Magazine article The Spectator

Small Earthquake in Somerset

Magazine article The Spectator

Small Earthquake in Somerset

Article excerpt

Small earthquake in Somerset Nicholas Harman A HOUSE UNLOCKED by Penelope Lively Penguin, 14.99, pp. 225, ISBN 0670899542

Successful novelists bereft of a plot too often make literary journeys or write literary lives, risking exposure either way as unreliable journalists or inadequate academics. Penelope Lively takes a more interesting step out of her usual line. Her story of a house is also a side-view of a century. It is, or was, the family house, or rather one of its houses, since with unusual candour she describes the cousinage as ,upper class', meaning rich. Her father's Reckitt clan, originally Quakers from Hull, built their fortune on the starch and polish that kept Victorian households stiff and bright, and cleverly diversified into Dettol as housemaids grew scarce.

The house is in Somerset, surrounded by coverts and paddocks full of horses, each one carefully named in the photographs that stuffed the fat hall-chest. A male of the clan would probably have gone on unreadably about schools and bloodsports, followed by regiments and bloodletting. Here, though, the sensibility is feminine, even ladylike. I mean that political incorrectness as a compliment, though many wouldn't.

Young Penelope Reckitt spent her first 12 years in Egypt, an offspring of empire, going Home (as they said) in 1945, and to boarding school. The house was the haven that such exiles crave, its memory constructed less from recollection in tranquillity than from those well-ordered sepia albums. That life could not survive war, the great leveller. The social consciousness that, along with a gift for the arts and crafts, is endemic in such families was heightened by the arrival from the crammed cities of evacuated children several millions of them in successive waves as the fear of bombing rose and waned, a fair proportion of them to Somerset. …

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