Tag-Archive for ◊ British Empire ◊

• Saturday, February 24th, 2018

The British writer, Penelope Lively, was born, Penelope Low in Cairo, Egypt in 1933. Her father, Roger Low, worked as a bank manager at the National Bank of Egypt and her mother was a housewife. At the age of twelve, when her parents divorced in 1945, Lively was sent to a boarding school in Sussex.

After obtaining her school certificate, Lively’s father moved her to a crammer followed by St. Anne’s College, Oxford to study modern history, where she graduated in 1954. Lively met her future husband, Jack Lively, at Oxford and in less than a year they were wed. Their marriage produced two children, lasted forty-one years and ended with the death of the academician, Jack Lively, in 1998.

Penelope Lively is a prolific writer; she has written children’s fiction, adult novels, three autobiographical books and a collection of short stories. She also writes frequently for several British national newspapers: The Sunday Times, The Observer and the Times Educational Supplement. She has also written radio and television scripts and has been the presenter of a BBC Radio Four children’s literature programme.

She has won the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, the Booker Prize for fiction and the Southern Arts Literature Prize. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. Penelope Lively was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1989, was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2001 and Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2012. She lives in North London.

How It All Began, published in 2011, is Lively’s twenty-second novel, it is narrated by the central character, Charlotte Rainsford, an old-age pensioner in her late seventies, a widow and a former English literature teacher. After her retirement, she becomes an adult literacy educator on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“It all began” with a flying start on the fourteenth of April when Charlotte was mugged in London. Her banker cards, sixty pounds in cash and her house-keys were in her handbag which was snatched from her arm. It all happened very fast while Charlotte was walking down the street, causing her to fall and leaving her with a broken hip. This event triggers many others in a crescendo, thwarting seven people’s lives.

It affects the middle-aged Rose, who has to temporarily accommodate her mother and look after her until she recovers from her accident and becomes autonomous again. Consequently, Rose won’t be able to travel to Manchester with her employer, the seventy-six-year-old historian academic, Lord Henry Peters, who has to give a speech about eighteenth-century politics at a Manchester University annual event. Having a lecture by a visitor of distinction is an event much anticipated by the university.

Rose is replaced by Lord Peters’ niece, Marion, an interior designer, who will accompany her uncle to Manchester. Marion sends a message to inform her lover, Jeremy Dalton, about her unexpected trip. Jeremy’s wife, the emotionally unstable Stella, will by chance see the text message on her husband’s mobile phone, realises his adultery and asks for a divorce.

Lord Peters who, through the years, has been relying entirely on Rose, forgets to take his lecture notes to Manchester or ask his niece to bring them and when called to the lectern, finds that his memory fails him. He is unable to remember any of the notes he had prepared so meticulously for this event about eighteenth-century politics, which is his speciality. An embarrassingly catastrophic situation for such an egocentric, self-admiring academic in front of the distinguished university audience.

During the university lunch, Marion makes the acquaintance of George Harrington, who works in a financial institution and invests his money in properties which he buys to let. He entrusts Marion to decorate one of his apartments. Victim of the recession added to the bankruptcy and imprisonment of her client, George Harrington, Marion is broke. She has to sell her house and move out of London to pay her debts to the bank.

Charlotte who is recovering in her daughter Rose’s and her son-in-law, Gerry Donovan’s house, is receiving one of her students, the East European economic migrant, Anton, every week. Anton works on a building site and comes for private lessons to improve his English reading and speaking skills in the hope of finding an accountancy job – his profession back home.

Rose and Anton, who are introduced by Charlotte, develop a secret warm-hearted relationship that contrasts with Rose’s dull life with her husband, Gerry. The outings with Anton don’t go beyond coffees at Starbucks, helping him find the right presents for his mother or having walks in London parks.

Due to her accident, Charlotte is reluctantly house-bound, which allows her to reflect upon her past life as well as her present one with wisdom on hindsight, acknowledging her current frailty and wretchedness due to her old age. The twilight years bring with them aches and pains, nonetheless carry some pleasurable little compensations in the way of a reward.

Charlotte is most probably the embodiment of the aged author who also, similar to her protagonist, considers reading as an essential part of her daily routine and no doubt has to put-up with the unpleasantness that old age inflicts.

An engaging story deftly written, sardonically witty and without frills, portraying a lively array of different contrasting, colourful, perfectly woven characters and their reaction to the happenstance primarily created by one occurrence; a completely unknown person to them, namely: Charlotte’s mugger.

The novel is humorous in parts, warm-hearted and reflective in others with a befittingly well wrapped-up ending despite the author saying: “An ending is an artificial device; we like endings – they are satisfying, convenient (…) But time does not end, and stories march in step with time (…) These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course”. Lives that fleetingly barge into each other before moving apart from one another.

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• Friday, September 29th, 2017
Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951. She first went to a private preparatory school before moving to Queen Anne Grammar School for Girls in York, where her parents ran a medical and surgical supplies shop. After graduating from school, she left home to study English literature at Dundee University in Scotland. Following her masters degree in 1974, she researched a postgraduate doctorate on American Literature but failed her PhD oral (viva voce) presentation. She taught at Dundee before taking several jobs throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, including working as a chambermaid in order to survive with her two daughters.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum, Kate Atkinson’s first novel, was published in 1995 and won the 1995 Whitbread Book Of the Year Award. It was such a big success that it has been adapted for radio, theatre and television, of which Atkinson wrote the screen-play herself. It was labelled at the time of its publication by the press as an “anti-family” novel. Nonetheless, it was a bestseller in many countries and was translated into several languages.

Kate Atkinson is a short-story writer, a playwright and a novelist. She has received several awards for her work and was awarded an MBE (Member Of The British Empire) in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. She now lives in Edinburgh in Scotland.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum begins with the brief statement of the eccentric, witty, Ruby Lennox: “I exist!”, after her conception at midnight in 1951. Ruby Lennox is born into an English middle-class family and is the youngest member of the Lennox brood. She is the main character and narrator of this family saga.

Her father, George, is a philanderer and her mother, Bunty, who is bitter and resentful about her marriage, daydreams about how her life could have been with another, better husband. The tyrannical Bunty is void of emotions save irritability.

Ruby has two sisters, the plain-looking, rebellious and melancholy, Patricia and the headstrong, manipulative, self-centred, bad-tempered, Gillian. They all live in an apartment above their parents’ pet shop in York in England.

The story that Ruby recounts with great lucidity and British black-humour, despite several tragic deaths occurring, goes briefly over the two world wars and extensively over the history of her family. She relates her mother’s unhappy, disappointing married life, her grandmother and going back as far as her 19th century great-grandmother, the beautiful, delicate, Alice who leaves her husband and young children along with the countryside life and poverty and runs off with an itinerant French photographer.

Three generations of women seeking happiness and freedom from their servile, suffocating matrimonial life. Marriages which were contracted more for convenience than for love or any kind of attraction. All the women in the novel dream of a better life. Ruby draws accurate lively images of the trials and tribulations of the dozens of her characters.

The author intertwines past and present events, going back and forth in time by adding footnotes, not necessarily in chronological order, between the chapters. An original technique of narration. She also describes the different, sometimes awkward, relationships between the characters as well as the recurrent patterns of unhappy marriages that seem to run in the family over the decades, explaining that the present demeanour of some member of the family takes its roots in the past.

After their parents’ death – father George, having had a heart attack following sex with a waitress at a family party, and mother Bunty’s demise in 1992, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Patricia and Ruby, who have been dissatisfied with their own lives and are now adults and with children of their own, decide to break their family’s recurrent, ill-fated pattern for the sake of future generations of the family.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum is a multi-layered story, not lacking sharpness nor surprises and revealing a well-kept secret towards the end, discretely hinted at in various parts of the novel.

This family saga is presented in a form of “shambolic”, fragmented accumulation of memories. Atkinson claims that her novel is not autobiographical. In one of her interviews she becomes emotional when talking about several similarities between the novel and her own childhood. She mentions her recollection of growing up the same way as her protagonist in the centre of York, above her parent’s shop.

Atkinson says: “The novel is a hymn to my relationship with the city, constructed out of history, memory and nostalgia”. As for the title of the novel, she says that after writing a few chapters, she dreamt that while she was alone, wandering and frightened in the dark in the rooms of the Castle Museum in York, “objects sprang into life”. Upon awaking, she decided “that dream was called Behind The Scenes At the Museum” and said to herself: “of course, that’s what the novel should be called”.