‘A House Unlocked’ is an autobiographical account by Penelope Lively published in 2001. The author is well known for her book ‘Moon Tiger’, winner of the Booker Prize in 1987.
‘A House Unlocked’ is Penelope Lively’s memoir but instead of tracing her life, it is her Grandparents’ house at Golsoncott in Somerset, Britain. This house reveals the stories of the people who lived there, the social connotations and political changes occurring within a time span of 70 years.
Penelope Lively was born in Egypt and spent her childhood there but she kept visiting Golsoncott. This house is sold off now but lives in the mind of the author.
‘A House Unlocked’ is like writing lessons on describing landscapes, dwellings, and household articles. You can close your eyes after reading the account of her house and you have virtually taken the trip through this house.
“I turn left past the gong stand and through into the drawing room, where I pause to look at the sunset picture above the sideboard…If I walk along the passage to the drawing-room the Turkish rug will skid under my feet on the parquet floor..”
These extremely personal belongings and the experience is turned into the reflection of another time and age. It is incredible how Lively is able to analyze the changes in Britain through the narrative following the lives of her Grandmother and other family members. She weaves in statistics and references to authenticate the anecdotes and her interpretation of the developments.
Initial few pages are an interesting insight into travels through England; the pleasures of walking, hiking, and exploration with its different implications in varied time zones. She refers to the writings of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Tennyson for increasing the interest in the travelers to explore Quantocks, Valley of the Rocks and the much-ignored Moorland. Then, there is a commendable contribution of the ‘Railways’ in changing the perspective of the people to undertake travel within England for holidays.
The intricate observations of the author charm your way through the book, for instance, the nostalgia rising through the obscure sepia-tinted photographs in old family albums. Also, commenting on how the definition of ‘homesickness’ changed over the turn of the century. In the eighteen century, this condition required treatment.
As a reader, this was for the first time that I understood in complete empathy, about the level of social and economic turmoil that people in Britain underwent during the Blitz. It was the same period when the Indian independence movement was at its peak. We have never been acquainted with this side of the story. Our chaos and tragedy were of a massive scale, yet Britain also had its own share of evacuations and shifting of people to the rural areas. A generation that lived with foster parents in the countryside.
The stark difference in the lives of the urban poor and the rural poor was exposed. The book lends a human face to the war-ravaged Britain. The Golsoncott House was home to three children and we get the first-hand account on their backgrounds, anguish, and difficulties. The level of discomfort in the children is told through ‘Enuresis’, failure to control urination; bed wetting by the evacuees, “It is primarily a symptom of mental disturbance”.
The second important event is the refuge to the Russian boy during the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. This section provides horrifying details on the conditions in which people lived in Russia during those years. Lively refers to the two books published by Mary Britnieva, the mother of this boy on her experiences before, during and in the wake of the Revolution, written substantially at the Golsconsott house.
Then, we have the account of a Jewish boy who lived at Golsoncott and through him about the Nazi atrocities in Europe.
The author’s Grandmother becomes representative of the qualities that the women possessed during the Edwardian and Victorian eras.
“My Grandmother was a fine needlewoman – both creative and technically accomplished.”
Then, we read about Rachel, Lively’s aunt, an artist involved in wood carving, sculpturing, painting and metalwork.
Garden is an essential part of this house. For people who love gardening, this section will be the most interesting one. Lively tells us about the contributions of Robinson and Jekyll in gardening techniques. There are tales of various plant collectors who traveled to Japan, China and other parts of the world to bring rare plant species to Britain.
Another interesting aspect of the Victorian and the Edwardian Britain was the influence of the Church. There is an observation of the reduced attendance at the Church with modern times. In the early ages, Church and Sunday gathering was an essential part of people’s social life. Lively writes, ‘Any Church is also a museum and an art gallery’ and we can understand the alterations in the historical the landscape through the physical changes of this religious and architectural marvel.
It becomes interesting in the latter part of the book when the author writes about the changing notions in city living, disconnect with the rural life and an armchair experience of the rural areas. In addition, the parallels are drawn between life today and the way it was lived in the past.
Towards the end, Lively mentions the name of her Grandparents – Reckitt. And, tells about the journey from Robin Starch, Reckitt’s Blue, Brasso, Silvo, Zebra polish to Dettol. This plays as a link to the post-war reforms to provide occupational opportunities.
Indeed, it is a fulfilling experience to read the historical anecdotes and the narrative through “the furnishings of a house as a mnemonic system”.
You may also like Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively