A lot of writers peak early, and not many are still flourishing in their 80s. Lively’s productivity has been so steady and reliable that she is sometimes taken a little for granted. In this country she is not nearly as well-known as she ought to be, and even in her own — although she has won both the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature, the equivalent of our Newbery award — she is not as big a name as, say, her contemporaries Margaret Drabble or A. S. Byatt. She has a fervent following and regularly sells out at literary festivals, but has remained just on the edge of the radar.
Books written by the author in her London home. Credit Photographs: Left, Tom Jamieson for The New York Times; right, New York Review Books
Lively’s prose is sharp, precise, perfectly pitched, but shrinks from flashiness in a way that has sometimes been mistaken for cozy or middlebrow. The novel that put her on the map, the 1987 Booker-winning “Moon Tiger,” formally quite daring, was even criticized for being a “housewife’s” book. Lively writes mainly about the English middle class, and for a while, anyway — when much of the energy in British fiction was coming from writers born outside of England like Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey and Kazuo Ishiguro — this made her seem stodgy and old-fashioned to some. She has also overlapped with a younger generation of male writers — Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — who grabbed so much attention it was sometimes hard for a female novelist to get a word in edgewise, especially one whose personal life, like hers, was sedate and headline-resistant: no scandals, no feuds, just one marriage. Her only vice, aside from a glass or two of wine in the evening, is that peculiarly English addiction, gardening. A little terrace at the back of the house is crammed with rosebushes, pots and pots of tulips, and an abundance of plants and bushes whose names most people have never heard of.
By now, though, her body of work proves that certain themes never go out of fashion: One of her great subjects turns out to be the way the English middle class, always insecure, is always reinventing itself. Lively, reinventing a life of her own, didn’t begin writing until she was in her late 30s. She was married — to Jack Lively, a political theorist she met at Oxford — and had two children, and was casting about for something to do. “I’m one of those people for whom reading became writing,” she said. “Because of my odd childhood, I’ve always been an obsessive, avid reader, and that went on and on and on. Not every obsessive reader feels the need to turn into a writer, but a few do, and I’ve never met any writer worth his salt who wasn’t an obsessive reader.” Her early reading was mostly indiscriminate, she added, but by the time she was in her 20s she began paying attention to writers like Henry Green, Elizabeth Bowen and William Golding, who displayed a particular precision and elegance of language.
She started writing children’s books — her first, “Astercote,” was published in 1970. The best of them, the Carnegie-winning “The Ghost of Thomas Kempe” (1973), is in some ways a grown-up book in disguise: The ghost is really a metaphor for the persistence of the past, the way some things never vanish, or else the way the past shapes the future, which has become Lively’s signature theme.