Penelope Lively is one of my favorite British novelists. She has a talent for capturing the world in detail and a deep understanding of the social world and the dynamics of families. In this nonfiction collection, she looks back upon her life including her childhood as an expat in Egypt, her staid years at a British boarding school, and her coming of age in the wild London sixties. She also writes about her reading and writing life and the complicated state of old age.
Fitzgerald explores how different the world of her youth was from today. When she was a child, everyone dropped everything for formal afternoon tea, and the girl who took the last sandwich or bun earned a wish for either a handsome husband or 10,000 a year. Everyone, Lively said, chose the handsome husband. Money be scorned!
Lively also tells of being part of the post-suffragist, pre-feminist generation. In those days, no one wondered why ten men attended university to every woman. Although Lively enjoyed those odds, she wonders why she never questioned whether men were actually smarter than women or had more of a right to be there.
She also describes being told that a dear family friend whom she had fallen in love with was “queer.” In contrast she tells the story of taking her granddaughter to the “Importance of Being Ernest” where her granddaughter was shocked to learn that the author, Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned. “I don’t believe you,” young Izzie said,”He was sent to prison for being gay?”
Perhaps, most revealing is her opening essay “Old Age.” Lively reports that although certain desires and drives are gone, “I am alive to the world as I have ever been--alive to everything I see and hear and feel. I revel in this morning’s March sunshine.”
Another things she discusses is how in old age, all the earlier selves are “mutinously present.” Sometimes she’s unhappy or impatient with what earlier versions of herself did or said; other times she feels joyful and grateful.
What’s wonderful about this book is how she flits between the past and the present. In the essay “Memory” she describes being alone on a Palestinian hillside smelling rosemary and a moment later in her kitchen gazing out at the flowers.
A similar book is Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s vividly described Against Wind and Tide. Lindbergh was the widow of Charles, the famous aviator, and while her husband travelled the world, Anne often sought solitude. For a journal with a rustic New England emphasis try May Sarton’s At Eighty-Two.