Thursday, October 4, 2012

Past and present crossing

A Stitch in Time, Penelope Lively

After finishing Penelope Lively's The House in Norham Gardens, I wanted to read more of her children's books, and I was glad to find that our city libraries have quite a few.  Just from the brief description in the catalogue, I put A Stitch in Time at the top of the list: "A quiet lonely child spending her holidays by the sea is changed by an inexplicable link with people and events of one hundred years ago and also by the very real and lively family next door."  I love stories of the sea, and even more I love books where the past intersects the present (time shadowing, perhaps, rather than time travel).

The "quiet lonely child" is Maria, the only child of a sedate older couple who didn't plan to have children.  In fact, Maria once overheard her mother telling a friend that they almost decided not to have the baby, though now they're glad they did.  But they don't quite seem to know what to do with her, even how to talk to her, and they really don't listen well.  Maria doesn't have many friends; instead, she carries on imaginary conversations with the things around her, seeking some kind of connection.

The story begins with Maria driving with her parents from their home in London to spend their summer holiday by the sea.  They arrive in Lyme Regis to find that their holiday house is a large Victorian full of ornate old furniture, stuffed birds, and china knick-knacks (at least the kitchen is up-to-date).  Maria's father settles down with his paper, probably just as he does at home, while her mother dutifully takes Maria off to the beach, though she would much rather sit comfortably in the house too, working on her patchwork quilt.  On the beach, Maria finds fossils, ammonites, and like Howard in Cleopatra's Sister, she is immediately entranced.  She takes some of them back to the house, to compare them with a cabinet of fossils in her room and a book that she finds in the library downstairs.

From her room at the back of the house, Maria can watch the ocean.  She has a different view from the branches of an old oak in the garden, over the wall of the hotel next door.  One day she meets a boy, Martin, who is staying there with a large family group, mother and aunt, brothers, sisters and cousins.  Maria meets him again on the beach and finds that he too is fascinated with fossils.  Through this shared interest, Maria is gradually drawn first into friendship with him and then into the circle of his boisterous, casual family, who simply absorb an extra child with no fuss.  It is lovely to watch Maria expand, like Anne Elliot does at Lyme, finding her voice, gaining confidence to speak - and having fun, for the first time as part of a gang of kids.  This is a coming-of-age story in the sense that Maria finally learns to act her age, she becomes child-like (and even occasionally childish).

As she discovers the fossils on the beach, Maria is also finding reminders of more recent history.  The first night, sleeping in her back room, she hears a small dog barking, and a swing creaking in the breeze.  But there is no swing in the garden, and she never sees the dog.  The table in her room has initials carved on it, "HJP."  When she visits their landlady, whose family has owned the house for generations, she sees a sampler on the wall, with the inscription "Harriet Polstead aged 10 years her sample, Susan Polstead completed this work for her sister Sept 30 1865."  The sampler shows the house, above a row of cross-stitched ammonites, with a swing and a small black dog.  Walking on the cliffs, which show the destruction of slides, she hears the same dog barking, this time frantically, as if warning of danger.  Later she and Martin discover the swing of the sampler, buried beneath the overgrowth.  When they set it up again the garden, it is the sound of her dreams.  When she takes her turn on it, as she swings higher and higher, suddenly she feels long skirts flying around her, she hears a small dog barking, and a voice from the ground crying, "Harry, it's my turn!"  She tries to tell Martin about the peculiar things that have been happening, the dog, the swing, but he does not listen, does not hear.  She wants to know, though, what happened to Harriet?  Why didn't she finish her sampler?  Harriet collected fossils too, did she venture too far on the cliffs one day, with her dog for company?

This is a lovely book, and I'm not surprised that it won the Whitbread prize.  It has some familiar Lively themes, the roles of contingency and chance in people's lives and the constancy of change, but also the presence of the past, symbolized by the fossils that turn up everywhere. Lively puts these ideas in Maria's mind and in her words, expressing complex ideas in simple ways.

And here was she, Maria, standing looking at it on an August evening just as the girl who made the sampler - what was her name, Harriet? - must have done once, a long time ago.  Harriet is like the ammonites in the rock, she thought, not here any more but here in a ghostly way, because of the things she left behind. The sampler, and the drawings in the book. And it came to her, as she turned to go into the house, that places are like clocks. They've got all the time in them that's ever been, everything that's happened.  They go on and on, with things that have happened hidden in them, if you can find them, like you find the fossils if you break the rock.

I like the ambiguity of Maria's experiences.  Has she really found a connection back 100 years, to Harriet, or is it just her imagination at work?  I think it's a little crossing of time myself, like the stitches in the sampler, but then I always wanted something like that to happen to me.  I also love the setting of Lyme Regis.  Maria and her mother walk out along the Cobb, as I did on my last visit to England, and if there is no allusion to Louisa Musgrove, I'm sure that Maria will remember it, when she discovers Jane Austen.


  1. Oh, this sounds like another charming Lively book. I think my library used to have some of her children's novels, but they've been discarded and I am really sad about that!
    I am fascinated by ammonites and will read nearly any book that is centered around Lyme Regis. What a beautiful setting and wonderful characters!

  2. Many of her children's books that I see listed for sale are "ex-lib." It seems a shame, though I know that libraries can't keep everything - and even here, some of the books they do have are in storage.

    I'm going to go to our natural history museum here and look at the fossils with a new eye!

  3. I remember reading this book when I was a child but I had forgotten most of the details of the plot, so your post has made me want to read it again! I'll have to see if my library has any of her children's books. I know I still have a copy of The Ghost of Thomas Kempe somewhere in the house, but not this one.

  4. I've only read her books for adults but this one sounds lovely. I see that my local library has quite a few of her books in the junior section.

  5. Helen, I wish I'd found her books when I was younger. I have The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, it was the first of her juvenile books that I read, and I loved it. I also have Astercote from the library now.

    Katrina, I've read & re-read her books for adults. It was after I read her memoir about her childhood that I started looking for her children's books - well, and because I'd run through her adult books (I think I'm still missing one).

  6. I love Lively's children's books and so did the children to whom I used to read them. If you can find a copy do read 'Voyage of QV66' which is a sort of child's version of 'Animal Farm'.

  7. Alex, thank you, I will look for Voyage of QV66 - an intriguing title! I'm glad I have quite a few still to read.

  8. This is not one I've read, but the "quiet lonely child" is echoed in the Louisa May Alcott gothic A Long Fatal Love Chase. (Now reading.) It had not occurred to me that the forlorn, isolated young woman of gothic must come from the old folk tales, the children's stories. Thinking Brothers Grimm. Obvious, really, but I had not put the two together.

  9. I've never come across Penelope Lively's books for younger readers, but you have me intrigued. The mix of story and setting sounds perfect.

  10. Fay, and with Alcott, there is also Rose of Eight Cousins - at least until the cousins arrive! I'll look forward to your take on ALFLC.

    Jane, I've really enjoyed the three I've read so far - all very different, but I can see the roots of her adult books in them. And this one had some unexpectedly comic moments, like a Python-esque "Medieval Fayre."


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!