I blame my father for my habit of being greedy at the library. He used to take us to the library each Saturday morning when we were children, and since it was sometimes a bit of a hike from home (memorably up and down a steep hill in Montclair, Durban), it was always Daddy who ended up lugging the books when our little arms got tired. There was no incentive to exercise restraint. Always, we borrowed to the maximum we were allowed to on the library card. Well, we had to have enough books to last for the week…
Anyway, Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors, so whenever I chance upon one of her novels at the library, I always add it to the pile. (These days I have to carry them myself , but I can bring home as many as I like, if I take the car!) She is a prolific writer, producing a novel every two or three years, with non fiction, screen writing and children’s books in between. She’s won heaps of prizes, notably the Booker for Moon Tiger in 1987 , but her talent was recognised right from the start: her first novel The Road to Lichfield was shortlisted for the Booker in 1977 while Treasures of Time won the Arts Council National Book Award in 1979.
By comparison with today’s tomes, Treasures of Time is a short book, only 200 pages long, but it shows Lively at her best: an engaging plot, deft characterisation, acute powers of observation (especially about class distinction) and her finger on the pulse of social change. I read it in two nights, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Hugh Paxton was an eminent archaeologist and the BBC wants to make a doco about him. Tony, the affable producer, heads off to Wiltshire to focus on the most famous dig and meet up with Hugh’s tiresome widow Laura, also gathering up an assortment of experts to pontificate about archaeology in general and Paxton in particular. (Lively’s husband was an Oxford academic, and the source of snippets of professional jealousy is amusingly obvious.) The daughter, Kate, who had escaped to London, is required, and must therefore agonise about the impending meeting between her mother and her fiance Tom. He’s a cheerful, easygoing fellow on the way to making good in an academic career – but he’s not of their class, and Laura is going to be dismissive.
The setting is vaguely reminiscent of those Agatha Christie ‘Big Houses’, except that the servants have vanished and upkeep money is in short supply. People come down for the weekend and fit effortlessly into countless bedrooms as the cast assembles. There’s no murder, however, but rather a sly assassination of character as these most respectable folk turn out to be not quite what they seem. The archaeological metaphor is subtle: time past leaches into the present with unwanted memories of dubious dalliances and disquieting questions. Paxton’s colleague, Aunty Nellie, who knows more about his work than anyone, (and may well deserve more of the credit for his discoveries) has been disabled by a stroke – but she is silenced not by her infirmity but by Tony who dismisses her as an irrelevant old lady.
Kate is not sympathetically drawn. Her fraught relationship with her mother seems to dominate her life, but it’s not entirely because Laura is always making deprecating remarks and is a classic snob. Kate is more like her than she knows: she is disloyal, critical, bad-tempered and self-obsessed. Tom deals with her angst with relaxed good humour inherited from his genial parents, but wonders sometimes if he can keep it up.
Laura is a pain in the proverbial, but although there are some delicious exchanges which show her crass insensitivity, she’s not a caricature. She’s bossy towards her sister Nellie, but Laura does care about her, and the scenes which show Laura’s acute loneliness avoid schadenfreude. It is she who has to deal with the problem of finding the money to keep up the house and cop the criticism when her choice of what to sell meets with disapproval. Is there anything in that house that could be sold with Kate’s approval? The problem with owning a significant house with significant chattels and having no income to maintain it, is that no matter what Laura sells it will be considered crass.
Perhaps I’m sentimental or overly influenced by ideas about the sisterhood, but I would have liked some kind of redemptive reconciliation between Kate and Laura. No such luck: Lively is merciless. Tom the handsome hero putting up with things in tireless good humour turns out to have feet of clay after all. Nobody has very good relationships, and jealousies (professional and personal) are rife. But the survivors are male: they come out of things okay while the women end up marginalised.
Well, that’s how it was, back in the seventies!