The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

1983 cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Without planning to, I’ve been working through some Carnegie Medal winners recently, starting with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, then Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting. I’ve written about Penelope Lively’s teen fiction before, but this is her Carnegie Medal winner, from 1973. (And just as both Westall and Mahy were the only writers to have won the Carnegie twice, Lively is the only writer to have won both the Carnegie and the Booker Prize.)

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has been described (by Colin Manlove, in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England) as “the best of Lively’s books in the fantastical vein”. Manlove goes on to say it’s “possibly indebted to Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man” as it “deals with an unnatural survival from the past”, though Lively’s previous YA books also dealt with an “unnatural survival from the past” — and I’ve heard that her adult fiction does too, though in a non-supernatural way — so no influence from Amis is necessary.

In Kempe, James Harrison and his family have just moved into East End Cottage in Ledsham, Oxfordshire, a small town that seems to encapsulate Lively’s picture of the world as a place whose heart belongs to the past, but which is slowly being crowded out by modernity:

“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. New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been…”

1992 cover by Richard Jones

Just before James takes residence in his new attic bedroom, it, too, has been modernised, by builders who found (and broke) a small sealed bottle in the wall by the window. Unwittingly, they’ve released the ghost of Thomas Kempe Esq., who died in 1629. A restless, poltergeist-like spirit, Kempe is itching to get back to his old ways of making himself rather bullyingly useful to the people of Ledsham, offering such services as “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie, Alchemie, Recoverie of Goodes Lost, Physicke”. He decides James is to be his apprentice (and representative), and begins posting notices around the town to let it be known that “I doe once more practise my arte and cunninge in this house.”

But nobody wants “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie”, etc., nowadays, so Kempe starts attacking what he sees as his modern rivals. He trashes the local GP’s office (“Physicke”), causes havoc in an archaeological dig (“Recoverie of Goodes Lost”), interferes with the TV whenever it shows a weather forecast (that, too, being one of his services), and generally gives the police, the vicar, and an elderly neighbour, Mrs Verity, who Kempe decides is a witch, a hard time.

2006 cover

The trouble is, because Kempe cannot be seen, and because he mentions James’s name as his apprentice in several of his notices — and because most of his activity takes place in the Harrison household, around James — James gets the blame. James was a bit of a troublemaker beforehand, but quickly comes to resent being blamed for (for instance) pulling the chair out from under the vicar the moment before he sits down, or altering a pharmacy prescription for his sister’s cough to something more herbalistic. He certainly resents the suggestion he might have thrown a brick through someone’s window or chalked insults on Mrs Verity’s wall.

But James is caught between two intolerables. He doesn’t want to be Kempe’s apprentice (which would be just encouraging the self-important old so-and-so, and trapping himself into doing all sorts of things he doesn’t want to do, like having to tell the archaeologists to stop their work, or convincing the people of Ledsham Mrs Verity is a witch, and probably having to learn Latin, too), but if he resists, the poltergeist activity kicks off, and his parents simply blame him for all the breakages and nasty tricks. When he says it’s a ghost, they take that to be one more desperate attempt at the “it wasn’t me” defence. His sister, used to being at odds with him, won’t listen. Even his new friend, bespectacled Simon, never wholly believes. As James says:

“Nobody believes in him except me… And I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.”

1973 HB cover

If The Ghost of Thomas Kempe wasn’t basically humorous, it could easily be awful for James, considering how harassed and isolated he becomes. It’s not like Lively’s previous go at the theme of a sorcerous personage from the past being summoned into the present (The Whispering Knights) where it’s three children who summon a witch, so at least there’s three of them to share the burden — and it’s definitely their fault. Nor is it quite like William Mayne’s It, another book on the same theme, whose protagonist finds herself singled out for the unwanted devotions of a witch’s familiar, because in her case she’s believed when she talks to an adult about it, it’s just that the adult can’t do anything to help. In fact, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has close ties with both the other Carnegie winners I’ve reviewed recently, as they’re all about children having to deal with troublesome supernatural incursions while being blamed for their ill-effects, with varying degrees of isolation and distress. (Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows is the one whose protagonist is most responsible for the supernatural incursion, but only because he has the most emotional baggage to deal with anyway.)

One theme that pops up in Kempe but doesn’t get fully developed is when James starts to become aware of his own childhood as just one more aspect of the flow of history. He’s startled, for instance, to find old Mrs Verity telling tales of how naughtily she behaved as a girl, and so comes to see her as still partly a child. And the historical Arnold Luckett (a boy of James’s age who dealt with a bout of Kempe disturbances in the previous century, who James reads about), pops up as an old man in a portrait in the local school. In both cases, we see childhood put in its context as a stage of life that leads to adulthood, but also never quite goes away.

1976 cover

Perhaps we’re supposed to see Thomas Kempe’s selfish insistence the world returns to his idea of how it should be as a form of childishness? Certainly, his poltergeist tantrums are. And the inverse of that idea — the idea that being a child is like being a ghost — comes out in James’s realisation that “as far as most grown-ups were concerned, children were invisible”, therefore ghost-like, but also likely to cause poltergeist-like trouble.

Among Lively’s YA books, I still prefer The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, perhaps because of its slightly more serious tone and folk-horror feel of dealing with things pagan, primal and dangerous, but as far as Lively’s “unnatural survival from the past” theme goes, I think The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is more successful than her other two YA books I’ve covered, Astercote and The Whispering Knights (though it doesn’t have as adventurous a conclusion as either).

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was read by Ronald Pickup on Jackanory in December 1977, and adapted into a US TV movie in 1979, which sets the action in a modern-looking house in the USA, thereby immediately compromising the influence-from-the-past theme. I haven’t watched the whole thing, though (the one version on YouTube has a weirdly warping picture), so it may improve.

Comments (3)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I read ‘A Stitch in Time’ a few months ago. Again, it revolves around a child’s interaction with the supernatural. It wasn’t bad, but almost as interesting as a reflection of its period as on its own merits.

    Re Mrs Verity as a child. I didn’t read. ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ until much later, but this was what I took away from the 1974 TV series – Tom’s realisation that the girl he played with only a few days before and the old lady living upstairs are one and the same made a big impact on me at the time*, to the extent that I felt that this was the whole point of the story. Maybe it was? (The Walker in ‘The Dark is Rising’ is a particularly poignant example of how time changes us, not necessarily for the better).

    * well, I was ten!

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I haven’t read either “A Stitch in Time” or “Tom’s Midnight Garden”, though both seem to be popular. I think I dismissed them as time travel stories (I don’t know if I’m right), whereas I wanted something more fantastical. I may read the Lively one, though, as I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read by her so far.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I don’t think I’d ever have read ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ were it not for how I’d read an anthology of Pearce’s short stories – ‘The Shadow-Cage & Other Stories’ which struck me as being very well written. Even then, it was years before I realised Pearce had written both. She was a book editor for around nine years, and I reckon it shows.

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