Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively fourth novel, Next to Nature, Art, will be published on 19 April.

Stop the war

Penelope Lively, 1 April 1982

The title of Shiela Grant Duff’s book refers to the history of the Thirties – to the savaging of private lives by public events – but more specifically to her intense, emotional and eventually embittered relationship with Adam von Trott. She and von Trott met at Oxford, in the brief deceptive sunshine before the rise of the Nazis; von Trott was to die in 1944, shot for his part in the plot against Hitler. They were part of a circle of young people – Goronwy Rees, Douglas Jay, Isaiah Berlin and others – deeply involved in observation and anguished discussion of what was happening in Europe. Shiela Grant Duff became a journalist – foreign correspondent, virtually unpaid, of the Observer, whose arrangements seem to have been engagingly casual (‘I think we’ve got a correspondent in Prague…Oh no! I think he died, but if you should happen to meet him, just say you’re a correspondent’); by 1938, still only 25, she was being consulted by Churchill as one of the few people adequately informed on Czechoslovakia and was the friend of Nehru, Edgar Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News, Herbert Ripka, the Czech journalist. Connections helped, of course: her background was remorselessly upper-class – her mother had 72 first cousins, one of whom was Clementine Churchill. Ambassadors recognised their own kind and provided time and invitations. Nevertheless, she must have been a remarkable girl: idealistic, high-minded and convinced – naively but admirably – that it was possible for one person to prevent war and save the world. This was the resolve that took her straight from Oxford to Paris, to learn to be a journalist, see at first-hand what was happening in Europe, and write about it. Quixotic as this sounds, one cannot feel other than respectful, especially as she was so clearly driven by commitment rather than ambition: indeed, she seems to a large degree to have been constitutionally unfitted for the job – in Malaga, behind the Franco lines, she had the chance to witness one of the executions she was sent to find out about, and declined, human response triumphing over journalistic instinct.

Raymond and Saxon and Maynard and …

Penelope Lively, 19 February 1981

The interest of memories – or memoirs – depends on what someone has to remember and the terms in which they do so. Frances Partridge was born in 1901: she spans the century – a rich enough field, one would think. And her previous book, A Pacifist’s War, is eminently, even compulsively readable: personal recollection is tethered to public events; the immediacy of her wartime diary allows the reader to share the depression, the sinking in the stomach, the fragmented moments of ordinary living. The present book covers her life up till then – childhood, Bedales, Newnham, work at Birrell and Garnett’s bookshop in Taviton Street and, principally, her meeting with Ralph Partridge and involvement with the Lytton Strachey-Partridge-Carrington ménage at Ham Spray. And that is the trouble: we are offered a kind of Bloomsbury ‘Jennifer’s Diary’, with Raymond and Saxon and Maynard and James and Alix and Clive and Roger and the rest flitting through the pages, lunching and staying and talking, while outside, offstage, not often mentioned, quite other things are going on. The century is barely there. And this is a pity, because right at the end of the book we see what Frances Partridge can do when she allows herself to forget about the social merry-go-round. To get away for a while after the trauma of Strachey’s death and Carrington’s suicide, she and Ralph Partridge visit the battlefields of the First World War, the scene of his harrowing experiences in the Army; she quotes from her diary, and breathes life into the book. She is a very good diarist: vivid, perceptive, unself-conscious. This is the strength of A Pacifist’s War – though even there the procession of names and weekend house-parties and lunches at the Ivy grows tedious to the reader who is less than persuaded of the fascination of it all.


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Maria Isabel

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Children’s Fiction and the Past

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