Passing On by Penelope Lively

Penguin, 1990, 214 p.

 Passing On cover

Helen and Edward Glover have into middle age lived with their overbearing mother Dorothy (from whose clutches their younger sister Louise had long since escaped by marriage) in a crumbling pile called Greystones which has an accompanying area of land known as the Britches. The novel starts at Dorothy’s funeral with Helen reflecting, “Eternal life is an appalling idea, especially in mother’s case,” and thereafter traces the lives of Helen and Edward in the following weeks. Helen has a part-time job at the local library, Edward teaches at a nearby girls’ school but it is their inner lives which foreground the book.

In its initial stages the novel is deceptively light in tone, like a cross between The Shell Seekers and The New Moon with the Old, but as it progresses it develops an accumulation of detail which underpins its seriousness.

The terms of Dorothy’s will come as a shock. She has left Greystones to Louise’s teenage son Phil, now in that rebellious stage, adorned by a black crest of hair streaked with green, but with Helen and Edward having the right to live in the house until death. Only the Britches has been left to the Glovers. This is in one sense suitable as Edward has always felt more at home with nature than people (“the natural world thinks nothing and neither laughs nor cries,”) awkward at dealing with the world, and Helen is increasingly brought into the company of solicitor Giles Carnaby through dealing with the probate. She finds herself falling for him. She still sometimes sees her mother in the house and hears Dorothy’s voice in her head commenting on her foolishness. Dorothy’s classification of girls had been, “Pretty was best, clever was worst.” Her disparagement of any friend – especially male – Helen might bring home made sure she stopped doing so. While clearing out a cupboard Helen finds that Dorothy many years ago, by accident or design (but the narrative leaves little room for doubt which,) prevented an attachment developing by not passing over a letter Helen had received from Peter Datchett. Running in and out of the narrative is local builder Ron Paget, whose yard neighbours Greystones, and who is always out for the main chance and has perennially had his eyes on the Britches as ripe for development.

The interactions of the characters can verge on the seemingly mundane, Helen’s almost adolescent infatuation, her does-he doesn’t-he should-I-contact-him thoughts, Giles’s slipperiness, the hints at and revelation of Edward’s true nature, Louise’s battles with Phil, his blossoming at Greystones when he comes to get away from mum for a bit, Ron Paget’s persistent unsubtle attempts to wheedle the Britches out from under the Glovers, but the picture they build becomes more and more compelling.

I would say this does not quite achieve the heights of excellence which the same author’s Moon Tiger did but is another demonstration that quiet lives lived (more or less) quietly still have their dramas and deserve recording.

Pedant’s corner:- frequently commas were missing before pieces of direct speech, Windowlene (for the glass cleaner. It’s spelled ‘Windolene’,) a mack (this abbreviation for mackintosh is usually spelled mac,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ would mean ‘from from where’. I know the two words appear as such consecutively in the text of a hymn but that doesn’t make it correct.)

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