Penelope Lively A Stitch in Time
Mammoth 2000 (1976)
Though I haven’t yet read it Penelope Lively’s 2013 memoir, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: a Life in Time, picks up some up the themes that permeate her 1976 Whitbread Children’s Book Award winner; growing old, books, her cat, ammonites of course, all what has been described as “her identifying cargo of possessions”. Ostensibly a ghost story this is more about what it’s like to be a solitary bookish child on the cusp of maturity, all told with sensitivity and poetry, so much so that it’s hard not to read aspects of her own childhood into this book. Her parents took what has been called “a rather inactive role” in the author’s life during her upbringing in pre-war Egypt; she describes it as “a childhood with enormous opportunities for solitude and imagination,” during which she spent “long hours just playing alone, building elaborate stories in my mind around my toy animals.”
In A Stitch in Time Maria Foster is an only child taken in the summer of 1975 for a four week holiday to Lyme Regis; Mr and Mrs Foster have rented from a local resident, Mrs Shand, an old Victorian house which they discover is filled with furniture and artefacts accumulated over a hundred years. Maria is prone, much as the young Penelope Low did in Egypt, to having conversations with objects and animals in lieu of friends and siblings, which her rather distant parents construe as mumblings. But Maria is also an unusual auditory sensitive who hears sounds no one else hears; these noises include the squeak of a swing in the garden, the playing of the piano and the barking of a dog. She finds she develops an interest in fossils, a fascination she shares with Martin Lucas, whose noisy extended family are staying in the hotel next door; together they search Lyme’s beach for ammonites, the sea urchin Stomechinus bigranularis and Mesozoic oyster Gryphaea. But all the while Maria is becoming obsessed with one time inhabitants of their holiday home, Victorian sisters Susan and Harriet. In particular, what happened to Harriet? Is the answer in the landscape around Lyme — the fossils, the geology, the underlying morphology of the cliffs? And why can only she hear echoes of the past in her ammonite-shaped cochleae?
A Stitch in Time is a beautifully written novel. Every few pages includes poetic passages evoking a feeling, a scene, a landscape: for example, a lovely day was better than one with a boring blue sky “because the sky was pleasantly busy with clouds, huge shining heaps of cloud that roamed across the horizon, ebbed and flowed, formed and reformed as you watched them… Everything would go grey and muted, as the sun went in, and there would be this band of golden colour sweeping along the cliffs to Weymouth, lighting up now a bright slice of rock, now a green field, now the white sparkle of a house, now the turquoise of the sea itself.”
But it’s not just descriptions that ensured the accolade of a Whitbread Award; Maria herself is a believable character, a sensitive child who tries to piece together scraps of disparate evidence without asking questions that might make her seem stupid, the way that real children do. She’s also a very likeable individual, kind and thoughtful even if a bit of an enigma to the adults around her.
How does Lively weave a story around Maria? Like any good author she includes a number of vibrantly coloured strands. Principally there is the recurrent image of the ammonite, a fossil plentiful in the rocks around Lyme; here is a natural spiral which could have suggested a tale of parallel lives separated by a hundred and ten years — though of course the match can never be exact. There are also the parallel lives of author and fictional character, though unlike Maria in the story the young Penelope was not to make real friends at boarding school in England, having to wait until she went to Oxford.
And, speaking of strands, the ‘stitch in time’ of the title refers to a sampler that Maria comes across, a sampler that Maria’s Victorian counterpart Harriet had worked on and that her sister Susan completed. Other elements show up, scraps of odd material that somehow get drawn into the story. The dog that barks in Maria’s hearing which no one else is aware of? Perhaps Lively picked up on the legend of the Black Dog of Lyme: and though her black dog only shares a colour, not a backstory, with the local tale, it does function as an omen — just what it presages is not clear till the very end. And being set in Lyme Regis, one cannot not think of The French Lieutenant’s Women (1969) with its three optional endings; perhaps Lively is subtly referencing Fowles’ earlier novel by suggesting one ending while delivering a different conclusion.
This is the first novel by the author that I’ve read since the seventies, from her other children’s books The Whispering Knights (1971) and The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (1971) to her Treasures of Time (1979) written for an adult audience, and it’s made me keen to read more of her work. I also wanted to compare it with two other similarly-titled time-related novels, the semi-autobiographical A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley and the science fantasy A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. The fact is, while it includes some autobiography, some science and of course some fantasy, it mixes these elements in very different and individual ways. And it was such a delight to read — certainly one to read again.