How It All Began: A Novel

How It All Began: A Novel

by Penelope Lively


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143122647
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/27/2012
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 203,482
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Penelope Lively was born and raised in Egypt, before moving to England for boarding school and later reading Modern History at St Anne's College, Oxford. Lively is the author of many children's books and adult novels, including Family Album, The Photograph, and Moon Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize. She was awarded an OBE in 1989 and a CBE in 2001 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In recognition of her contributions to British literature, she was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012.


London, England

Date of Birth:

March 17, 1933

Place of Birth:

Cairo, Egypt


Honors Degree in Modern History, University of Oxford, England, 1955

Reading Group Guide


“Our life,” says Anton, an Eastern European immigrant to contemporary London in Penelope Lively’s How It All Began, “is . . . very much accident” (67 in the finished book).

Anton’s observation might serve as an epigraph for Lively’s novel, a richly conceived and exquisitely written book that is all about the haphazardness—and the tiny miracles—of unintended consequences. The dominoes begin to fall when seventy–seven –year –old Charlotte Rainsford is knocked to the pavement by a purse–snatching hoodlum. The independent Charlotte reluctantly moves in with her daughter, Rose, and her husband to convalesce. Rose, as a result, misses some days of work as the personal assistant of retired historian Lord Henry Peters, and her replacement fails to bring his lordship’s notes with her to an important lecture. As confusion mounts, the temp assistant sends an indiscreet text message to her lover, which, falling into his wife’s hands, instantly becomes the smoking gun of his infidelity. Before the ensuing chains of events have run their course, people who have never met Charlotte’s attacker will face financial ruin. Others will reach awkwardly for fame and redemption. Still others will fall in and out of love. They will lose their spouses and strive desperately to win them back—and all because of a random crime on a city sidewalk.

Charlotte’s misfortune brings together an extraordinary assortment of characters: the self–absorbed but lovable Lord Henry, who is convinced that his dusty, arcane scholarship on eighteenth–century British politics is just the thing for a hit television series; his niece Marion, whose acquaintance with go–getter financier George Harrington might either be the biggest break of her career or its most unqualified disaster; Jeremy Dalton, a seat–of–his–pants antiques dealer who loves his neurotic wife, Stella, but just might love Marion a trifle more; and Anton, whose dedicated efforts to decipher the English language lead him into a series of private reading lessons with Charlotte—and into some private meetings of a very different kind with Charlotte’s married daughter, Rose. And at the center of it all is Charlotte herself, struggling with the aches and pains of growing older as she rereads her favorite classic novels, tries to reassert her independence, and muses deeply on life in a world where happenstance and irrational desire are often stronger forces than reason and persistence.

A genial but insightful look at the gentle chaos that we call life, How It All Began is also a story about storytelling: how we use narratives to create meaning, to comfort one another, and to marshal the courage and humor we need to face yet another nonsensical day. Delightfully sympathetic and nuanced in the treatment of its characters but keenly serious in its understanding of human relationships and the crazy accidents that cause them to form, change, and potentially dissolve,How It All Began is sure to rank as one of Dame Penelope Lively’s most brilliant novels to date.




Born Penelope Low in Cairo in 1933, Dame Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt before being sent to English boarding school at the age of twelve. She read modern history at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She was married in 1957 to the academician Jack Lively. She achieved success as an author, initially as a writer of children’s fiction. She was awarded the Carnegie Medal for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) and the Whitbread Award for A Stitch in Time (1976). After she turned to adult fiction, Lively’s novels The Road to Lichfield and According to Mark (1984) were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, an honor that she won in 1987 with her novel Moon Tiger. In recognition of her contributions to British literature, she was recently elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Dame Penelope lives in North London.


Q. We would like to congratulate you on your recently being made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. What were your thoughts on receiving this extraordinary honor?

Our Honors system must seem somewhat arcane to you in the U.S., but it’s been around for a long time (along with the now–defunct term “British Empire”) and we’re kind of used to it! I’m startled to be a Dame—my (grown–up) granddaughters are vastly amused but say I have to get more Dame–like, so I’m working on that.

Q. How It All Began takes as its premise the idea that chaos theory can be applied to social relations. How did you come to be interested in chaos theory as the conceptual mainspring for a novel?

As a nonscientist, I’ve always enjoyed reading the kind of accessible science now written for people like me, and I was fascinated by the concept of chaos theory when first I heard of it. I won’t pretend that I fully—or even partly—understand the physics, but I have come to see it as a metaphor, and that interpretation eventually turned into a novel.

Q. Your novel executes a lovely pas de deux between the chaos of life and the ordering power of narrative: events happen at random, but storytellers give them coherence and meaning. Yet if we take the thrust of your argument, the order imposed is always a kind of falsehood, and the very idea of “story” is a species of prevarication. Any thoughts?

That’s an interesting—and challenging—question! Well, yes, there’s an inherent ambiguity around the idea of meaning and coherence in story, which is trying to impose order on life as lived, where order there is not. I think the storyteller is not so much trying to create an ideal, as play around with “what if,” propose outcomes that may seem to have coherence, or to be inevitable. Perhaps story is some kind of distorted mirror image of life. But in the last resort I think it is an expression of a basic human drive—we have always told stories, not necessarily to supply meanings, but just because humankind seems to need them.

Q. We found it interesting that you decided to keep Charlotte’s mugger, the “catalyst” for all that ensues in the novel, almost completely in the shadows. Charlotte has no interest at all in knowing about him, and he receives our full attention only in a closing paragraph. Was there any point in the development of How It All Began when the mugger played a larger role? Why did you decide to keep him more or less offstage?

I remember that at some point in writing the novel I thought about bringing the mugger on, giving him/her a role—and almost immediately knew that to be the wrong thing to do. No, no. The catalyst, simply and solely.

Q. Lord Henry Peters is a marvelous piece of literary alchemy. He’s pretty clearly a self–important bore to almost everyone who knows him, and it’s hard to imagine too many people sitting through his dreamed–of memoir. And yet your account of him is invested with a life and interest that he is unable to impart to his own account of himself. How did you do it?

In any novel, I find, there are characters who obligingly jump fully fledged onto the page and others who lurk in the shadows. Henry Peters was of the first order—but how or why that happens I really don’t know! If I did, writing fiction would be much easier than it is. Anyway, he was most obliging, and I enjoyed creating him. I’ve known one or two of his kind; I never use “real” people as a character—any character has to be custom–made for a book—but one uses an arm or a leg.

Q. We loved the contrast between the novel’s two marriages in crisis. Jeremy Dalton scrambles like mad to rescue his marriage to Stella, whereas Gerry never has any idea that he and Rose are tiptoeing along the edge of the abyss. Do you enjoy creating such subtle contrasts and parallels in your work?

Of the two marriages in the novel, I don’t think that that of Rose and Gerry was ever in mortal danger—they had rubbed along, and will continue to do so, which is after all the stuff of many marriages. Jeremy and Stella are more precarious because of Jeremy’s innate fecklessness—goodness knows what will happen to them. I don’t think I particularly intended a contrast, but if there is one, then that is not a bad thing.

Q. It seems to us that one of the points that make moralizing about How It All Began so difficult is that seemingly ill events have positive outcomes: to take just one instance, if Charlotte doesn’t get mugged, Anton never discovers Jane Austen. Might one read How It All Began as hinting that we are unable to distinguish good from evil, even when it almost literally hits us in the face?

Ah, now that of course is what happens all the time in all of our chaos–directed lives, and prompts all the clichés to do with swings and roundabouts, an ill wind, etc. Most of us spend a good deal of time trying to tease out the positive in this way, which may be a version of T. S. Eliot’s “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Q. Many readers are likely to relish your wry dismissal of The Da Vinci Code. Some others, who rather fancy Dan Brown, may wonder why you chose to rap his knuckles. What are your thoughts on that thing known as the contemporary bestseller, and what do you think we have done to deserve it?

I’m sure Dan Brown can withstand Charlotte’s dismissal. Actually, I think bestsellers are interesting because they say more about their times than their own merits, or absence of merit. They seem to define some kind of need—for derring–do adventure, or Da Vinci code hocus–pocus, or whatever. But of course so much depends on hype—the deliberate creation of a bestseller. What is satisfying is the occasional arrival of the word–of–mouth bestseller of real worth—when readers themselves have voted.

Q. In our current moment, as the baby boomers start picking up their first retirement checks, it’s becoming more and more common for novels to address the challenges of aging. Charlotte Rainsford, in fact, is almost your precise contemporary. How much of your own experience of growing more mature is reflected in her character?

I certainly couldn’t have written Charlotte as a character—or not as a convincing one—at any other time of my life. One of the few advantages of being an old writer is that you have been there—you know what it was to be in your forties, fifties. . . . When you are younger, of course you want to write of older people and have to stick your neck out, use empathy, imagination, observation. But experience trumps all.

Q. The eighteenth century turns up quite a lot in How It All Began, whether in Lord Henry’s work or in a copy of Johnson’sRasselas in an Eritrean driver’s minicab. What is the eighteenth–century subtext of your novel meant to signify?

I don’t think the eighteenth century is in any way a subtext. Henry Peters’s field of study was carefully chosen—the sort of historical field that a historian interested only in politics and personalities would choose. And the Rasselas–reading minicab driver is fished from my own life—I couldn’t make that up! I met the driver one evening a few years ago and had a fascinating conversation.

Q. Charlotte once took up reading Saul Bellow to discover “how it is to be American” (35). What words of caution or encouragement do you have for an American reading your work to learn how it is to be English?

I’ve long felt that the way to learn about a culture or a time is to read its fiction. If I want to know what nineteenth–century France or England was like I go to the novelists—equally, the contemporary world. I didn’t cross the Atlantic first until I was in my forties, but I had read lots of American literature, both past and contemporary. There was a resonance, from the moment I stepped off the plane. I’m English, and write out of a particular culture and experience, but probably with echoes of others, which stem from a lifetime of reading; I’m not exclusively English, but the sort of hybrid that anyone is who has spent a lot of time absorbing other ways of living and thinking.

Q. You observe that Lord Henry enjoys rereading his own work. Do you?

I dislike rereading my own work and never do unless I have to look something up.

Q. What is your concept of a wonderful reader?

I think a wonderful reader—the ideal reader—is anyone who reads widely, experimentally, critically but not judgmentally, who is prepared to try anything, and for whom reading is central to life, who couldn’t do without it. The last two apply to me—and some of the rest, though I know I am guilty of being judgmental sometimes, and I can’t try science fiction anymore, I’m afraid. But I don’t think “wonderful” is quite the right word—I’d rather just have “committed.” That’s what I am, and I think it’s what most members of reading groups are, or they wouldn’t be in one.


  • How It All Began is a book about reading and writing. What does reading give to Lively’s more literate characters? What does the absence of reading deny to the others?
  • How might Lively’s application of chaos theory to human relations conflict with the idea of a divinely ordered universe? What quarrels might a religious person have with Lively’s representation of events and their causes?
  • Given the randomness of events in the world that Lively describes, where seemingly wicked events can produce unforeseen happy results, how is it possible to distinguish good from evil?
  • Lively is fond of inserting historians into her fiction. What precisely does a character like Lord Henry contribute to the mood and structure of How It All Began?
  • What are the differences in the ways in which Charlotte and Lord Henry confront old age? Which approach should we admire more?
  • Charlotte’s mugger notwithstanding, the characters who come closest to true evil in How It All Began are unscrupulous professional men like the grasping solicitor Paul Newsome and the amoral financier George Harrington. What does Lively appear to think about the ethics of powerful people in the modern age?
  • Lively shows us two married couples whose shared lives are endangered by infidelities, either real or contemplated. How might these two subplots be compared and contrasted?
  • How It All Began is acutely conscious of the European debt crisis. However, the novel’s embattled characters tend to have either marketable skills or salable property that they can eventually fall back on. How might How It All Beganhave been different if Lively had chosen to make her characters’ circumstances more dire?
  • What does How It All Began suggest about the effect of television on the intellectual culture of Britain? Does Lord Henry, for all of his dry pomposity, deserve more of a soapbox than electronic media are prepared to give him?
  • What characteristics does Lively seem to most admire in a woman?
  • What traits does she evidently most despise in a man?
  • Does Rose make the right choice between Gerry and Anton? What are the arguments on either side of this question?
  • Near the end of How It All Began, Lively gives us a glimpse of the baby who lives next door to Charlotte. How does this brief insertion fit in thematically with the rest of the novel?
  • Charlotte observes that the modern novel has tried to free itself of messages but that they still seem to “creep in here and there” (69). What messages do you think have crept into How It All Began, and did Lively really try all that hard to keep them out?
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    How It All Began: A Novel 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I thoroughly enjoyed this sweet book, as I have everything else Penelope Lively has written. This is not the first time she has explored the relationships between coincidence and personal history. I'm glad she sort of wrapped things up at the end, although I wonder how many other readers besides me were waiting for a first meeting between Charlotte and Henry. --catwak
    212reader More than 1 year ago
    A deft, nuanced story about circumstance, memory, relationships, aging.Highly recommended.
    PamT2u More than 1 year ago
    This book had a very British flair and style of writing. I have decided that I am not a fan of this style. The premise of the story is great but the story moves rather slowly jumping from character to character. None of the characters are memorable and there is nothing deep, provocative, or profound about this story. If you have to choose between this and something else, choose the other book!
    RuSchef More than 1 year ago
    A fair amount of life experiences are necessary for full enjoyment of this well written novel.
    CurlySue0313 More than 1 year ago
    I enjoy thinking about the cause and effect of things and how if one bad event had not happened in my life, I would not have gotten to experience all the good that resulted from it. This book is an interesting and cerebral journey down the various "effect" paths that were all "caused" by a woman being mugged. It is not very fast paced and it doesn't quite wrap the ending up with a bow, so if that bothers you, you may want to skip this one. I found it very enjoyable and very realistic. I love me some good, British fiction!
    TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
    Oh, I dearly loved this book about an event which spawned a series of follow-on events, some of which could be termed momentous, in the context of a life. The story was funny and true and ridiculous and painful and all those things that life can be. It was comforting to hear about folks whose lives had hit a major speed bump but who managed, by shuffling the deck, to usher in a new chapter in their lives, one that they liked even better. But it is lightly told, and not so painful for us, safely behind our reading glasses, sipping tea and considering just how awful divorce could be…for the characters of course. I was also struck by parallels between the theme in this book by Lively and Kate Atkinson’s new offering Life After Life . It is almost as though the grande Dames of British Literature were given a writing assignment to mull over the possibility that Hitler had never been born or had died in early life, before the tragedy of World War II. The assignment might have specified that they didn’t have to focus on the 1940’s, they just had to mention Hitler and make their story relevant to a new reality. Consider Lively’s contribution, that she places in the mouth of Henry, retired University professor and a man sure of his talent to make history interesting and relevant: I myself have a soft spot for what is known as the Cleopatra’s nose theory of history—the proposal that had the nose of Cleopatra been an inch longer the fortunes of Rome would have been different. A reductio ad absurdam, perhaps, but a reference to random causality that makes a lot of sense when we think about the erratic sequence of events that we call history. And we find that we home in on the catalysts—the intervention of those seminal figures who will direct events. Caesar himself. Charlemagne. Napoleon. Hitler. If this man or that—no, this person or that—had not existed, how differently could things have turned out? Focus upon a smaller canvas—England in the eighteenth century, of, indeed, any other century—and we find again that it is personalities that direct events, the human hand that steers the course of time…A decision is made in one place, and far away a thousand will die.” Then, consider Kate Atkinson’s contemplation of this question, whom she gives to Ursula, her protagonist : “Don’t you wonder sometimes, “ Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say a Quaker household—surely things would be different.” And it is a great theme to be going along with: eliminating those pesky outsized actors from our history. After all, isn’t life complicated enough with just our own mistakes to manage? In any case, the thing that really caught my attention in this book, and that I loved above even the story (something which Lively spends some time considering—how a story can draw us in) is the discussion an older woman, a retired teacher of literature as it happens, has with a younger economic migrant to whom she is teaching the fundamentals of reading. They speak of language, words, and the passion the younger man has for stories. He’d had trouble learning English, both spoken and written, but he was passionate about stories. So she teaches him, rather than the language of commerce, the language of poetry. She gave him stories, and his passion for stories developed into a passion for words, which he collected assiduously and used ardently. He loved, and was loved though words. It was delightful.
    KenCady More than 1 year ago
    The book is enjoyable. It starts with the premise that one act can impact many others. And so it does, to our endearment. The author tells the tale smoothly and with humor, yet it does lag for a brief spell. Perhaps there are too many characters. Mark, for one, could easily have been dispensed with. Or the relationship between him and the Lord could have taken the course it seemed bound to follow- the bedroom. But I am not an author, so I can make suggestions like that without having to worry about the consequences. I did like the book, and one can argue whether I have a fair amount of life experiences!
    BeachRead245 More than 1 year ago
    How It All Began by Penelope is a thought provoking fictional account of how the lives of multiple people can be impacted by a random accident. It reminds me of widening ripples after a pebble has been thrown in a pond. Charlotte Rainsford is walking down a street in London, when she is mugged by a teenager. She falls and breaks her hip, and her life is understandably altered due to her injury. She cannot live alone while her hip is mending and mobility is severely limited. The reader also finds that the mugging incident triggers actions that lead to a marriage on the brink of divorce, the possible bankruptcy of an interior decorator’s business, the less than stellar performance at a lecture of a well-known historian, and how an immigrant's attempt to improve his life in the UK impacts the course of a twenty year marriage. My Thoughts "How It All Began" is the perfect book to read while curled up in your favorite chair with an afghan and a hot chocolate. The reader will want to time with this book to allow full immersion in the story. The characters are ordinary people living ordinary lives. A random incident changes all their lives and the reader is compelled to keep reading to find out how the story unfolds. Will the couple on the brink of divorce end or mend their marriage? Will the interior decorator be able to save her business or will she have to change career direction? Will the historian be able to restore his reputation in the academic world or will he fade into obscurity with a blemish on his record? Penelope Lively answers these questions in such a way that reader has additional questions. Ms. Lively leaves her readers wanting more, an excellent achievement for any writer. By Celeste Thomas
    donnareads911 More than 1 year ago
    Although simple and uncomplicated, a sweet little English read. Good story. Great beach read!!!
    Baroniabelle on LibraryThing 16 days ago
    Penelope Lively cleverly uses the Butterfly effect to show the consequences of one random incident on a disparate range of characters. Charlotte the elderly victim of a mugging reminisces on life and the effect of ageing. Higher on the social strata is Henry, who though even older and lacking self-awareness, also comes to feel his influence waning and his reputation slide as the years pass. Though the primary theme is ageing this book is about so much more. In keeping with modern fiction the pace is quite fast as action switches between the character groupings but the writing throughout is elegant.This book is a delight. Who better than Penelope Lively to express what is ahead for us without sentimentality but leaving much scope for human strength.
    Beamis12 on LibraryThing 21 days ago
    I usually love Lively and her writing, but even though the writing was still very good, I just couldn't identify with any of the characters. I really did not like them. The story is a play on the Butterfly effect and fate, how all our actions cause chain reactions. Yet at times I almost found this book tedious.
    lmikkel on LibraryThing 21 days ago
    Another fabulous performance by Penelope Lively. She never fails to please, but I think this is my favorite of all her books. As another reviewer said so well, it is hard to do this book justice. Lively is indeed a virtuoso.
    BLBera on LibraryThing 21 days ago
    17. How It All Began is perfect. Everybody run to the library or bookstore. Lively is a virtuoso, exploring chance, old age and stories in a gem of a book.Each character is pitch perfect, with his or her distinct voice. Charlotte, at the beginning, after being mugged and setting off a chain of events that affect people she will never meet, ponders old age: "Twilight my foot -- roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn't know about. We all avert our eyes, and then -- wham! You're in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks ... Except that life goes on in parallel -- real life, good life with all its gifts and graces. My species tulips and blue tits on the bird feeder and a new book to look forward to this evening and Rose ringing up..." This is Charlotte. She breaks a hip during the mugging and has to go to stay with her daughter, Rose, to recover. I don't want to retell this wonderful story. Each person in the story is affected by this mugger -- a random event that no one sees coming. Charlotte discusses stories with one of her students. We always expect a beginning, a middle and an ending, with cause and effect. Yet, life is not like that: "What we all add up to, in the end, is a handful of images, apparently unrelated and unselected. Chaos, you would think, except that it is the chaos that makes each of us a person."It's hard to do this book justice. Highly recommended.
    booksinthebelfry on LibraryThing 21 days ago
    The famous "Butterfly Effect" of chaos theory, transmuted into a fictional consideration of chance and consequences. Penelope Lively ranks among my very favorite writers, but this is one of her slighter efforts. It can be enjoyed as a series of incisive and often amusing character studies, but taken as a narrative whole I found it somewhat unsatisfying.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Want to read more by her.
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    Yani1 More than 1 year ago
    The first Penelope Lively book I've read. It was a book group choice but one that I thoroughtly enjoyed. It has the gentle quality that I associate with many of the boks written about life in England.
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I really enjoyed this book.
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