Thursday, September 6, 2012

The House in Norham Gardens

The House in Norham Gardens, Penelope Lively

I saw a review of this recently that intrigued me, reminding me that Penelope Lively wrote children's and young adult novels before turning to adult fiction. I have only read one of those early books, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which I enjoyed. It's about a boy, James Harrison, living in an old cottage in an Oxfordshire village, who discovers that it is being haunted by the ghost of the title, accidentally released from a magical confinement and wreaking havoc. I was expecting something along the same lines with this book, but it is very different, closer I think to her adult fiction.

In this book, published in 1974, Clare Mayfield, aged fourteen, lives in an old Victorian house in Norham Gardens, in Oxford. An orphan, she has been raised by her great-aunts Anne (aged 78) and Susan (aged 80), in a warm, loving home. The aunts, born in the Victorian era, rejected the traditional roles of wife and mother to make independent lives for themselves as scholars and tutors, and they have high hopes for Clare. Retired now to quiet lives in Norham Gardens, they are growing frail, particularly Aunt Anne, who is often ill. At a young age, Clare has now become their caretaker. With the daily help, Mrs Hedges, she does the shopping and the cooking, and the two conspire to eke out the family's dwindling funds. One of their solutions was to take in a lodger, Maureen, an office worker. This is no Sarah Crewe story of drudgery and poverty, though, but one of loving care and service.

The house, which has been their family home since the 1890s, is constantly in need of repairs. Too many rooms are unused, full of now-antique furniture, and the attics are crammed with generations of clothes and books and family albums. The attics also contain artifacts brought back to England by Clare's great-grandfather, an anthropologist, who was among the first Europeans to travel deep into New Guinea and study its most isolated native peoples. One day, looking for an extra blanket for Maureen, Clare finds a piece of wood, carved and painted, an abstract-looking human figure. She learns that it is a tamburan, a stylized representation of the ancestors who guard a village in New Guinea, which her great-grandfather acquired in 1905.

That night, Clare dreams of a village and its people. The dreams continue, growing increasingly vivid and urgent. The figures in the village, who initially seemed to be waiting, now seem to be demanding something. Mixed in with these dreams are others, equally disturbing, where her home has changed or been abandoned. The aunts, Clare's friends and teachers, all notice that she seems tired, stressed, not her usual self; she loses interest in her school work.

I don't know how I would have read this book at Clare's age. Even then, I think I would have loved the setting, the old family home with its history and its treasures, and even more the family itself, Clare and her wonderful aunts. I might have read the story of the tamburan simply as a magical one, of a tribe that lost its ancestor and reached across time to seek for it. Maybe that is what's happening; in the end Penelope Lively doesn't tell us one way or another, though she suggests that there is something eerie about the tamburan. But maybe Clare's dreams are less about the native peoples than about herself, maybe this is the only way that she can face the changes, the profound losses that are coming. She is only fourteen, with a tiny inheritance from her parents. Her aunts will not live forever. What will happen to her, what will happen to their home, to the family treasures that she loves? Again, we are given no answer. But Clare, who copes so capably with so much, will cope with that too when it comes.

I think this is an amazing book, with the multiple layers of stories that Penelope Lively weaves together. I want to be adopted by the Aunts, free to wander around that amazing house. But I would take care what trunks I opened.


  1. I did not know that Penelope Lively wrote books for children and teens.! This one sounds absolutely charming with such a wonderful and enchanting setting. I love books with kindly aunts and rambling houses.

  2. I know how much you appreciate stories of aunts :) It really is an enchanting book & I don't want to give it back to the library tomorrow.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!