The House in Norham Gardens


I first discovered Penelope Lively's 1986 The House in Norham Gardens a few years ago, but I couldn't resist picking up this copy (signed by the author!!) from a neighborhood street library. It was interesting to notice how my awareness has changed in the intervening years; I definitely read it with different eyes this time around.

Norham Gardens is a real place, a suburb of Oxford which is home to tall, eccentric Victorian houses -- the illustration on this cover is pretty accurate. I like the portrait of Clare, too, quiet and thoughtful, with a lot going on under the surface (though she does look a bit younger than fourteen here). However I have to take issue with the Fly/Sepik shield as depicted here; it should perhaps look more like this:

When Clare finds the ceremonial shield in the attic, a relic of her ancestor's expedition to Papua New Guinea a hundred years before (a real historical expedition, whose artefacts now reside in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford), she begins to dream about the people who made it: 'brown people' in a jungle village. Slowly Clare's dreams shift and alter; the people in the dreams come closer, right into the house; but then they recede, she dreams of them dressed in Western clothes, living in a modern town, and she senses that they no longer want the shield, that it has lost its meaning for them, and she donates it to the museum.

I do applaud Lively's thoughtful and compassionate exploration of ancient spirituality, how this object becomes meaningful to Clare and helps her to sort out her own muddled feelings about growing older, change and development, death and history and even race. However I felt troubled about the conclusion, and the assumption that the makers of the shield (who traded it to Clare's great-grandfather rather too easily) would no longer value it or the other stolen materials now sitting in the museum. 

Still, The House in Norham Gardens is that rare beast, a children's/YA novel from the 1980s which at least attempts to wrestle with the issue of colonialism, and for that I have to cheer.


  1. I re-read this book a few years ago, and while I agree with you, Kate, that some of the content is "problematic" and would not find a publisher today, for a children's book written in the 1980s it was a surprisingly deep dive. Lively is always a thoughtful writer, and I love her way with place and atmosphere,

  2. Penelope Lively is one of my favourite children's authors. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was a huge influence on me! She is definitely thoughtful and interesting on time and place.