Last Friday, Penelope Lively gave Somerville College's James Bryce Memorial Lecture at the University Museum. The setting for the talk, evocative as it is at any given time, couldn't help but strike the fan of Lively's children's books especially: The House in Norham Gardens has scenes set just down the stairs in the Pitt Rivers Museum. (As does His Dark Materials, making the Pitt Rivers itself an artefact of children's literature, though Lively positioned it more irreverently via James Fenton's description: 'shut / 22 hours a day and all day Sunday'.) Lively's lecture, which took shape around themes of memory, remembering, and history, also gave a substantial record of her reading in childhood and youth.
Reading that shaded into writing: early encounters with classical mythology via Andrew Lang, which were followed by her own retellings (although Penelope was front and centre and full of virtue in the Odyssey, Lively ascribed other attributes to her namesake). Forbidden reading, reading as 'cherishing a subversive practice' amid the 'stern philistinism' of her boarding school. The Oxford use of reading to describe undergraduate study ('reading History', 'reading English'), with the phrase glossing such study as 'long-term inclination rather than mandatory application'. The distinction between 'undirected, unstructured reading' and 'deliberate reading', or research, as it pertains to her career as a writer.
Lively's readings ranged over an hour, and it wasn't nearly long enough.
Above: A house in Norham Gardens, circa 1875.