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Authors: Penelope Lively

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Treasures of Time

BOOK: Treasures of Time
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Treasures of Time

Penelope Lively was born in Cairo in 1933, and spent her childhood there – a childhood recalled in her book
Oleander, Jacaranda.
She came to boarding school in England at the age of twelve, and subsequently read Modern History at Oxford. She married an academic, Jack Lively, who became Professor of Politics at Warwick University. Penelope Lively was already an established and successful writer of fiction for children when she published her first adult novel,
The Road to Lichfield
, in 1977. To date she has published sixteen adult novels, most recently
Family Album
(2009). She had two novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize before winning it in 1987 with
Moon Tiger
, and remains the only writer to have won both the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal, the two most prestigious literary awards for adult and children’s fiction. She was made CBE in 2002.

Treasures of Time
was Penelope Lively’s second novel, published in 1979. It won the Arts Council National Book Award, judged by Kingsley Amis, and displays many of the strengths of her fiction: what the critic Anthony Thwaite has called ‘her authority and fluency on the subject of the persistence of the past’.

Selina Hastings is a writer and journalist. She is the author of four biographies:
Nancy Mitford
Evelyn Waugh
(winner of the Marsh Biography Prize),
Rosamond Lehmann
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.
She has also written a number of books for children, including a complete retelling of the Bible.

Treasures of Time




Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

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(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

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Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand
(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by William Heinemann Ltd 1979

Published in Penguin Books 1986

Reissued with a new introduction in Penguin Books 2010

Copyright © Penelope Lively, 1979

Introduction copyright © Selina Hastings, 2010

The moral right of the author and of the introducer has been asserted

All rights reserved

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book

ISBN: 978-0-14-195805-7


Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen

To Gina and Murray


Treasures of Time
, first published in 1979, is a novel of serial excavation. With characteristic subtlety and wit, Penelope Lively explores intricate themes of appearance and reality, of the power of memory and of the warping and shaping that occurs with the passing years. In all her fiction Lively shows herself intuitively alert to the influence of the past on the present: in
The Road to Lichfield
, for instance, in
Next to Nature, Art
, in
Moon Tiger
(winner of the 1987 Booker Prize), she pursues the idea of the invisible influence of previous eras, both chronological and environmental, on human experience.

Treasures of Time
deals both figuratively and literally with disinterment. The point of departure for the plot is the arrival at a country house in Wiltshire of a television team to film a programme on the distinguished archaeologist Hugh Paxton, who died some years ago. Paxton’s most famous dig, the one that made his name, was on a local site, where he uncovered a fabulously rich hoard of prehistoric treasure. Now the whole subject is to be unearthed again, this time for BBC television, and the surviving participants interviewed about their recollections. But inevitably the past has been reinvented, and in this delectable comedy of manners Lively adroitly uncovers stratum after stratum of delusion and self-deceit. As well as other participants, three members of Paxton’s family were present at the dig: his wife, his sister-in-law, and his daughter, then only a child; and with all of them the official version is interestingly at odds with what actually happened.

Hugh Paxton’s widow, Laura, is the most excited about the programme, thrilled by the prospect of taking the starring role. Chic, snobbish and self-absorbed, Laura’s life these days lacks excitement: money is in short supply and she has been obliged to share the house, Danehurst, with her sister, Nellie. Now an invalid confined to a wheelchair, Nellie as a young woman had worked closely with Hugh on his excavations, her admiration for him, painful and unspoken, extending far beyond the purely professional. Most reluctantly involved in the present enterprise is Laura’s prickly daughter, Kate, down from London for the weekend with Tom, her boyfriend. Kate is decidedly wary of the prospect of a camera-crew zooming in on her family history, with all its subterranean cruelties and betrayals. And yet both she and Tom are themselves professionally involved in investigating the past, Tom writing a thesis on the eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukeley, and Kate with a career organizing exhibitions of ancient implements in county museums. (For Tom, now, memories of Kate ‘would be for ever associated with ploughshares and sickles … the sight of a threshing machine or butter churn would, for the rest of his life, bring an expectant lift of the heart’.)

Despite Kate’s anxiety, however, when the young man from the BBC arrives he appears to be not threatening at all. Tony Greenway, if slightly colourless, is agreeable and intelligent, skilfully combining professional expertise with a nice line in courteous deference. The latter is particularly appreciated by Laura, who loses no time in showing off about her husband’s reputation, keen to impress on Tony the frightfully important part she herself had played and the utterly fascinating life the two of them had led. But as Tony listens and probes, looks at photographs and walks up over the downs to examine the site, more, much more, begins to emerge: uncomfortable memories are revived, awkward situations revisited, and subtly, obliquely, a story begins to take shape of far greater interest and complexity than that originally designed to be shown on television.

Penelope Lively is an outstandingly accomplished novelist, and one of her greatest skills is a deftness of touch. She can introduce a matter of vital importance with a brushstroke so light the reader is barely aware of it: somebody pauses a second too long before answering, perhaps, or the eye is drawn to an apparently minor detail; and yet in that moment everything changes, and almost subliminally we know something significant has been revealed. Thus we absorb the fact that Laura’s marriage was far from the flawless union that she promotes, and that there is a crucial but unspoken part in it played by her dowdy sister. Flighty Laura, uninterested in archaeology, had been amused by Nellie’s willingness to assist Hugh on his digs, and rarely thinks back to her own first meeting with her future husband; but Nellie remembers it clearly, remembers her ravishing younger sister ‘looking, I thought, a bit bored because Hugh and I were talking shop … And in the middle of saying something I saw his eyes on her, and how they were, and all of a sudden the day wasn’t so nice after all’. Similarly, it is these tiny shards of the past working up through layers of buried memory that gradually reveal how Kate, difficult, defensive Kate, has been irretrievably damaged by what happened between her parents during her childhood.

Each of the main characters is brought into focus in turn, and here again it is due to the extreme sophistication of Lively’s art that we learn within a few words all we need to know about them; her possession of her characters is so complete that she can give them to us in little more than a gesture or a glance or a telling pattern of speech.

It is the newcomer, Kate’s boyfriend, through whose eyes much of the story is seen. Tom is a good-natured, scholarly young man, not particularly ambitious, and he loves Kate and pities her, too, for her angry self-destructiveness. On his first visit to Danehurst to meet her mother it quickly becomes apparent who is responsible for much of the damage. Laura has developed to a very high level the art of the crushing put-down, employed with lethal effect on her daughter, and indeed on almost anyone, however harmless, who comes within range. ‘Are you going to take me for a walk this afternoon,’ Tom cheerfully asks Kate, soon after arriving at the house. ‘ “Oh dear,” said Laura, “are you that kind of person?” ’

Laura is a gloriously comic creation with her selfishness and snobbery and her insufferable insistence on impressing everyone with her own superiority. And yet, although we laugh at Laura, we are also made aware of the sadness of her situation, of her gradual realization that she had failed her husband, of the unpalatable fact that he had married the wrong sister. It is this combining of comedy with a profound compassion for her characters that is one of the hallmarks of Penelope Lively’s fiction. She is witty and ironic, but her wit and irony are anchored in a very real sympathy for the human condition. And yet, while sympathetic she is not soft: her characters are never lightly let off, and she is uncompromising over the realities of their lives. In the love affair between Kate and Tom, she conveys its strength and sincerity, while not flinching from indicating the inevitability of its failure.

Like the archaeologist at the centre of her story, Lively is acutely aware of the immanence of the long-buried past. Again and again the eye is drawn to an ancient landscape that is yet an intrinsic part of the modern age. The family house, for instance, is on the Wiltshire downs, close to Avebury and Stonehenge, but it is also surrounded by a network of motorways and industrial estates. Heading back to London after their weekend at Danehurst, Kate and Tom ‘drove into the rushing Wiltshire darkness, where the shafts of light from juggernaut container lorries blazed down the Old Bath road (from which Charles II made a detour once, to visit Avebury and Silbury Hill in company with John Aubrey) …’. And there is an exquisitely judged episode in which the two young people drive up the motorway with a load of ancient artefacts (Roman coins, a Viking shield) for exhibition at an aggressively modern comprehensive in Birmingham.

BOOK: Treasures of Time
2.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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