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A House Unlocked


A House Unlocked

Although it would be easy to say only that A HOUSE UNLOCKED is a
fascinating social history covering the effects of the 20th century
on Golsoncott, a Somerset country house, it is also undeniably a
love story. Penelope Lively marks a few objects in her
grandmother's house and describes how they are touchstones that
mark the passing of time and history. Each object has a story to
tell, and Ms. Lively gives both an intimate tale of its meaning to
her family and an erudite account of the large-scale social changes
that the object signifies. In doing so, she also gives affectionate
tributes to her grandmother and aunt, who ran the household until
the 1970s, and to England.

Golsoncott could only exist in England, and in chronicling the
changes that passed through her house and family, Ms. Lively is
telling the story of her country. Ms. Lively came to Golsoncott
after spending her early childhood in Egypt and this allows her to
see both the familiarity and the strangeness of English culture,
giving her particular insight into the experiences of the outsiders
who stayed at Golsoncott, whether they were London children
evacuated during the Blitz or a refugee from the Russian
Revolution. When she writes about a needlework sampler
commemorating the children who boarded at Golsoncott during World
War II, she ably illustrates how difficult the change was for the
evacuees and for the country households who took them in. Perhaps
because her childhood memories of Golsoncott are so strong, the
rifts between the cultures of the Edwardian era, the postwar years,
and the present are most dramatically shown in the differences in
children's lives and treatment. The proper Edwardian children
assembled on the lawn in a photograph would hardly know what to
make of the destitute London children with the Cockney accents the
locals found so appalling that were sent to Golsoncott during World
War II. And neither set would be familiar with children the age of
Ms. Lively's grandchildren. In one anecdote, Ms. Lively's
six-year-old granddaughter has no idea what a napkin ring is, an
item that used to be in everyday use.

The 20th century saw massive, worldwide changes, even at
Golsoncott, which seemed to resist change on a day-by-day basis.
The staff of servants required to run a house that size has
vanished, the people who would have had their places gone to the
city or to better-paying occupations. The church that used to be
the social and spiritual center of the surrounding area has only a
few dozen worshippers, a trend reflected all over England. Marriage
and family have evolved in tandem with women's roles, and trains
have brought urban areas much closer to the country than they used
to be. Yet some things have remained the same. Class is as much a
defining force as it ever was, even if the easy identifiers such as
dress, accent, and residence have grown more ambiguous. The chasm
between the very wealthy and the very poor is still vast, and
inequalities in money and education continue to chart the course of
people at every point in the spectrum. A HOUSE UNLOCKED provides an
infallible guide to what's changed in England and what hasn't,
clearly defining its culture and society.

Reviewed by Colleen Quinn ( on January 22, 2011

A House Unlocked
by Penelope Lively

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802140076
  • ISBN-13: 9780802140074