Penelope Lively Biography


Penelope Lively

Born Penelope Low, March 17, 1933, in Cairo, Egypt; daughter of Roger Low (a bank manager) and Vera Greer; immigrated to England, 1945; married Jack Lively (a university teacher; died, 1998), June 27, 1957; children: Josephine, Adam. Education: St. Anne's College, Oxford University, B.A. (with honors), 1956.

Addresses: Agent —David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John St., Golden Square, London W1F 9HA, England. Home —London, England.


Worked as a research assistant at Oxford University, 1956–57; published first book for children, Astercote , 1970, and first adult novel, The Road to Lichfield , Heinemann, 1977.

Awards: Carnegie Medal in Literature, for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe , 1973; Whitbread Award, for A Stitch in Time , 1976; Man Booker Prize, for Moon Tiger , 1987; Order of the British Empire for contributions to literature, 1989; Commander of the British Empire, 2002.


In 2007, British writer Penelope Lively's sixteenth novel for adults, Consequences , was published. Its retelling of one English librarian's search for her family's past is typical fare for Lively, whose protagonists are often women not unlike herself: well-educated middle-class heroines of a vaguely literary or intellectual profession whose quest to uncover life's dual mysteries of love and loss are the journeys that form the centerpieces of Lively's plots. Acclaimed and widely read in Britain since her career began in the early 1970s as a children's book writer, Lively failed to achieve a similar level of success in the United States until the 2003 publication of her novel The Photograph .

Lively was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1933, during a period when her father, Roger Low, was employed as a bank manager with the National Bank of Egypt. An only child, Lively grew up in a large, servant-staffed home outside Cairo, and was schooled at home. Her parents took a rather inactive role in her life, Lively later recalled, but noted this was typical of their class and the times when the bulk of child-rearing was left to hired help, such as the governess. "Obviously it was a childhood with enormous opportunities for solitude and imagination," Lively told Times of London journalist Ray Connolly. "I spent long hours just playing alone, building elaborate stories in my mind around my toy animals."

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 prevented many English living abroad from returning home, including Lively and her parents. As Nazi German troops neared Cairo in 1942, she fled with her mother and governess to Jerusalem, which was under British governance at the time. By the war's end, her mother had left her father, and Lively returned to England with him, where she was enrolled in a boarding school. Her teen years continued to be marked by the same isolation she experienced in Egypt, but at St. Anne's College of Oxford University, she fared somewhat better socially, and earned a history degree in 1956. A year later, she married Jack Lively, a university teacher, and the pair began a family that would include a daughter, Josephine, and son, Adam. They lived in several different English cities when the children were young as Lively's husband took a succession of university teaching jobs.

Lively began writing when her youngest child started school full-time. "I didn't write anything until I was well over 30. I'd never even thought of it before then," she explained in an interview with the Observer 's Robert McCrum. "It was a combination of an intense interest in children's literature, which I've always had, and the feeling that I'd just have a go and see if I could do it. And also a kind of humility. I didn't think I had anything particular to say, but I thought I might have something to say to children." That first book was Astercote , published by the London publishing house Heinemann in 1970. A fantasy, its story centers on a young girl, Mair, who has been advised not to go into the woods near the new town to which her family has recently moved. She disobeys, and discovers what appears to be an entire village of oddly dressed folk, whom she learns were supposedly decimated by a plague in the Middle Ages. The past and present mingle when another young girl comes down with a case of the mumps, and Mair's entire village begins to panic.

Astercote was followed by several more titles for young readers, including The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe , which won the Carnegie Medal in Literature in 1973. The last title is the story of a young boy, James, whose family has moved into an old house in the English countryside. James is convinced that a seventeenth-century spirit is persecuting him, and the rest of his family refuses to believe his claims. A film adaptation of it appeared on the ABC network in the United States in 1978. Another of Lively's works for children, A Stitch in Time , appeared in 1976 and won her another prestigious book prize, the Whitbread Award.

The first adult novel that Lively penned also brought her literary honors: The Road to Lichfield , published in 1977, was shortlisted for that year's Booker-McConnell Prize (later known as the Man Booker Prize, but more commonly called simply the Booker Prize). Given to the best work of fiction in English from an author in Britain, Ireland, or one of the Commonwealth nations, the award is one of the most sought-after and ardently debated annual events in British letters, and she was nominated several times for it.

The Road to Lichfield centers on Anne, a 40-year-old wife and mother who begins to make the long drive to the nursing home which her ailing father has recently entered in the town of Lichfield. She spends time at his house, has an adulterous liaison, and becomes involved in a local effort to save a historic cottage. Despite the prestige that came with this novel's Booker Prize nomination, it was not published in the United States until 1991. Reviewing it for the New York Times , Ellen Pall noted that "Lively skips easily from character to character, recording the thoughts of each from his or her point of view. Some of the best passages detail the dreamy recollections that alternately torment and comfort [Anne's father] as he drifts in a solitary, feverish fog."

Lively's 1984 novel According to Mark , was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The title character is a literary biographer whose marriage is threatened by an affair with the granddaughter of Gilbert Strong, the 1920s-era writer whose life and letters he is researching. In a New York Times critique, Richard Holmes gave it a mixed assessment, though he claimed that Lively's "best chapters—such as the unearthing of Strong's love letters at the home of a retired major in Somerset (a marvelous cameo of prewar bachelor life, dogs, gumboots, whisky, 78 records)—do vividly catch the sense of a personal time warp that lies so deeply within such research."

Lively's novels, perhaps too quintessentially English, habitually failed to win over critics like Pall and Holmes on the other side of the Atlantic. In Britain, however, they sold well and scored highly with the literary establishment, and it was her 1987 work, Moon Tiger , that finally captured the elusive Booker Prize. The story is told in flashback, as an iconoclast writer, Claudia Hampton, recollects her life from her deathbed. The pivotal event for her was an affair with a British officer in Egypt during World War II that was cut tragically short by his death. Again, American reviewers found fault with the somewhat frosty, overly introspective characters, but Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Richard Eder conceded that Lively's "writing is sharp and witty; and it can be powerful, particularly in the descriptions of death and disorder just behind the desert war front."

Lively began reflecting back on her own life with Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived , the first in her trio of memoirs. The 1994 volume revisits her childhood in Egypt, summer vacations at the great Nile River seaport of Khartoum in the Sudan, and the deeply British way of life her parents and other expatriates forged in Africa—a way of life that would soon vanish forever with the onset of war and end of colonialism. The title comes from two fragrant trees whose names Lively liked to chant on car journeys with her parents, and "she knows that on the return journey she will chant the same in reverse order," explained Sunday Times reviewer Frances Spalding. "Suddenly, there comes the revelation that not only can she imagine the future, but she will then be able to look back on herself as she is now. Her childish excitement at 'the chasm between past and future, the perpetual slide of the present' survives to this day in her novels."

Lively's next memoir, A House Unlocked , appeared in 2001 and chronicled the life of her family through the dissection of her grandparents' Somerset country manor. At the time of its publication, she penned an article for the Sunday Times about the Edwardian house, called Golsoncott, which her grandparents bought in 1923, and the trove she exhumed there after the death of an aunt in 1995. "The place was eloquent; the old sewing machine in the attic, the bell panel in the pantry, the oil-lamps stashed away on the larder shelves, the faded rosettes in the stables—everything spoke of the way we lived then," Lively wrote in the article.

In 2003, Lively returned to the novel form with The Photograph , which received favorable critical attention on both sides of the Atlantic. The image of the title is a snapshot uncovered by Glyn among his recently deceased wife's belongings. In it, Kath and her sister's husband are photographed from behind, holding hands. Glyn's quest to sort out the truth raises even more unanswered questions about his late wife, however. Sunday Telegraph reviewer Jane Shilling remarked that Lively's novels often seem to provide their reader with "a deceptively comfortable sense of settling down for a session of fascinating gossip. Seldom has it been deployed in her fiction to such remarkable effect as in [ The Photograph ,] which looks as inviting as vanilla sponge cake and leaves behind an aftertaste as bleak as cyanide."

Lively took an unusual approach to memoir-writing in Making It Up , published in 2005. In this series of eight vignettes, she reimagined what turns her life might have taken at crucial junctures. What if, she supposed, her parents had decided to flee wartime Cairo not to Jerusalem but to South Africa, where many Britons in Egypt were heading? From here she re-creates a fictional life for herself, and the approach was judged favorably by critics, such as Roxana Robinson in the New York Times , who noted that "Lively's 'anti-memoir' offers a postmodern alternative to both the discreet charm of la nostalgie and the shock tactics of the tell-all tale. Her voice is appealing and, well, lively, and her evocations of place and time are vivid."

Lively's 2007 novel, Consequences , unravels a family saga dating back to 1935, when a young woman from an affluent family meets a printer in St. James Park in London; despite their class differences, they marry, but it is left to their granddaughter, Ruth, to disentangle the strands of love, loss, and the mystery of her own parentage. Some of the novel's basis seemed to come from Lively's own courtship and marriage to Jack, who died in 1998. In an interview that appeared in 2001, she noted that her late husband was from a working-class family in a coalmining city, and the pair were "two people who could never have met in a previous age," she told Daily Telegraph writer Julia Llewellyn-Smith. She credited this to a 1944 British law that made higher education more widely available, for both women and students from less affluent families. "A few years earlier, neither Jack nor I would have gone to Oxford," she continued, voicing some of the same thoughts she explored in Making It Up . "After my school certificate, my father went to see my headmistress about my going to university. She said 'Our girls go to Swiss finishing schools' at which point he saw the light and took me away. Imagine if he hadn't—I'd have ended up married to a Swiss banker and miserable."

Selected writings

For children

      , illustrated by Antony Maitland, Heinemann (London, England), 1970;
      Dutton (New York City), 1971.
The Whispering Knights , illustrated by Gareth Floyd, Heinemann, 1971; Dutton, 1976.
The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy , illustrated by Juliet Mozley, Heinemann, 1971; published as The Wild Hunt of the Ghost Hounds , Dutton, 1972.
The Driftway , Heinemann, 1972; Dutton, 1973.
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe , illustrated by Antony Maitland, Dutton, 1973.
The House in Norham Gardens , Dutton, 1974.
Boy without a Name , illustrated by Ann Dalton, Parnassus Press (Berkeley, CA), 1975.
Going Back , Dutton, 1975.
        A Stitch in Time
      , Dutton, 1976.
The Stained Glass Window , illustrated by Michael Pollard, Abelard-Schumann (London, England), 1976.
Fanny's Sister , illustrated by John Lawrence, Heinemann, 1976.
The Presence of the Past: An Introduction to Landscape History , Collins (London, England), 1976.
The Voyage of QV66 , illustrated by Harold Jones, Heinemann, 1978; Dutton, 1979.
Fanny and the Monsters , illustrated by John Lawrence, Heinemann, 1979.
Fanny and the Battle of Potter's Piece , illustrated by John Lawrence, Heinemann, 1980.
The Revenge of Samuel Stokes , Dutton, 1981.
Fanny and the Monsters and Other Stories , Puffin Books (New York, NY), 1982.
Uninvited Ghosts and Other Stories , illustrated by John Lawrence, Heinemann, 1984; Dutton, 1985.
Dragon Trouble , illustrated by Valerie Littlewood, Heinemann, 1984; Barron's (New York City), 1989.
A House Inside Out , illustrated by David Parkins, Deutsch (London, England), 1987; Dutton, 1988.
Debbie and the Little Devil , illustrated by Toni Goffe, Heinemann, 1987.
Judy and the Martian , Simon & Schuster (London, England), 1992.
The Cat, the Crow, and the Banyan Tree , illustrated by Terry Milne, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1994.
Good Night, Sleep Tight , Candlewick Press, 1995.
Two Bears and Joe , Viking (New York City), 1995.
One, Two, Three, Jump! , M. K. McElderry Books (New York City), 1998.
In Search of a Homeland: The Story of the Aeneid , illustrated by Ian Andrews, Delacorte Press (New York City), 2001.
The House in Norham Gardens , Jane Nissen Books (London, England), 2004.


        The Road to Lichfield
      , Heinemann, 1977; Penguin (London), 1983.
Nothing Missing but the Samovar and Other Stories , Heinemann, 1978.
Treasures of Time , Heinemann, 1979; Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1980.
Judgement Day , Heinemann, 1980; Doubleday (New York City), 1981.
Next to Nature, Art , Heinemann, 1982; Penguin, 1984.
Perfect Happiness , Heinemann, 1983; Dial Press (Garden City, NY), 1984.
Corruption and Other Stories , Heinemann, 1984.
According to Mark: A Novel , Beaufort Books (New York City), 1984.
Pack of Cards (short stories), Heinemann, 1986; Penguin, 1988.
Moon Tiger , Deutsch (London, England), 1987; Grove Weidenfeld (New York City), 1988.
Passing On , Deutsch, 1989; Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
City of the Mind , HarperCollins (New York City), 1991.
Cleopatra's Sister , HarperCollins, 1993.
Heat Wave , HarperCollins, 1996.
The Five Thousand and One Nights , Fjord Press (Seattle, WA), 1997.
Beyond the Blue Mountains , Viking (New York City), 1997.
Spiderweb , HarperCollins, 1999.
The Photograph , Viking (London, England), 2001; Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Consequences , Viking, 2007.


        Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived
      , Harper-Collins, 1994.
A House Unlocked , Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Making It Up , Viking, 2005.


Daily Telegraph (London, England), August 27, 2001, p. 14.

Los Angeles Times Book Review , May 8, 1988, p. 3, p. 9.

New York Times , January 5, 1986; April 17, 1988; February 17, 1991; July 20, 2003; December 4, 2005.

Observer (London, England), August 26, 2001, p. 16.

Sunday Telegraph (London, England), January 26, 2003, p. 14.

Sunday Times (London, England), June 5, 1994, p. 11; August 26, 2001, p. 6.

Times (London, England), December 2, 1989; January 22, 2003, p. 16.

Times Literary Supplement , April 16, 1970, p. 421; April 6, 1973, p. 380.

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