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  • Layers of Language in Lively's The Ghost of Thomas Kempe
  • Louisa Smith (bio)

Davis Rees has said that Penelope Lively has achieved "something unique, a kind of book that is neither history nor fantasy but has something of both, and that cannot be labeled conveniently—a book where the power of place is a stronger force than most of the characters, where 'history is now'" (187). Lively's books, both children's and adults', do indeed concern the co-existence of past and present embedded in a particular place, and making readers understand that involves more than a mere description of slippings through the curtain of time by characters passing either forwards or backwards. In particular, Lively evokes historical periods by means of the linguistic trappings of various times. Nowhere is her skill in doing so more evident than in her Carnegie Award book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe.

The setting for the book is Ledsham, probably a village near Oxford; it offers the central character, James Harrison, a sense of the past, both actively and passively. Ledsham abounds in old relics and buildings. An archeological team is busy excavating a middle Bronze age site, and the church contains records of births and deaths for at least five hundred years back. "It was a very old place, half way between a village and a small town and had, somehow, the air of being dwarfed by the present" (20). It is just the town for an observant potential author like James.

At the opening of the book, James considers writing about black beetles; but the cottage the Harrisons have just moved into contains historical intrigue which will change James' mind. Workmen clearing out the room designated for James in the attic of the house unwittingly release the ghost of Thomas Kempe, self-proclaimed sorcerer, astrologer, alchemist, physician and geomancer of the seventeenth century. He and James begin an alliance, with James serving as his apprentice solely because he occupies the room.

Thomas Kempe communicates by writing, generally in inconvenient places, such as on walls and on important papers. His first message appears on the Harrisons' gate, on the blackboard Mrs. Harrison uses to advertise excess apples from the family property. Kempe offers his services; "Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie, Alchemie, Recoverie of Goodes Loste, Physicke." Mrs. Harrison wipes the notice off, commenting that although witty, the spelling is a little archaic. Rebuffed but undaunted, Thomas Kempe adds his prescription for curing coughs to the doctor's medical prescription for a cough mixture for James' sister.

But somebody had drawn a bold blue line through that, in biro, and written underneath, in the same crabbed, old-fashioned looking writing as the words on the apple blackboard, "Take the leaves of Lungwort, which is a herb of Jupiter, boile them and make of them a syrupe which will much ease a coughe. I counsell thee also to saye certeine charmes over the sicke childe."


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, lungwort was used for coughs, inflammations and ulcers of the lungs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was also referred to as toothwoorth and angelica.

Having delivered his services as a physician, Kempe next demonstrates his abilities in "recoverie of goodes loste." James' father has misplaced his pipe and James subsequently discovers this message on his project book: "Tell thy father that if he would knowe who hath stollen his pipe he should take a sieve & hange itt fromm a payre of sheeres & when he name the person he suspecteth the sheeres will turne. Or if he preferre he may use the crystalle" (25). Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, misplaced property could be discovered [End Page 114] by either looking into pieces of crystal for revelations of secrets, or by using a sieve and scissors as described.

Next Thomas Kempe checks out James' school subjects, and is incensed to discover no mention no mention of Latin or Astrology, appropriate school subjects in the seventeenth century. This message also advises James' father to cure his "baldnesse" with yarrow, a herb commonly employed in the fifteenth century.

Because Thomas Kempe identifies James as his apprentice, James constantly has to answer for the scribblings...


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pp. 114-116
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