Classics Club: The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

Penelope Lively, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973)

When I read Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, I was underwhelmed. Unfortunately, I can’t remember quite why. I think it was because I could not connect emotionally with the main character, and found the novel ultimately empty and dull in spite of the literary skill of the author. This happens to me a lot with acclaimed novels of the last century or so.

However, given that Lively is an anointed Great Writer, I wanted to give her another chance. So I decided to try a very different book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. And this time, I could see Lively’s greatness, not so self-consciously occupied with War and Betrayal and other Deep Adult Subjects, but put at the service that most fundamental, most formative of literary forms: the tale for children.

Thomas Kempe is the ghost of a seventeenth-century apothecary whose resting place has been disturbed by renovations when a new family moves into his home. His violent manifestations and messages become a serious problem for ten-year-old James, who inevitably gets blamed for everything by the annoyingly modern-minded people around him. With the help of a local builder who takes a more sensible view of the issue, and a diary from the boy previously visited by this supernatural nuisance, he must find a way to put Kempe to rest once more.

It’s a simple narrative trajectory, but it’s the way Lively treats it with such lovingly crafted detail that makes this a special book. James perfectly captures the essence of Preadolescent Boy, and has the perfect sidekick in Tim, a Disreputable Dog (the only character in the book, Lively explains in a preface, directly taken from life). The intrusion of a spirit from the distant past, causing havoc and upsetting the usual order of things, allows her to explore the mind of a child on the threshold of adulthood, and the way our past selves both pass away and remain forever in some eternal bubble of time.

Funny, finely observed, and written with an unfailing sense of the music of language, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe demonstrates the power of story as embodied idea. Rather than making some dry, intellectual statement about the nature of time and memory, Lively has crafted her thoughts into living pictures that leave the reader free to draw deeper meaning from them … or simply enjoy an entertaining tale. To me, this is the best kind of fiction, lacking the preachiness and snobbery unfortunately often found in so-called “adult” literature (including, I’m afraid, Lively’s own).

The one weak point in the story, I felt, was Thomas Kempe himself, who didn’t fully come to life for me — and not just because he was a ghost. An abrupt turnabout in his character at the climax of the story lacked sufficient motive, and added to the sense of his being a mere narrative device rather than an actual person. A bit more attention to this aspect would have made an excellent novel even better; I couldn’t help thinking that Diana Wynne Jones would have made a better job of it.

In the preface to the Folio Society edition, Lively appears a bit baffled by the success of her early book, and admits that “writing for children left me long ago.” This seems sad to me, and makes me wonder if some spark of vitality had vanished by the time she got around to Moon Tiger. I’m interested to read more of her fiction, and see if I can again be inspired by the creative energy that impressed me here.

Have you read any of Lively’s other novels? What can you recommend?

Classics Club List #18



21 thoughts on “Classics Club: The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

  1. Such an interesting review, Lory. You already know I have some blinkers when it comes to Lively(!) but I really enjoy reading your viewpoint and I certainly haven’t loved all of Lively’s books as much as Moon Tiger. I’ve just finished ‘Judgement Day’ (another one of hers) and it was good but not something I’d likely rush to re-read. However, I’ve never read ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’ and I think I definitely will now after reading this.


    1. Moon Tiger seems to be one of those books that divides people. Some say it’s Lively’s greatest, others that she’s done better… I’m definitely going to give her another chance now, anyway, as this one had so much about it that was wonderful. I hope you’ll read it too.


  2. I’ve never read ‘Moon Tiger’ but I remember the lukewarm reviews and Emily also didn’t rate it. The only adult fiction of hers I read was ‘Treasures of Time’ which, being about archaeologists, I found mildly interesting.

    No, it’s her kids books I enjoyed: ‘The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy’, ‘The Whispering Knights’ and, most recently, ‘A Stitch in Time’, one of a handful of novels set in Lyme Regis, and which I reviewed in


    1. Not all of those seem to be easily available here, but I have A Stitch in Time on hold from the library and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading that.


    1. That seems to be the consensus (or lack thereof). No book will hit it with all readers, but the widely divergent opinions on that one are interesting.


  3. I read The Ghost of Thomas Kempe as a child (and some of her other children’s books too, I think), but I can remember very little about it now. It’s on my list to read again one day!


    1. It’s the sort of book that will work for children but also reads beautifully for adults. It straddles exactly that time divide, I think.


  4. I am one of those who loved Moon Tiger. However, I can see not being able to connect with the main character. She was rather unpleasant.

    I also just finished a couple of weeks ago her novel According to Mark (because the podcast Tea or Books were going to discuss it) and I loved it too. Thomas at Hogglestock called it “a rather Pymsian Lively” which I think is fitting. It is lighter hearted than Moon Tiger, but still it has a bite.

    I think her writing style appeals to me for whatever reason. I also have Consequences on my shelf that I bought at a library sale a few years ago, but I haven’t read it.


  5. I love the sound of this one – and as one of my challenges this year is to read more children’s fiction, I will definitely be seeing if I can track this one down. Thank you for a well written, thoughtful review:)


    1. Yes, every reader is different. If you’re categorically opposed to ghosts this certainly won’t work for you, but he’s more a way for Lively to explore certain ideas about time and memory than a truly creepy occult manifestation. And also quite funny at times.


  6. I haven’t read any of her adult fiction, only her children’s books, and I really enjoyed them. The Whispering Knights, Astercote, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Stitch in Time, Fanny & the Monsters, The Voyage of the QV66, House in Norham Gardens… Her books are in a similar tradition to those of Alan Garner, Joan Robinson, Philippa Pearce, and those that I remember best are very interested in time, memory, history… I’m glad this one has been re-issued as a Folio.


    1. I don’t think all of her children’s books were ever even published in the US. If I ever get over to the UK I will have to look for them.


      1. Do The Book Depository or Wordery deliver to the US? Because they do carry some of her children’s books, though some are out of print I think and therefore not available. Just in case you can’t wait until a trip to the UK. 🙂


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