“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.