her relationship to her aunts, her great-grandfather, her friends, her teachers, as well as her awareness of a certain tribe in far-away New Guinea…It has served, neither as an ‘authentic’ ethnographic artifact nor as a specimen of primitive art but as a mediator in a lived network of social and cultural relations and practices. Moreover, it has done so in a predominantly female environment, whereas the tamburan culture of New Guinea was resolutely and exclusively,  even violently, gendered male” (48).

Purdy’s argument is particularly interesting for, in contrast to Bradford, he seems to suggest that Lively is somewhat knowingly engaging with the subject of ethnography, and that she may be implying that it is not only indigenous societies that can be subject to ethnographic investigation but modern societies too.  In other words, she may be reflecting the twentieth century intellectual movement from the ethnographic study of indigenous, and assumed primitive, societies to the application of ethnographic techniques to a wide range of human societies and the emergence of the discipline of social anthropology, which, as defined by University College, London, is ” the comparative study of the ways in which people live in different social and cultural settings across the globe… Social Anthropologists devote themselves to studying this variation in all of its complexity, with a view to contributing to a broader understanding of what it is to be human – what unites us as human beings, as well as what makes us so diverse.”

In The House in Norham Gardens, Clare is certainly concerned to discover the meaning of the tamburan and the fate of its creators, which she does largely through reading and visits to the ethnographic collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum. But, more immediately, she is trying to resolve what the past of the house she lives in means to her, and this, she does, somewhat in the fashion of an archivist or museum curator, through the domestic objects and arrangements that remain there from the past and, in the fashion of an ethnographer,  reflecting on the behaviour and memories of her great aunts.  And there are times when Lively offers ironic hints to the reader that the behaviour of Clare’s aunts in 1970s Oxford can have some parallels in New Guinea traditional society. So that when, at the opening of Chapter Three, we are told of New Guinea, “Time has stopped here. Isolated, they have known no influences, learned no skills. They have never learned to bake clay, but they have sought explanations for their own existence” (27), we later hear Clare greet her friend Liz’s visit to the house with “Welcome to 1936” (29) and remember that, in Chapter Two, Clare has a conversation with Aunt Susan in the kitchen. Here Susan, who spent her childhood waited on by servants, declares herself to be hopeless in the kitchen, to the extent of being unable to find the marmalade or boil a kettle – “I put it down to a pampered youth” –  but quickly moves into a conversation with Clare about religion and science and the efficacy of prayer (22-23). Rummaging through her great-grandmother’s Edwardian dresses, and finding “an Ostrich feather affair for the head” that matches a sequinned dress, Clare succinctly expresses the irony of “really great-grandmother accumulating all this stuff and great-grandfather going all the way to Australia to get things not so very different for the Pitt Rivers museum” (32). Later, when cousin Margaret visits and Clare reflects on what she feels is Margaret’s “faintly excluding family life”, she does so in the language of an apprentice anthropologist.  She thinks of their use of nicknames and “the private jargon” of their conversations that has to be “de-coded” and how it was difficult for visitors “ignorant of some custom or ritual” and she wonders how family members survived outside: “did they colonise, so to speak-establish extensions in the outside world”, although “converts, like visitors, would always be kept conscious of their position as temporary, courtesy members of the family – not of the blood” (68).  Brought up in a house steeped in anthropological study, Clare is unselfconsciously applying its techniques and insights to the world around her. To Liz and to the lodger Maureen, the tamburan is “weird” and “ghastly” but to Clare, however much it disturbs her, it is “beautiful” and, above all, “interesting” – “like a letter you can’t get open” (62); and she realises that the key to understanding what she can of it is in study and placing it in the context of the society that produced it. It is, of course, no accident, that her mentor in this is her other lodger, John Sepebwa, not only an anthropology student but also an example of the cultural hybridity of Clare’s contemporary world, a “detribalised African” (62), as he knowingly describes himself.

In a sense,  as Purdy seems to be suggesting,  the novel is implicitly an introduction to the discipline of anthropology itself. If this seems far-fetched and beyond the capacity of a children’s story (although certainly not its author), according to her own account of her writing at this time, Lively was testing the boundaries of writing for young people. She wrote that a book of hers was like an iceberg: “The visible tip of it is the story – the narrative that I hope is going to keep you, or the child, turning the pages over – the other seven-eighths is the substance, the product of all that adult experience and preoccupation that I am trying to share with the child without his ever being aware of it” (Children and the Art of Memory Part One, The Horn Book Vol. 54 February 1978, p 21). And she went on to cite A Stitch in Time as one example, it is “rooted in an interest in Darwin and The Origin of the Species and the Victorian debate about natural selection; but all this, I hope, is concealed underneath a story about a girl spending a summer holiday at Lyme Regis… I am refusing to abandon the things that interest me on the grounds that they may be too complex or demanding for someone of ten or twelve” (22-23).

In the blogs that follow, I intend to follow up on Purdy’s argument, to say more about how Lively deploys anthropological insights and, in particular, picking up on his point about the re-gendering  of the tamburan, to consider how Lively maps changing attitudes to gender at the time of the novel.