Category Archives: Lively, Penelope

According to Mark: Penelope Lively

People, Diana had long ago realised, are what you are up against in life, especially those nearest and dearest to you.”

Biographer Mark Lamming has taken the high road with his career. At Cambridge he considered an academic career, but he wanted to write. He knew he was not a novelist but that he wanted “to live by writing.” So pushing aside the thoughts of a secure career and a pension, and aided by a “small income” from inherited money, he launched into a writing career as a biographer, essayist, and critic.  When Penelope Lively’s novel According to Mark opens Mark, now facing middle age, has established a modest, but respectable career, picking up work here and there. His collection of Somerset Maugham letters and his biography of Wilkie Collins have firmly established his career and now he’s beginning a biography of Gilbert Strong, a mostly forgotten writer who produced “awful” novels, essays and biographies.

According to Mark

Working through the trustees of the Strong estate, Mark travels from London to Strong’s home: Dean Close which now operates as a garden centre and is managed by Strong’s literary executor, granddaughter, Carrie. Due to a somewhat chaotic childhood, Carrie finds solace in gardening, and she doesn’t function well socially or with relationships—the exception to this being her relaxed relationship with her business partner, Bill. 

Carrie is not a reader, and she has little interest in the Strong biography. She has only sketchy memories of her grandfather, and when Mark first meets Carrie, he finds her disconcerting; “there was a provoking passivity about her.” Mark has spent the last 18 months studying every nook and cranny of Strong’s life, and he expects Carrie to show at least some interest.

A clock loudly ticked. Mark picked up his mug and put it down again; the coffee was fairly undrinkable. An occupational hazard; one of Strong’s former mistresses had given him food poisoning with take-away kebabs. He gazed at Carrie’s odd, rather childish face, and looked away. Green eyes, with little brown flecks. “It must have been different here then, with this place in full swing. All those weekend parties. Cary and people. I dare say you sat on his knee.”

“Whose knee?”

“Joyce Cary’s.”

“No,” said Carrie.

“You could have done,” said Mark, with faint irritation. “It’s chronologically quite possible, and he was a friend of your grandfather’s.”

“Well, I didn’t I’m afraid. Would you like some more coffee?”

“No,” said Mark hastily.

“They had servants and all that then,” Carried offered. “Him and Susan. Susan was the person her married after grandmother died.”

Mark sighed. “Yes. Quite.”

Carrie mentions two trunks of letters that are in the attic. Mark was unaware of this extra material and it means that his project will take much longer to complete. So he begins visiting Dean Close ostensibly to catalogue and read the letters but he finds himself drawn to Carrie. Mark’s loyal wife, Diana, who works in an art gallery, sniffs there’s something afoot. …

I enjoyed the book–especially the sections about Mark’s life as a biographer and his quest to find the ‘truth.’ He doesn’t realise that he’s going through a crisis of sorts. He’s spending his life writing about the lives of others–sacrificing to produce these books, and here he is devoting years to a writer who is forgotten–as he himself will be forgotten. Mark’s relationship with his wife, Diana is interesting. They’ve made sacrifices to lead this life they’ve chosen together, and they complement each other. For this reader, the character of Carrie was slightly problematic and unrealistic. So not my favourite Lively but good. 

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Life in the Garden: Penelope Lively

“There is always this sense that the garden is a living entity with its own agenda.”

Penelope Lively’s non-fiction book, Life in the Garden, quickly drew me in with the author’s explanation that:

The two central activities of my life–alongside writing–have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. 

I too love reading and gardening, and the days are best when it’s possible to read in the garden; what better surrounding? And with that thought in mind, I managed to read most of Life in the Garden outside.

I am never going to have the talent/money/time to be one of the legendary gardeners mentioned in these pages, but in common with many people, I appreciate the labour of love a garden represents. And that love of gardening extends to Lively’s book as she explores her subject: this is part memoir, part meditation on the use of gardens in literature & art, aging, and in part a history of landscape architecture.

Life in th garden

Lively explains how she “grew up in a garden. Almost literally, because this was a hot, sunny garden in Egypt and much of life was lived out of doors. Our home was one of three houses built outside Cairo in the early twentieth century, a sort of alien enclave amid fields of sugarcane and clover, canals, and mud-hut villages.”

I immediately pictured a white house plonked on the desert sands with a pyramid in the background, but I was wrong. Penelope Lively’s mother created a garden “very much in the spirit of the English garden, with lawns, rose beds, lily ponds, pergolas walks, and with a necessary nod to the climate and what would grow there by way of poinsettias, Latana, zinnias, cinerarai and bougainvillea.”

The description (longer than quoted here) is certainly enough to evoke an image of the garden the author enjoyed as a child, and it’s also easy to imagine how a child who grew up in Egypt, yet lived somewhat incongruously in a lush green “English” garden, valued gardens for her entire life. But then as the author explains gardening runs in the family.  There’s a poignancy when Lively describes how she moved from a large garden to a small area in London, and that aging, naturally has “restricted” her capabilities.

Lively expounds on the temptations of garden centres, how gardens impacted the lives of several writers (including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville -West, Elizabeth von Armin,) the use of gardens in authors’ work (Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Daphne du Maurier, Beatrix Potter, Angus Wilson, Edith Wharton etc.,) the gardens of artists, the merging of art and gardens, gardens and literature.  Lively admits that she pays attention when gardens appear in books, so for example, “as soon as ivy sneaks in you know it is there with possibly sinister intent.” Lively’s observations are, as always, intelligent, marvellous and graced with a gentle whisper of wisdom.

Initially I thought this book would appeal to any book reader, regardless of whether or not one has a passion for gardening, but my opinion shifted as the book continued and the author steps into some of the history of gardening, famous gardens and some names and periods associated with landscape architecture. Ultimately, IMO the book’s best audience is for fans of Lively and anyone who loves gardening and reading.

Review copy.

 

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