Layer cake - the representation of London in Penelope Lively’s "City of the Mind" and Peter Ackroyd’s "London: The Biography"

Term Paper, 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Fiction and History: A Theoretical Approach
2.1. Classic Historiography vs. Historical Narrative
2.2. Can History be Objective?
2.2.1. Historic Distance
2.2.2. Intentionality
2.3. History and Identity

3 Two Biographies: Penelope Lively and Peter Ackroyd
3.1. Penelope Lively
3.2. Peter Ackroyd

4 The Filling between the Layers
4.1. Brief Overview over City of the Mind and London: The Biography
4.1.1. City of the Mind
4.1.2. London: The Biography
4.2. Developing the Reader’s Appetite

5 Underneath the Icing: Uncovering the Layers of the City
5.1. City of the Mind
5.2. London: The Biography
5.3. One Recipe, Two Variations, Or, London as a City of the Mind

6 Conclusion

7 Works Cited

“Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

Salman Rushdie[1]

1 Introduction

When we talk about history, we usually refer to the more or less interesting facts and figures that we learn from books, TV, radio, or other media. ‘Serious’ history is regarded as a collective memory, developed by ‘serious’ historians and based on evidence. Many people consider history a dull and static subject whose use in modern times is more than limited. Notwithstanding the old prejudices, when looked at more closely, history turns out not to be static or unimportant at all. For instance, every nation has always defined itself through its history. Since the early days of the concept of ‘nation’ there has always been the attempt to unite groups of people with different beliefs and interests to create a collective identity in contrast to others. The problem is that history lies in the past and cannot be revisited. Thus, the only way to rediscover and reconstruct it is to interpret its legacy, i.e. chronicles, monuments, oral traditions, etc. The interpretation of facts, however, always implies the possibility of errors. It depends on the intention for which memory is used whether the potential fallacies are deliberate or not. As history is inevitably constructed, fact and fiction lay very closely together. Furthermore, history cannot be but a subjective notion since every person, including historians, has different experiences and interests. Thus, the history of a place or an event is similar to a layer cake: it consists of the memories of all people who are in some way involved.

This is the motif of the two works presented in this analysis: City of the Mind and London: A Biography. The layer cake in both Penelope Lively’s novel and Peter Ackroyd’s historical tract is London. Lively discovers the many strata of the capital by following the main character of her novel, Matthew Halland, around London. Ackroyd’s work is as non-fictional as history can get. Similarly to Lively’s novel, his structure, however, is not chronological but thematical.

On the basis of these two works, a novel and a non-fictional text, this paper pretends to refute the idea of a static history and show in what way Lively’s and Ackroyd’s London is a ‘city of the mind’ consisting of layers. To get a better understanding of historiography and its controversies, I will first give a short theoretical overview over the subject. The next step will be to present the authors of the works in order to show their familiarity with history. The subsequent analysis of the representation of London will focus on the idea of London as a layer cake as it manifests itself in both Lively’s novel and Ackroyd’s book.

2 Fiction and History: A Theoretical Approach

2.1. From Classic Historiography to Historical Narrative

Since the eighteenth century, traditional genre classifications have made a clear distinction between novel and history, even reducing them to binary oppositions. Whereas novels were regarded as dynamic and creative, history had the stigma of being a rigid genre that followed standard rules. Ironically, what lead to such a negative image of historiography was the emergence of the novel. The latter took the liberty to play with the static conventions thus gaining immense popularity. Despite these prejudices, the general take on history changed when the focus shifted from a mere description of impersonal facts to the more emotional illustration of individual memories in biographies. These texts drew their popularity from the sympathy of their readers whose attention was gained by engaging their emotions. Classic historiography was now seen as a political instrument which attracted only a selected few of the socially privileged. Biography, on the other hand, appealed to the masses because it dealt not with war and politics, but with every day subjects the average person was able to relate to. Still, biography was a form of historical writing, thus, its popularity illustrates that the demand for history remained unbroken.[2]

Today, the boundaries of this popular genre have become very fuzzy. The days when historiography was concerned with the simple reproduction of facts are long gone. Modern history is embedded in creative narratives, which makes it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. Some even argue that historical narratives cannot be but literary constructions since they result from the linking of facts in the historian’s imagination[3] and are also influenced by the extent to which society wishes to remember or forget[4].

Still, the aim remains the same: the “stories of origin and destination”[5] link past and present and thus project the lessons learned in the past and the hopes of the present into a utopic future.[6] Or, as Mieke Bal puts it in her introduction to Acts of Memory. Cultural Recall in the Present: memory is “an activity occurring in the present, in which the past is continuously modified and re-described even as it continues to shape the future.”[7]

2.2. Can History be Objective?

2.2.1. Historic Distance

According to Phillips, the decisive factor that makes biography appealing to a large audience is its historical distance. This distance comprises both the detachment and the proximity determined by a complex understanding of temporal distance. Obviously, the view on history changes in the course of time but there are also other influential factors like the political situation and the relationship of the individual to the past. Thus, some events might require a closer representation in order to emphasize their effects on the individual or on society in general whereas others can be treated with objectivity or even humour. Naturally, historic distance works both ways. The historian’s influence on the audience’s perception of the past is limited since reader and writer have different experiences. Even so, the devices used to create historic distance are powerful tools of manipulation that can be used to communicate a particular ideology.[8]

2.2.2. Intentionality

Munslow tackles the issue of objectivity by scrutinizing the very process of history writing. He introduces the idea that to understand and write history one must analyze the backgrounds of an event, especially the intentions of the individuals that contributed to it. This analysis is based on the assumption that the people in the past act and react in the same way as in modern times and that what we consider a logical consequence of an action now was logical then. Furthermore, it means that the historian must have sufficient empathy with the past times’ agents to be able to explain the ideas that lead to a particular action. In a way, he must be able to re-live the political and social circumstances that influenced an event in order to produce an adequate description. These assumptions, however, ignore the fact that a historian can only penetrate history by evaluating evidence and not actually enter the agents’ minds. Besides, the meaning of the evidence might not be the same as in the past. Therefore, history results from mere interpretation of facts thus being subject to wrong conclusions and errors. Consequently, the question of objectivity of history is void. History is the result of a balancing act between the evidence of an event and the possible intentions behind it. It is only the juxtaposition of a number of historians’ views that gives us not what actually happened but a reliable interpretation of the facts.[9]

2.3. History and Identity

The Venezuelan critic and literary scholar Carlos Pacheco illustrates the power of memory in his article “Memoria y poder: dimensión política de la ficción histórica hispanoamericana.”[10] Although he concentrates on Hispano-American paradigms of the Nueva Novela Histórica[11] movement, the basic ideas have international validity. He underlines that the understanding of history depends on its current interpretation and on the political situation. Pacheco summarizes the problem of the ambiguity of history in four questions: “cuál historia?, la enunciada por quiénes?, la limitada a cuáles tópicos o ámbitos?, la autorizada por qué condiciones de legitimidad?”[12] They are the basic questions that one must ask oneself be able to deal with history objectively. History, after all, is a constructed memory that defines a nation and can be manipulated to legitimate a certain ideology.[13]

The need for history, thus, results from the need for a shared cultural identity. Its shape depends on the political and social interests and experiences at the time and is consequently subject to change. Therefore, as indicated in chapter 2.1., history becomes a subjective and – if we understand fiction in a broader sense – fictional construction which depends on external factors. In this sense, the fictional traits of history are not reduced to literary narratives but also comprise the beliefs and traditions – including auto- and heterostereotypes – which constitute the mentality of a nation even if they are obviously not congruent with the historical facts.[14]

Notwithstanding the importance of the unifying purpose of a collective memory, one must not forget that history, first of all, defines the individual. What makes a person who he is are his experiences and his sense of self over time. He basically creates himself through memory. This very subjective remembrance distinguishes him from the others and could be seen as the “human essence.” ‘Personal’ and ‘historical’ memory have long been regarded as opposing notions since the first is highly referential whereas the latter is based on a sequential succession of events and, thus, a linear view on time.[15]

3 Two Biographies: Penelope Lively and Peter Ackroyd

3.1. Penelope Lively

Born in Cairo on 17 March 1933, Penelope Lively spent the fist twelve years of her life in Egypt. After her parents’ divorce in 1945, she was sent to England and attended boarding school in Sussex for five years. In 1954, she graduated from St. Anne’s College in Oxford where she had studied Modern History. Three years later, she married Jack Lively, a political theorist, and gave up her occupation as research assistant at St. Anthony’s College to dedicate her entire time to her two children born in 1958 and 1961. It was not until her youngest child started school that she started writing fiction. After writing several books for children – two of them award-winning –[17] she went on to write adult fiction in 1977. She published several novels and short story collections, and two autobiographies. Her novels were very well received; she won several awards for her novels and was even nominated for the Booker Prize which she eventually won with her 1987 novel Moon Tiger. Lively still writes for children but she also contributes to newspapers and journals as prestigious as the Sunday Times, The Observer, and the Times Educational Supplement. She has written audio and TV-scripts and even presented a programme on children’s literature on BBC Radio 4.[18] She is a member of several associations of writers and has even been awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) and a CBE (Commander of the British Empire).[16]


[1] qtd. in Nünning, Ansgar. “New Directions in the Study of Individual and Cultural Memory and Memory Cultures.” Journal for the Study of British Cultures 10, 1 (2003): 7.

[2] Phillips, Mark Salber. “Histories, Micro- and Literary: Problems of Genre and Distance.” New Literary History 34, 2 (Spring 2003): 211-229.

[3] Munslow, Alun. “Objectivity and the Writing of History.” History of European Ideas 28, 1-2 (March 2002): 48.

[4] Nünning 2003, 4, 8.

[5] Scholz, Susanne. “Tales of Origin and Destination. The Uses of History in the Narrative of the Nation.” Journal for the Study of British Cultures 2,1 (1995): 7.

[6] Scholz 1995, 7-8.

[7] qtd. in Nünning 2003, 3.

[8] Phillips 2003, 217-218.

[9] Munslow 2002, 43-50.

[10] Pacheco, Carlos. “Memoria y poder: dimensión política de la ficción histórica hispanoamericana.” Hispamérica: Revista de Literatura 91 (April 2002): 3-14. Translation by the author of this paper: “Memory and Power: The Political Dimension of Hispano-American Fiction.”

[11] Trans.: ‘New Historical Novel’. A literary movement in the Spanish-speaking Latin America of the second half of the 20th century. Proceeding on the assumption that history is ambiguous, the authors question the official history in order to demystify popular historical figures and to do ‘historical justice’.

[12] Pacheco 2002, 9. Trans.: “which history?, presented by who?, limited to which topics or areas?, authorized by which conditions of legitimacy?”

[13] Pacheco 2002, 8.

[14] Nünning 2003, 3-5.

[15] Williams-Wanquet, Eileen. “The Geography of Memory in the Novels of Penelope Lively.” Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines: Revue de la Societé d’Etudes Anglaises Contemporaines. 29 (2005): 97-98.

[16] Lively’s biography is based on “Lively, Penelope, 1933-.” 2005. Literature Online. 8 February 2007

Additional information from other sources is marked.

[17] The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) won the Carnegie Medal, A Stitch in Time (1976) won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. “Penelope Lively.” 2007. Literature Department of the British Council. 30 March 2007

[18] “Penelope Lively.” 2007.

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Layer cake - the representation of London in Penelope Lively’s "City of the Mind" and Peter Ackroyd’s "London: The Biography"
University of Paderborn
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Ana Colton-Sonnenberg (Author), 2007, Layer cake - the representation of London in Penelope Lively’s "City of the Mind" and Peter Ackroyd’s "London: The Biography", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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