In Pack of Cards, Penelope Lively introduces the reader to slivers of the everyday world that are not always open to observation, as she delves into the minutiae of her characters' lives. Whether she writes about a widow on a visit to Russia, a small boy's consignment to boarding school, or an agoraphobic housewife, Penelope Lively takes the reader past the closed curtains, through the locked door, into a world that seems at first mundane and then at second glance, proves to be uniquely memorable.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 17, 1933
Place of Birth:Cairo, Egypt
Education:Honors Degree in Modern History, University of Oxford, England, 1955
Read an Excerpt
Nothing Missing but the Samovar
It was July when he went to Morswick, early autumn when he left it; in retrospect it was to seem always summer, those heavy, static days of high summer, of dingy weather and outbursts of sunshine, of blue sky and heaped clouds. Of straw and horseflies. Blackberries; jam for tea; church on Sunday. The Landers.
Dieter Helpmann was twenty-four, a tall, fair young man, serious-looking but with a smile of great sweetness; among his contemporaries he seemed older than he was, sober, reserved, the quiet member of a group, the listener. He had come from Germany to do his post-graduate degree – a thesis on nineteenth-century Anglo-Prussian relations. His father was a distinguished German journalist. Dieter intended to go into journalism himself; he was English correspondent, now, for a socio-political weekly, contributing periodic articles on aspects of contemporary Britain. His English was perfect: idiomatic, lightly accented. His manners were attractive; he held doors open for women, rose to his feet for them, was deferential to his elders. All this made him seem slightly old-fashioned, as did his worried liberalism, which looked not shrewd nor edgy enough for a journalist. His gentle, concerned pieces about education, industrial unrest, the housing problem, read more like a sympathetic academic analysis of the ills of some other time than energetic journalism.
It was 1957, and he had spent eighteen months in England. The year before – the year of Suez and Hungary – he had seen his friends send telegrams to the Prime Minister fiercely dissociating themselves from British intervention; he had agonised alongside them outraged both with and for them; he had written an article on 'the alienation of the British intellectual' that was emotional and partisan. His father commented that he seemed deeply committed – 'The climate appears to suit you, in more ways than one.' And Dieter had written back, 'You are right – and it is its variety I think that appeals the most. It is a place that so much defies analysis – just as you think you have the measure of it, you stumble across yet another confusing way in which the different layers of British life overlap, another curious anachronism. I have to admit that I have caught Anglophilia, for better or for worse.'
He had. He loved the place. He loved the sobriety of the academic world in which he mostly moved. He loved all those derided qualities of reserve and restraint, he loved the landscape. He liked English girls, while remaining faithful to his German fiancee, Erika (also engaged on post-graduate work, but in Bonn). He liked and respected what he took to be a basic cultural stability; here was a place where things changed, but changed with dignity. To note, to understand, became his deep concern.
All that, though, took second place to the thesis. That was what mattered at the moment, the patient quarrying into a small slice of time, a small area of activity. He worked hard. Most of his waking hours were spent in the agreeable hush of great libraries, or alone in his room with his card index and his notebooks.
He had been about to start writing the first draft when it happened. 'I have had the most remarkable piece of luck,' he wrote to Erika. 'Peter Sutton – he is the friend who is working on John Stuart Mill, you remember – is married to a girl who comes from Dorset and knows a family whose forebear was ambassador in Berlin in the 1840s and apparently they still have all his papers. In trunks in the attic! They are an aristocratic family – Sir Philip Lander is the present holder of the title, a baronetcy. Anyway, Felicity Sutton has known them all her life (she is rather upper-class too, but intelligent, and married Peter at Cambridge, where they both were – this is something of a feature of the young English intelligentsia, these inter-class marriages, Peter of course is of a working-class background), and mentioned that I would be interested in the papers and they said at once apparently that I would be welcome to go down there and have a look. It certainly is a stroke of luck – Felicity says she got the impression there is a vast amount of stuff, all his personal correspondence and official papers too. I go next week, I imagine it will all be rather grand ...'
There was no car to meet him, as promised. At least, he stood at the entrance to the small country station and the only waiting cars were a taxi and a small pick-up van with open back full of agriculture sacks. He checked Sir Philip Lander's letter: date and time were right. Apprehensively he turned to go to the telephone kiosk – and at that moment the occupant of the van, who had been reading a newspaper, looked up, opened the door and stepped out, smiling.
Or rather, unfolded himself. He was immensely tall, well over six foot. He towered above Dieter, holding out a hand, saying my dear fellow, I'm so sorry, had you been there long – I didn't realise the train was in – I say, is that all the luggage you've got, let me shove it in the back ...
Bemused, Dieter climbed into the van beside him. It smelled of petrol and, more restrainedly, of horse.
They wound through lanes and over hills. Sir Philip boomed, above the unhealthy sound of the van's engine, of topography, of recollections of Germany before the war, of the harvest. He wore corduroy trousers laced with wisps of hay, gum-boots, a tweed jacket. He was utterly affable, totally without affectation, impregnable in his confidence. Dieter, looking out of the window, saw a countryside that seemed dormant, the trees' dark drooping shapes, the cattle huddled in tranquil groups, their tails lazily twitching. The phrase of some historian about 'the long deep sleep of the English people' swam into his head; he listened to Sir Philip and talked and had the impression of travelling miles, of being swallowed up by this billowing, drowsy landscape.
Once, Sir Philip stopped at a village shop and came out with a cardboard carton of groceries; the van, after this, refused to start and Dieter got out to push. As he got back in, Sir Philip said, 'Thanks so much. Very old, I'm afraid. Needs servicing, too – awful price, nowadays, a service. Oh, well ...' They passed a pub called the Lander Arms, beetle-browed cottages, an unkempt village green, a Victorian school, turned in at iron gates that shed curls of rusting paint, and jolted up a long, weedy, rutted drive.
It could never have been a beautiful house, Morswick: early seventeenth century, satisfactory enough in its proportions, with a moderately ambitious flight of steps (now cracked and crumbling) to the front door, but without the gilding of any famous architectural hand. The immediate impression was of a combination of resilience and decay: the pock-marked stone, the window frames unpainted for many years, the pedestal-less urns with planting of woody geraniums, the weeds fringing the steps, the rusted guttering.
They went in. Dieter had a muddled impression of welcoming hands and faces, a big cool hallway, a wide oak staircase, perplexing passages and doors culminating in a room with window looking out on to a field in which a girl jumped a large horse to and fro over an obstacle made from old oil-drums. He changed his shirt, watching her.
Only later, over tea, did he sort them all out. And that took time and effort, so thunderstruck was he by the room in which it was eaten, that bizarre – preposterous – backdrop to brown bread and butter, Marmite, fish paste and gooseberry jam.
It was huge, stone-flagged, its exterior wall taken up with one great high window, as elaborate with stone tracery as that of a church transept. There were family portraits all round the room – a jumble of artistic good and bad – and above them jutted banners so airy with age as to be completely colourless. The table at which they sat must have been twelve feet long; the wood had the rock-hard feel of immense age; there was nothing in sight that was new except the electric kettle with which Lady Lander made the tea. ('The kitchen is such miles away, we do as much as we can in here ...')
He stared incredulously at the banners, the pictures, at pieces of furniture such as he had only ever seen before in museums. These, though, were scarred with use, faded by sun, their upholstery in ribbons: Empire chairs and sofas, eighteenth-century cabinets, pedestal tables, writing desks, bureaux. Bemused, he smiled and thanked and spread jam on brown bread and was handed a cup of tea by his hostess.
She was French, but seemed, he thought, poles removed from any Frenchwoman he had ever known – there was nothing left but the faintest accent, the occasional misuse of a word. And then there was the mother-in-law, old Lady Lander, a small pastel figure in her special chair (so fragile-looking, how could she have perpetrated that enormous man?) and Madame Heurgon, Lady Lander's mother, and the two boys, Philip and James, and Sophie, the old French nurse, and Sally, who was sixteen (she it was who had been jumping that horse, beyond the window).
He ate his tea, and smiled and listened. Later, he wrote to his father (and forgot to post the letter): 'This is the most extraordinary family, I hardly know what to make of them as yet. The French mother-in-law has been here twenty years but speaks the most dreadful English, and yet she never stirs from the place, it seems – I asked her if she went back to France often and she said, "Oh, but of course not, it is so impossibly expensive to go abroad nowadays." The boys go away to boarding school, but the girl, Sally, went to some local school and is really barely educated at all, daughters are expendable, I suppose. And they are all there, all the time, for every meal, the old nurse too, and in the evenings they all sit in the drawing-room, listening to the wireless – comedy shows that bewilder them all, except the children, who try to explain the jokes and references, all at once, so no one can hear a word anyway. The old ladies, and the nurse, are in there all day, knitting and sewing and looking out of the window and saying how hot it is, or how cold, and how early the fruit is, or how late, day after day, just the same, there is nothing missing but the samovar ... Sir Philip is out most of the time, in the fields, he is nothing if not a working farmer, tomorrow I shall help him with some young bullocks they have up on the hill.
I have not yet looked at the papers.'
That first day there had been no mention of the papers at all; and he had not, he realised, as he got into bed, given them so much as a thought himself. After tea he had been shown round the place by Sally and the boys: the weedy gardens where couch grass and bindweed quenched the outline of tennis court, kitchen garden, and what had once been a formal rose garden with box hedges and a goldfish pond. From time to time they met Lady Lander, hoeing a vegetable bed or snipping the dead heads from flowers; she worked with a slow deliberation that seemed appropriate to the hopeless task of controlling that large area. To go any faster would have been pointless – the forces of nature were winning hands down in any case – to give up altogether would be craven. There was no gardener, Sally said – 'The only men are Daniels and Jim, and Jim's only half really because he's on day release at the Tech and of course Daddy needs them on the farm all the time.'
They toured the stables (a graceful eighteenth-century courtyard, more architecturally distinguished than the house) and admired the Guernsey cows grazing in a paddock nearby. Sir Philip came down the drive on a tractor, and dismounted to join them and explain the finer points of raising calves to Dieter: this was a small breeding herd. 'Of course,' he said, 'it doesn't really make sense, economic sense, one never gets enough for them, but it's something I've always enjoyed doing.'
Sally broke in, 'And they look so nice.'
He beamed at the cows, and his daughter. 'Of course. That's half the point.'
A car was approaching slowly, taking the ruts and bumps with caution, a new model. Sir Philip said, 'Ah, here's George Nethercott, we're going to have a chat about those top fields'. He moved away from them as the car stopped, saying, 'Good evening, George, very good of you to come up – how's your hay going, I'm afraid we're making a very poor showing this year, I'm about three hundred bales short so far. I say, that's a very smart car ...'
His voice carried in the stillness of the early evening; it seemed the only forceful element in all that peace of pigeons cooing, cows cropping the grass, hypnotically shifting trees.
Sally said, 'Mr Nethercott's land joins our farm on two sides. Daddy may be going to sell him the three hill fields because we've got to have a new tractor next year, it's a pity, you oughtn't to sell land ...' Her voice trailed away vaguely, and then she went on with sudden enthusiasm, 'I say, do you like riding? Would you like to try Polly?'
'You will never believe it, I have been horse-riding,' he wrote to Erika. 'Not for long, I hasten to say – I fell off with much humiliation, and was made a great fuss of. They are such a charming family, and have a way of drawing you into everything they do, without ever really bothering about whether it is the kind of thing you are fitted for, or would like ... So that I find myself leading the most extraordinary – for me – life, mending fences, herding cattle, picking fruit, hay-making.
Next week I must get down to the papers.'
Sir Philip had taken him up to the attics. 'I really don't know what we shall find,' he said. 'Things get shoved away for years, you know, and one has very little idea ... I've not been up here for ages.'
There were pieces of furniture, grey with dust, and suitcases, and heaps of mouldering curtains and blankets; a sewing-machine that looked like the prototype of all sewing-machines; gilt-framed pictures stacked against a wall; a jumble of withered saddlery that Sir Philip picked up and examined. 'I wonder if Sally mightn't be able to make use of some of this.'
Dieter, looking at an eighteenth-century chest of drawers pushed away beneath a dormer window, and thinking also of the furniture with which the rest of the house was filled, said, 'You have some nice antique pieces.' Sir Philip, still trying to unravel a harness, said, 'Oh no, Dieter, not really, it's all just things that have always been here, you know.' He put the harness down and moved away into another, inner attic room with a single small window overlooking the stable-yard. 'I have a feeling the stuff we're looking for is in these boxes here.'
Later, Dieter sat at a small folding green baize card table he had found in a corner, and began to open the bundles of letters and papers. It was much as Felicity Sutton had predicted: there were family letters all mixed up with official correspondence both from and to the Sir Philip Lander of the 1840s. It was a research worker's gold-mine. He glanced through a few documents at random, and then began to try to sort things out into some kind of order, thinking that eventually, before he left, he must suggest tactfully that all this should be deposited in the Public Record Office or some other appropriate place. In the meantime it was just his own good luck ...
Curiously, he could not feel as excited or interested as he should. He read, and made a few notes, and yawned, and beyond the fly-blown window small puffy clouds coasted in a sky of duck-egg blue, the garden trees sighed and heaved, and if he lifted himself slightly in his chair he could see down into the stable-yard where Sally was in attendance on that enormous horse of hers, circling its huge complacent rump with brush and comb. Presently Sir Philip drove the tractor into the yard, and, with one of the boys, began to unload bales of hay. Dieter put his pen down, tidied his notes into a pile, and went down to help.
He had never known time pass so slowly – and so fast. The days were thirty-six hours long, and yet fled by so quickly that suddenly he had been there for two and a half weeks. Much embarrassed, he went one morning to find Lady Lander in the kitchen and insist that he should pay for his keep.
She was making jam. The room was filled with the sweet fruity smell; flies buzzed drunkenly against the windows. Astonished, she said, 'Oh, but of course not, we couldn't hear of such a thing, you are a guest.'
'But I am staying so long, originally Sir Philip suggested a few days, and with one thing and another it has got longer and longer. Please, really I should prefer ...'
She would have none of it.
He hardly knew himself how it was that his departure was always postponed. Of course, he had done no work at all, as yet, on the papers, but he could get down to that any time. And always there was something that loomed – 'You must be sure to be here for the County Show next week,' Sir Philip would say. 'You'll find it amusing if you've not seen that kind of thing before – do you have the equivalent in Germany, I wonder?' Or Sally would remember suddenly that the first cubbing meet was in ten days' time. 'You'll still be here, won't you, Dieter? Oh, you must be – honestly, if you've never seen a meet ...'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pack of Cards"
Copyright © 1986 Penelope Lively.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Nothing Missing but the Samovar,
The Voice of God in Adelaide Terrace,
Interpreting the Past,
Servants Talk About People: Gentlefolk Discuss Things,
Miss Carlton and the Pop Concert,
Revenant as Typewriter,
Next Term, We'll Mash You,
At the Pitt-Rivers,
A World of Her Own,
Presents of Fish and Game,
A Clean Death,
Venice, Now and Then,
Grow Old Along With Me, the Best Is Yet To Be,
The Darkness Out There,
'The Ghost of a Flea',
The Art of Biography,
What the Eye Doesn't See,
The Emasculation of Ted Roper,
A Long Night at Abu Simbel,
The French Exchange,
The Dream Merchant,
Pack of Cards,
The Crimean Hotel,
A Dream of Fair Women,