Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 15, 2009

A House Unlocked (2001), by Penelope Lively

A House UnlockedThis is such an interesting book!  Penelope Lively is one of my favourite British authors, and this book is woven around the family home in Somerset that her grandparents bought in 1923.  She uses it to show how apparently unchanging buildings and landscapes can reveal both momentous events in history and changes in technology from trains to needlecraft.

As readers of her fiction know, Lively has a discerning eye and a pleasing awareness of the inequities fostered by class systems, but she is also generous in her appraisal of those who hold different views.  She herself is agnostic, and her much-loved grandmother was staunch C of E, but Lively recognises the social and cohesive value of the traditions of church-going in villages, and mourns the loss of churches as churches, as attendances decline.

She tells us how her grandmother’s needlework records the presence of six bewildered evacuees during the Blitz and how the muddle and misery caused by that was based on mercifully wrong pre-war projections about likely bomb damage by the Luftwaffe. These projections drew on data from bomb damage in the Great War – and seen in that context, the evacuations for all their faults, were prudent.  Some children suffered terribly because of ill-matched billets and the chasm between the social classes but there were also benefits for some of the slum children whose health and habits shocked even the poor in rural England.  Lively’s own husband was lucky: he was recognised as bright by the retired school teacher with whom he was billeted, coached to a scholarship and went on to be an academic. 

She tells us also about Mary, a Russian émigré whose husband was shot in the chaos after the Russian revolution.  She records how this family tried unsuccessfully to sue the British government for failing to protect valuables lodged for safekeeping in the Embassy in Petrograd.  This seems a bit ungrateful to me, to sue the government of a land which offers refuge, but Lively without censure points out that the stuff went missing when the Embassy was stormed by the Soviets.  I imagine that the Ambassador and staff had more on their minds that the Brittneff’s roubles and jewels (p90).  Still, who can blame the once rich and powerful for failing to take their losses philosophically?

What I particularly like about this book is that Lively is only too well aware of the privilege enjoyed by her family but does not criticise them.  They were of a different era; their values were not hers.  She, like her Aunt Rachel who was shocked to discover urban poverty but worked tirelessly to ameliorate it, is of a different sensibility to grandparents who believed in noblesse oblige

Landscape is silent until you unlock the codes.  The English landscape with its fields and hedges is just an agreeable and apparently arbitrary patchwork of shape and colour until you know something of its private language.  But when those undulations become ridge and furrow, when that die-straight hedgerow is an enclosure boundary, when those lumps and bumps are a deserted medieval village, then the whole place speaks.  Cities likewise: brick, stone and glass are merely that until they can be sorted into a chronology, until you know what became before what, until that scrap of wall is sited in its distant century and the curve of that street explained by vanished circumstances.  (p113) 

In sharing the story of her family home, Lively has humanised the wonderful story of British history.

Author: Penelope Lively
Title: A House Unlocked
Viking 2001
ISBN: 978-0-670-89954-8
Source: Kingston Library


  1. […] The House by the Lake is in some ways similar to Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked which I read and reviewed back in 2009.   Lively’s book tells the stories of objects in her family’s country […]


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