Category Archives: Older women in fiction

How it all began by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger is a brilliant novel that takes a long life and shows the reader how it is seen as it closes. Claudia Hampton was 76 years old and had lived a distinguished and active life. She is dismissed by medical staff and a doctor who ‘glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone’. Moon Tiger was published in 1987.

Nearly a quarter of a century later Penelope Lively gives us another older woman. Charlotte in How it all began is the 31st in the older women in fiction series on Bookword. You can find others through the various links on the blog. Thanks to Susan Kavanagh for recommending this in November last year in a comment left on the Older Women in Fiction page.

The story of How it all began

Charlotte (77) is mugged, and her hip is broken. She goes to stay with her daughter Rose while she mends. This sets in motion several other stories of other people, most of whom live in London. Rose meets Anton, an eastern European immigrant, and falls in love, when he comes to learn to read English with Charlotte. Marion has to step in for Rose taking her esteemed uncle to Manchester to give a lecture. Henry is not up to it and he must seek other ways of feeding his ego. Marion texts her lover to let him know she cannot meet him as arranged and the text is discovered by his wife, who threatens to divorce him. And so on.

The two older characters, Charlotte and Henry, have different views of their lives. Henry, perhaps fuelled by gender, feels entitled to respect and attention in his old age. However he is no longer able to summon up the learning of the past, or to make any impression upon people. He tries hinting at the discovery of a hidden scandal to impress the academic world, and tries his hand at television presentation. Both endeavours fail. He needs to face the fact that the world has moved on without him.

Charlotte, on the other hand, is comfortable with her position, except for her physical difficulties resulting from the mugging. She has had and still has a good full life and feels that her achievements feed into her current occupations. She eventually returns home, a little less steady than previously, but more comfortable in the world than Henry.

Charlotte is home. Grateful to Rose and Gerry; deeply grateful to be once more her own woman. She is mobile, if precarious, and there is Elena from the Czech Republic who comes in daily to minister, to shop, to do the household chores.

Home, alone, she picks up the threads. Pain is contained, corralled, though breaking out from time to time. Friends and neighbours visit – she is not really alone – the world is all around. She lives in an insistent present. But her thoughts are often of the past. That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could view it anyway. The past is our ultimate privacy; we pile it up, year by year, decade by decade. It stows itself away, with its perverse random recall system. We remember in shreds, the tattered faulty contents of the mind. Life has added up to this: seventy-seven moth-eaten years. (243)

It is common to believe that older people live their lives anticipating death, or lost in memories of the past. But I think Penelope Lively has it about right. Both Charlotte and Claudia are still active people in old age.

Other themes in How it all Began

The novel is not primarily a contrast between the two old people. Rather it is a meditation on causality, chaos theory and how people build lives and take or do not take account of others. Henry and Jeremy (something of an exploiter of women) are both excessively selfish and self absorbed. Anton is somewhat romantic and honourable. The importance of story for understanding lives is well illustrated in this novel.

Penelope Lively’s prose is knowing, somewhat scathing about some language use, but very perceptive about London life.

You can find the post on Moon Tiger here. It was the third in the older women in fiction series. Moon Tiger won the 1987 Booker Prize.

How it all began by Penelope Lively, published by Penguin Books in 2011. 248pp

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016 Cassava Press) will be my choice for April in the older women in fiction series. It features a Nigerian woman of 75 in San Francisco.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Velma Wallis Two Old Women

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women retells the Alaskan legend celebrating the fortitude and wisdom of the two old women of the title. As their tribe approaches a difficult winter with few resources, the chief and council decide that The People must move on, but leave behind the two old women who are draining their resources.

Two Old Women by Velma Willis is the 30th in the older women in fiction series on Bookword. You can find others through the various links on the blog.

The Story of Two Old Women

It is the time before Westerners arrived in the Yukon. The People must live off what the land provides. Some years the land is more bountiful than others. The People are moving to their winter quarters but finding it impossible to support themselves. The chief’s decision is a difficult one, but it is argued that these two old women contribute very little, are a burden on the younger folk and moreover they complain all the time. To leave them behind might save the Qwich’in People.

Of course they survive or this would not be a legend. But at first the women are stunned and shocked. It is hard to be abandoned, especially by your daughter and grandson.

The large band of famished people slowly moved away, leaving the two women sitting in the same stunned position on their piled spruce boughs. Their small fire cast a soft orange glow onto their weathered faces. A long time passed before the cold brought Ch’idzigyaak out of her stupor. (12)

Ch’idzigyaak is 80 years old. Her younger companion is 75. In the beginning Sa’ is the stronger in spirit and body.

At that moment, Sa’ lifted her head in time to see her friend’s tears. A rush of anger surged within her. How dare they! Her cheeks burned with the humiliation. She and the other old woman were not close to dying! Had they not sewed and tanned for what the people gave them? They did not have to be carried from camp to camp. They were neither helpless nor hopeless. Yet they had been condemned to die. (12-13)

It is Sa’ who encourages her friend to hope and then to take action.

“Yes in their own way they have condemned us to die! They think we are too old and useless. They forget that we, too, have earned the right to live! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.” (14)

The imminent death would be dreadful, either from the cold or from hungry wild animals. Predation, as we have learned to call it. The chief’s decision to leave them behind reflects his perception of the old women‘s position as the least useful members of the band.

As winter approaches they set off to find a safe place to shelter, to find food and wood for warmth. As they go they tell each other a little about their pasts, and find that both have been resourceful and have learned survival skills. They meet and overcome difficulties. They support each other through their struggles.

Their survival teaches the rest of the band, when they are reunited, important lessons about perseverance but also about the value of old folk.

The Old Women

Legends are handed down for a reason. They pass on important lessons from the older generation to the younger. This legend of the old women is full of the importance of not giving up: “let us die trying.” And of the mutual value of different people within a community. It reminds us that old women, even if they are whiners, are not ‘old and useless’. The legend tells us that even age does not limit the ability to accomplish what is necessary.

The legend counters the strong story of dependence and decline that old people, especially older women, have told about them even today. As Sa’ says, older people are neither helpless nor hopeless. Much current social debate assumes that older people have nothing to offer as they become increasingly dependent, and that the world and life belongs to the young.

It is no coincidence that this story is introduced as a mother retelling it to her daughter as they collect the wood for winter. It reminds the reader of the harsh conditions that face many people even today. In this short novel these hardships and challenges are made vivid through the author’s personal knowledge of living near the Yukon. The author is from the tribe of the Qwich’in People.

Two Old Women: an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival by Velma Wallis (1993) Harper Collins 130pp

Illustrated by Jim Grant.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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Photo credit: The Silmarillion via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

A woman who is old is not merely an old woman. She is all the people she has been in her life. Tillie Olsen tells us that Eva has been a revolutionary, a prisoner, an immigrant, a mother and now, at 69 she wants to live in her own way. She rejects being defined as a grandmother. This is the significance of the title. She refuses to amuse the young, she will not tell a riddle.

Tell me a Riddle is the 29th in Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. Tillie Olsen’s short story was originally published in 1961, and has gained the status of American classic.

The Story

Here is the opening paragraph of Tell me a Riddle. Her desire to live in her own quiet and space brings Eva to a serious quarrel with her husband David.

For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say – but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown. (74)

They have raised seven children and never had enough money. They are Jewish immigrants from Russia to US. Eva wants to live in quiet in her own home, to decide on what she does. David wants to sell their house and live in a care home, the Haven. They sink into warfare: she is often mute, he is furious.

Then she becomes ill and it is terminal. He takes her to stay with various children and eventually to California, where they are looked after by a granddaughter, Jeannie who is a nurse. Eva dies there.

Eva and David’s relationship changes: from hostility, to distance and to fear of impending loss, with an underlying love. The love survives even if he has pushed her, as everyone has, into the role they think she should play. It’s a complex and hard story.

The older woman

Eva is a woman who at the end of her life tries to live as she wants after a lifetime of giving to others. She rejects, now, the roles people want to give her. But she must confront the wishes of her husband and is defeated by death.

The history of their marriage is sketched in through the story. It is not unusual. Eva has been defined in her marriage by the needs of her children. Eva’s closed, constrained life emerges in their quarrels. Here, for example, David tries to persuade her with arguments about the leisure that the Haven will offer.

“In the cottages they buy what you ask, and cook it how you like. You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomach than always to worry for money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”

“How cleverly you hid that you heard. I said it then because eighteen hours a day I ran. And you never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops.” (77)

He suggests she would enjoy a book group at The Haven. She reminds him that he never once stayed at home with the children so that she could go to a book club. And that she had to ask for every penny they needed, that she was the one required to manage.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (79)

This last line is repeated in the story. What is unusual, or was in the 1960s, is the articulation of the deprivation of the years when they had children.

When the family are told that she has at best a year to live, everything changes. We learn that Eva was active in the 1905 revolution, and that David found her in prison. We learn that she still has strong beliefs about how the world should be. She loved her children but no longer frets over their lives. And indeed her children and her grandchildren have become hard to understand. Her life is so different. Here’s a scene from a visit to cousins in California.

Jokes, stories, people they had known, beginning of reminiscence, Russia fifty-six years ago. Strange words across the Duncan Phyfe table: hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape – interrupted by one of the grandchildren: “Commercial’s on; any Coke left? Gee you’re missing a real hair raiser.” (106)

Her experiences include hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape. This is not your typical American housewife. This part of Eva’s life is ignored by everyone, is even unknown to them.

As she becomes more sick, she begins to ramble, to taunt David and to sing the songs of her youth. But when she lies in her hospital bed at night and he sleeps beside her in the double bed, they hold hands. As David observes, she finds it hard work to die.

Eva wanted to reclaim the idealism of her youth, which once she shared with David. She is pained that he has lost this vision for the world and that her children never shared it. In the final scene of the short story, David understands what he has lost by abandoning the struggle of their youth.

All her names

David, Eva’s husband, has developed a habit of calling her by names laden with sarcasm. You can almost follow the story by these names:

Mrs Word Miser       Mrs Unpleasant

Mrs Live Alone And Like It

Mrs Free As A Bird  Mrs Take it Easy

Mrs Excited Over Nothing

Mrs Inahurry                        Mrs Bodybusy

Mrs Suspicious          Mrs Invalid

Mrs Orator Without Breath

Mrs Miserable           Mrs Philosopher

Mrs Babbler              Mrs Live Alone

Mrs Cadaver             Eva

Other people call her Mum or Granny as appropriate to their relationship. Her seven children and husband have defined her. Only as she dies do we find out that she is called Eva and and she can reclaim her name.

I am reminded of the doctor in Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, who says of Claudia Hampton ‘that yes, she does seem to have been someone’.

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen by Julieoe via WikiCommons. Tillie Olsen recording Tell me a Riddle and other stories at The Library Of Congress in 1996.

Tillie Olsen was an American feminist who lived 1912-2007. She was born into a family of Russian immigrants and became active in trades unions and the communist party. For much of her life she lived in California. Tell me a Riddle was her first published book, but her output remained small, largely because of her domestic and family responsibilities. She also wrote the non-fiction Silences (1978).

Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen. Published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1964 in a collection of four short stories. 53 pp

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is a fairy tale, as you can tell from the title and it is the 28th in the Bookword series of Older Women in Fiction. You can find the others on the page Older Women in Fiction Series, above the heading picture.

Four women, unhappy in their different ways, find happiness and love during the month of April, which they spend together in an Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Old Mrs Fisher is lonely, angry and very eager to pick up impertinence in others. By the end of the month she too has succumbed to the enchantments of their month in Italy. Published 95 years ago The Enchanted April remains popular.

The Story

Lotty Wilkins sees an advert for a castle by the Mediterranean, available for the month of April. It is a dreary wet day in London in the years soon after the end of the First World War and Lotty is looking forward to nothing. She persuades a casual acquaintance, Rose Arbuthnot, to go with her to Italy. Two other guests join them: Lady Caroline, so beautiful every man must turn into a ‘grabber’, and a widow known always as Mrs Fisher.

The worst of the four women as well as their best is revealed during their stay. Each is escaping some situation at home and each will find unexpected happiness by the end of the month. The magic is wrought by two factors: the glorious surroundings, especially the magnificent gardens, in which they find themselves and their reactions to Lotty’s affectionate and generous spirit.

The story is told with a great deal of humour, some situational, some in throwaway asides by the characters. All the women change and reveal characters of some depth. What is proper and how it restricts women and their happiness and their men’s too, are the main themes of the novel. For the older women in fiction series I focus here on Mrs Fisher.

The Older Woman, Mrs Fisher

Mrs Fisher is 65 and a widow. It is not entirely clear why she agrees to join the group.

She only asked, she said, to be allowed to sit quiet in the sun and remember. (33)

And remembering is what she spends her time doing, rereading and remembering the Victorian men of letters she met in her youth, her father having been an eminent critic. From their arrival at the castle Mrs Fisher is demanding and domineering. She makes and acts upon assumptions, taking the place at the head of the table, commandeering one of the two sitting rooms for her exclusive use, and judging everyone with whom she comes into contact.

Elizabeth von Arnim describes her as angry, acquisitive and selfish. The old woman uses the excuse of her stick for all her antisocial actions. She is very sure in her opinions about respectable behaviour. She judges people on the basis of their punctuality, whether they speak grammatically, and if they spend their time usefully – meaning in her case reading the Victorian greats. She keeps up an internal and spiteful monologue, and her most common rebuke spoken out loud is ‘really!’ and to herself, ‘how impertinent!’ I think I have met people like Mrs Fisher.

Nothing could affect her, of course: nothing that anybody did. She was far too solidly seated in respectability. (74)

In her own opinion she has avoided the indignity of behaving as if she were younger than she is.

She herself had grown old as people should grow old, – steadily and firmly. No interruptions, no belated after-glows and spasmodic returns. (188)

The reader hopes she will be so shocked she will pack up and return to London. Rose tries to challenge her using reason, but Lotty simply suggests to Mrs Fisher that she will change in time. And gradually Mrs Fisher does change, responding to their surroundings, and to Lotty’s unstinting warmth. Mrs Fisher begins to have ‘odd sensations’, restlessness, time wasting, and moving around without her stick.

She responds favourably to the arrival of men, despite first meeting Lotty’s husband when he is clad only in a towel. She responds to their courtesy, their deference puts her at ease or brings out maternal feelings.

She notices that the old Victorians, being dead no longer have anything to offer her, so she stops reading them. And as she reflects on her situation she sees that her friends’ idea that one should never change is rather silly.

Old friends, reflected Mrs Fisher, who hoped she was reading, compare one constantly with what one used to be. They are always doing it if one develops. They are surprised at development. They hark back; they expect motionless after, say, fifty, to the end of one’s life. (189)

Lotty notices the changes in Mrs Fisher.

‘Poor old dear,’ she thought, all the loneliness of age flashing upon her, the loneliness of having outstayed one’s welcome in the world, of being in it only on sufferance, the complete loneliness of the old childless woman who has failed to make friends. It did seem that people could only really be happy in pairs, not in the least necessarily lovers, but pairs of friends, pairs of mothers and children, of brothers and sisters – and where was the other half of Mrs Fisher’s pair going to be found? (260)

The answer, of course, is that it is Lotty’s warmth that rescues her. She gains Lotty’s friendship by the time the month draws to an end. And Mrs Fisher has been transformed.

The image of old age

The picture of the unhappy and lonely older woman who takes her dissatisfaction out on those around her holds both elements of caricature and of truth. In the end Mrs Fisher is redeemed, no doubt abandoning her stick in the Italian castle.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1922. I read the edition published in 2015 by Vintage 262pp

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Themed Reviews – Written by Elizabeth

What a happy coincidence that so many excellent writers have the first name Elizabeth. Here are four that have provided exceptional delight in my reading. I have reviewed books authored by these Elizabeths many times on this blog including every novel by Elizabeth Taylor.

Below you can find links to novels by Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Strout and Elizabeth von Arnim as well as a few more suggested Elizabeths.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

Born in Dublin, Elizabeth Bowen lived through some of the worst times in Irish history. She remained connected to her Irish roots through Bowen Court, which she inherited but was eventually forced to sell. Although she spent a great deal of time in Bowen Court and wrote about her love of the place, she lived in England for most of her life. During the war she lived in London, in Clarence Terrace, Regent’s Park, the setting for her captivating wartime novel The Heat of the Day. She wrote 10 novels, many collections of short stories and other non-fiction books.

Early on I reviewed one of her first, The Last September, and it is the most read of all my reviews on Bookoword. Recently I reviewed her last novel, Eva Trout. I have reviewed others too: Friends and Relations, The House in Paris and The Hotel.

She was a champion of Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912–1975)

Elizabeth Taylor is well known for being the most under-rated author of her time. She has always had admiring followers, in the past and today. Virago has just re-issued her novels, again. Born in Reading and resident in the area all her life. The setting along the Thames is included in many of her short stories.

I have reviewed all Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction on Bookword: all 12 novels for adults, her children’s novel Mossy Trotter and her complete Short Stories. I also looked at her biography by Nicola Beauman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

You can find all the reviews by clicking on the category Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in the list of categories in the RH column. The review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is one of my most popular reviews.

Elizabeth Strout (b1956)

 

Born in Maine, US Elizabeth Strout has published five novels to date. I have enthusiastically reviewed two of them so far. The first won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009: Olive Kitteridge. It is included in the series of older women in fiction.

The other is My Name is Lucy Barton which was in the long list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

Her new book Anything is Possible is on my tbr list and I will review it soon

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941)

I am happy to recommend two novels by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I have read, and look forward to reading and sharing more of her work.

Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898) is a delightful account of a year in her garden, which she favours over her house. Despite her name the author was from Australia, but moved to live mostly in Europe. Her first husband appears in this novel as the Man of Wrath. Her love of gradens and acute observations of social customs were already evident in her first novel.

The Enchanted April (1922) is something of a fairy tale in which four unhappy women agree to spend a month in a castle on the Italian coast, despite being strangers to each other. The place and its gardens together with the generous spirit of one of the women lead to each of them finding a better future. I plan to write more about this book in August, specifically about Mrs Fisher, who is 65 and therefore a candidate for the older women in fiction series. What is proper and how it restricts women and their happiness and their men’s too, dominate the novel, written in her witty and readable style

Other Elizabeths

Here are some more suggested reads by Elizabeths:

Elizabeth Jenkins (1905–2010) The Tortoise and the Hare (1954) and Harriet (1934) (both published by Persephone Books) I have not reviewed either of these on Bookword.

Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923 –2014) The Cazulet Chronicle, Love All and many others. I have not read her novels myself, waiting for recommendations from other readers.

Elizabeth Smart (1913-1986) By Grand Central Station I Sat down and Wept (1945).

Elizabeth McKenzie (b. 1958) The Portable Veblen (2016) – shortlisted for last year’s Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize.

Over to you

That makes EIGHT Elizabeths who are worth reading. Have I missed any out?

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Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Loneliness in old age. It’s the biggest killer. In Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf Addie Moore has an idea about how to deal with her loneliness, especially at night when it hurts most. She approaches an acquaintance, Louis Waters with her unusual proposition and they begin a friendship with unexpected consequences for them both. They are both are over 70, widowed and living in the same area in their small American town, Holt Colorado.

Our Souls at Night is the 27th in my series on Older Women in Fiction. Thank you to my friend Sarah for the suggestion.

The story

Addie proposes to Louis that they could spend time together, at night, in bed, talking and sleeping and perhaps cuddling. Their relationship attracts gossip and assumptions but they continue. Addie’s grandson, Jamie, comes to live with her over the summer while his parents sort out their marriage. For a while this disrupts the new friendship, but Louis and Jamie get on well and especially after they acquire Bonny the dog. The relationship of the two old people unfolds as they talk more, explore their past, their marriages, their children and their regrets. And as they share the care of boy and dog.

Both Addie and Louis must deal with the disapproval of their adult children. After he has collected his son and plans to re-establish his own marriage, Addie’s son Gene continues to react badly to his mother’s friendship. He forbids them to see each other, and will not allow Addie to be with Jamie unless she complies.

Although they no longer share physical closeness, they continue to talk on the phone. What is left is the warmth and pleasure that their relationship has given them.

It’s a story about love and friendship: about love between children, grandchildren, animals in older life. It is also about how people react to the intimacy of others, mostly of older people, although Louis and Addie don’t have sex.

The Old Woman

Both main characters, Louis and Addie, are fully realised in this novel, but for the purposes of the older woman in fiction series I am focusing here on Addie. Here is how Louis sees her when she makes the bold step of proposing sleepovers.

He was watching her. She was a good-looking woman, he had always thought so. She’d had dark hair when she was younger, but it was white now and cut short. She was still shapely, only a little heavy at the waist and hips (4)

Addie refuses to be cowed by the small town gossip. She believes that her arrangement with Louis is their own business and she does not mind if people know about it. On his first night’s visit, Louis tries to be discrete and use her back door.

What are you doing back here? Addie said.

I thought it would be less likely for people to see me.

I don’t care about that. They’ll know. Someone will see. Come by the front door out on the front sidewalk. I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long – all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore. The alley makes it seem we’re doing something wrong or something disgraceful, to be ashamed of. (9)

Weeks later, they reflect upon how they are no longer news for their neighbours. She says to Louis,

Do you want to be news?

No. Hell. I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.

Well, that’s what we’re doing. Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

This is a positive view of old age: ‘not finished with changes and excitement’ and ‘not all dried up in body and spirit’.

Much of the narration of the novel concerns their nocturnal conversations, and how they learn about each other’s lives. Addie is especially good at making sense of what has happened in the past.

Like any woman she has had her difficulties in life, especially the outcomes of the death of her daughter as a child and later of her husband. Her son is a casualty of these events, and is unable to understand her position. When he confronts his mother Gene uses words like ‘ashamed’, ‘approval’, ‘sneaking over’ and ‘meeting in the dark’. And all this being done by ‘people your age.’

The only weakness in the portrayal of Addie is her lack of other friends. A woman of her sense and age is likely to have a developed a network of women she could call upon. She seems only to be friends with one older woman Ruth, who lives nearby.

The writing

This was Kent Haruf’s last novel. He died in 2014. His other novels are on my tbr list, and highly recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who says in her review:

I don’t think there is a false word in Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter 2016, p213)

It is not a long novel, and the story is told in 43 very short chapters, each one begins by locating us in time. Their brief story (from May until the following winter) is tightly plotted. The writing style here is spare, un-dramatic, simple, even in tone. There are no speech marks to interrupt our reading. The language is simple and does not pause to explain. In the extracts quoted above there are few words longer than two syllables. We learn people’s reactions from what they do and what they say.

Ursula Le Guin again:

Writing about the everyday is a tough job. … So the light comes on in the bedroom on Cedar Street in Holt, Colorado. And a happiness is very cautiously, courageously, tenderly achieved. Not however in the way we might expect, but on quite complex terms, involving quite a few of the older citizens of Holt. Perhaps happiness is less predictable than misery, since it partakes of freedom, and it can’t be forever. But it can be real, and in this beautiful novel, we can share it. (Words are my Matter p233/5)

In tis brief novel we learn the value of relationships, of the talk that develops them and of the family and community influences upon them. A gem!

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Picador (2015) 180 pp

The next novel in this series will be The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim in July.

Over to you

Have you read Our Souls at Night? Or other novels by Kent Haruf? How did you react? Did you know that a film has been made of Our Souls at Night, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford but with no date set for release yet? Can you suggest any additions to the older women in fiction series?

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The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

I was attracted to The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso when I found it in a list of recommended books by women of colour. It was the topic of the feud between two older women that attracted me. Here’s a novel with not one but two older women. Published in paperback in February 2017, it has been long-listed for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This is the 26th post in the series of Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can find plenty more titles by clicking on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

The Woman Next Door

Hortensia and Marion are neighbours in Katterijn, an enclave of 40 houses in a nice suburb in Cape Town South Africa. Set in the present day, the Apartheid era is behind them, although of course its legacy is still present. These macro tensions are not the focus of this novel. Rather Yewande Omotoso looks at the small scale of individual relationships, antagonisms and antipathy.

Hortensia and Marion have in common their age, both in their 80s, that they have achieved success in their careers, and that they are widows. But they disagree about everything and their mutual animosity is well known to everyone, especially the women who attend the Katterijn Committee.

An accident in which Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s house is badly damaged is the novelist’s device that brings changes in the relationship of the two women.

The older women

The title leads you to expect only one old woman, but the subject of the novel is the relationship of the neighbours, and how they have got themselves into their mutual animosity, and what will bring them closer together. Both women have become rather set in their ways, in their approach to life and to opposition.

Marion was formerly a noted architect, indeed she designed the house that Hortensia now occupies, which is one source of tension. At the outset of the novel she commands the committee meeting that is concerned about issues within the community, and it quickly becomes apparent that Marion retains some of the attitudes of the Apartheid era. She is a white woman and knows nothing of the life of her African home help. Issues of land, reclamation and compensation, are still of keen interest to the inhabitants of Katterijn and to Marion’s committee. The Committee allows Marion to bully the other women, as in this beautiful put-down of Sarah who had asked what the Lands Claims Commission did.

‘The Lands Claims Commission, Sarah, is one of those things with a self-explanatory name.’ (11)

Marion’s husband died without leaving her anything to live off and she must consider her options. She comes to see what has shaped her life but that a different future is possible.

Hortensia came to South Africa, via Nigeria, having been born in Barbados. She is a successful fabric designer. She came with her white husband, and at the start of the novel he is terminally ill. There is doubt in Hortensia’s mind about the value and honesty of their long marriage. Hortensia knew that her husband had had an affair that lasted for many years with a white woman, but she discovers that they had a child because Peter’s will requires Hortensia to acknowledge and meet this unknown daughter. This is very hurtful as Hortnesia’s lack of children was a burden to her.

Hortensia’s natural stance is oppositional. Here is an example of how she carried on.

The Constantinople Private Hospital staff didn’t take long to fear Hortensia. She’d arrived at the hospital on a stretcher but, on waking, had immediately managed to insult the paramedic. (85)

She offends the nurses who attended her husband, and later care for her when she breaks her leg. She questions every suggestion by Marion in the Katterijn Committee Meetings. Only the kindly Dr Mama and her own home help Bassey are able to tolerate her argumentative nature.

I wondered whether it wasn’t a bit of a cliché to portray women in their 80s as irascible, contentious, argumentative and difficult. However as the novel progresses we see what they have had to put up with in their long lives, their struggles, the opposition to successful women, their dubious marriages, Marion’s neglectful children and so forth.

The author is sympathetic to the difficulties, the physical incapacity the women encounter in their 80s. Both have been vigorous up to now. This is Hortensi before she broke her leg.

Her walk had been the first thing to go that really hurt. A dash of grey on her head, a slight dip in breasts small enough for dipping not to matter, an extra line on her neck had never bothered her. Her eyes were good, her teeth were hers. But the loss of her walk was the first sign that time was wicked and had fingers to take things. (37)

In the event, it is in the small things, the details of two lives lived in concrete setting that understanding and warmth is created: in the favours done, the help proffered, the companionship enjoyed together.

The author, Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next Door is Yemande Omotoso’s second novel. You can read an interesting interview with Yewande Omotoso in June 2016 in Short Story Day Africa. She says that her novels confront not the macro aspects of hate, but explores it at the individual level, for example as neighbours. And about The Woman Next Door she says that she wanted to consider ‘what it might be like to have the bulk of your life behind you’.

Her first novel, Born Boy, came out in 2012. Both novels have received critical acclaim. She was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved with her family to South Africa in 1992. As well as her writing she has an architectural practice in Johannesburg.

The Cover

The cover of the Vintage edition of the book, with its garland of purple flowers around green binoculars seems to suggest some kind of chicklit, perhaps for older readers (henlit?). I prefer the hardback cover, being more edgy and less pretty feminine.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso Vintage (2016) 288pp

Related Posts

Most recent posts in this series

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Long-list for Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize

Over to you

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? What do you think its chances are in the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize?

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Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

At a time dominated by the cult of youth, does the age of a writer matter? It always seems that publishers are looking for the next bright young thing. I have seen it suggested that this is to ensure that they will get a return on an author likely to write several books.

Things are changing. We live in an ageing society, in which more people are living longer. It is likely that there will be more older writers in the future. In our book, The New Age of Ageing, we considered the effects of our ageing population, not just on the individual, but also on families, our communities, policy. In this post I explore on the effects on publishing.

Ageism in society

Writing about age means identifying and confronting assumptions about age. There are plenty of discriminatory practices in our society. We can start with how older people are usually seen: conservative; physically weak and declining; not interested in sex and not sexy; defined by death (all those bucket lists).

My posts reviewing fiction about older women has revealed a more nuanced set of characters, with some feisty older women (see Moon Tiger, and The Dark Flood Rises) and some respectful views of older people with Alzheimer’s (Elizabeth is Missing) as well as caricatures of the eccentric and declining.

But what about older writers? We can count on Martin Amis to say what many people think about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Let’s look at late starters and writers who write into old age.

Late starters

Late, in the publishing world, means after 40. The most famous late starter was Mary Wesley, whose first book for adults Jumping the Queue was published when she was 70 years old. She went on to publish nine more novels and a memoir.

Dinah Jefferies, author of the best seller The Tea Planter’s Wife, published her first novel was when she was over 60. People had informed her that she wouldn’t find a publisher because of her age. Three of her novels have now been published. She told Saga Magazine in February 2016,

I read time and again that you have to be under 60 to be able to succeed at writing. All it made me think was, “I’ll show you. I’m not having that”. (Saga Magazine February 2016)

Keeping on

The list of writers who kept on writing, or who are still writing, is long and distinguished. Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Weslely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. And there are more.

I recently reviewed a novel by Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The author was 84 when she published this her 17th novel.

Margaret Drabble published The Dark Flood Rises when she was 77. It is her 19th novel.

Penelope Lively wrote Moon Tiger when she was 54. She’s still publishing at the age of 83.

It’s not age, stoopid, it’s sex!

So it is not so much age that is a bar to getting published, especially if you have a distinguished career behind you. Gender is much more of a bar to getting books published, promoted and sold. Year on year the VIDA statistics reveal the failure of literary publications to review books by women, or to employ female reviewers. The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was begun to help draw attention to excellent books by women.

Thank you to my co-author Eileen for suggesting the topic of this post some time ago, while we were writing The New Age of Ageing.

Related posts

Women and Fiction, for more on this theme. (September 2015)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (December 2015)

There are reviews of 25 books in older women in fiction series on this blog.

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Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Older people, it is assumed, live lives defined by approaching death. And older women are often portrayed as eccentric and difficult. I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s book The Lady in a Van while I was reading Ghost Light. At the opening of the novel Molly Allgood appears to have a lot in common with Miss Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in the film.

However, Molly is 67, and very much concerned with the present, with living her life, and with pondering the life she once lived. While being almost penniless, grateful for some charity, she is not eccentric. She still finds occasional work as an actor. She started her career in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and was engaged to marry the playwright John Millington Synge. He died of Hodgkin’s Disease aged 37 in 1909. Molly was 24. She lived on for four decades.

This is the 25th in the series of reviews of older women in fiction. For others you can see the page ‘about the older women in fiction series’.

Molly Allgood

The older Molly in 1952 was 67 and living in London. London is in pretty bad shape, still full of bombsites, poverty and lodging houses. Molly is not in good health either. She has difficulty scraping together the means to live, and in the first scenes she evades a police officer who warns her against an old Irish vagrant who has been begging. She returns some empty bottles for the deposit and begs a loan and is given free food by those who look out for others.

Molly addresses herself in this self-description.

But you’re no beauty yourself any more. Be honest – the years aren’t kind. And you feel you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties with the troubled watchfulness of a child in an unfathomable world. And your old woman’s voice – how did that happen? Your wheezing, brittle croakiness, distracted, muted, and you gossiping to the teacups for company. There was a day many years ago in Connemara or Kerry, when you happened upon an old rowboat that had been dumped in a bog. Crossbench crushed and buckled, rotting tiller wrenched askew, it had sunk to its oarlocks in the oozing, black peat. Often, of late, when you become aware of your voice, the image has appeared in your thoughts. (59-60)

I love the Irish rhythms of Joseph O’Connor’s writing, especially when he is writing in Molly’s voice. And I like the way her references are from her past, from her home country, strong despite her travels and residence in America and London.

After her marriage she was known as Maire O’Neill, and she is sometimes referred to in this way in Ghost Light. She bemoans the lack of parts for older women actors.

But for a woman, once she has offended by outliving the age of childbirth, the roles disappear as honeybees in winter. A jealous auld hag. An irrepressible washerwoman. Some bitch to be bested in pantomime. (30)

It sometimes feels that these are the roles assigned to all older women in life, not just actors. I note again the film of The Lady in the Van. And in some ways Molly is pathetic, or at least draws out sympathy, like when she is warned by the policeman, or in the BBC studio when her health takes a turn for the worse. As the novel progresses we learn that she is not a person to whom life has been generous.

Young Molly

John Millington Synge

In the first decade of the 20th century, in Dublin, amid the growing nationalism of the Irish, Molly met John Millington Synge at the Abbey Theatre. Both Molly and her sister Sara were struggling to escape their impoverished Catholic childhoods and to make something of themselves on the stage. Synge was an esteemed Protestant playwright, favoured by Yeats and Lady Gregory.

Molly in 1912

There were so many contrasts between them: religion, age, health, profession, but they fell in love. When she found out about it, his mother objected to their relationship. Much of their courtship was spent walking out at the weekends in places where they were not known. They steal a month away in Wicklow. He becomes notorious as the author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots when it was first staged in 1907.

The story as fiction

Joseph O’Connor makes it clear that this is a work of fiction. For example, there are no surviving letters between the couple to draw on, probably no holiday in Wicklow. But the settings are authentic, and the characters of the novel are quite believable too.

The novel has an interesting structure, one that takes care to indicate that Molly did not end up as this lonely old woman because of her affair with Synge. Nor was the affair with Synge the only thing in her life as she lived for 43 years after his death – there was her acting career, her rivalry with her sister who went to Hollywood, a marriage, a son and a daughter.

Sara Allgood and Kerrigan in Playboy in 1911

The novel moves back and forth between young and old Molly, and is presented in a number of perspectives. At times Molly addresses herself, as in the extracts above. At other times we have a play script, a letter and the tenses are carefully handled, close to Molly in the present tense, using the past tense for more distance.

It is beautifully written, and its structure reflects life experienced not as a linear process, but revisiting episodes time and again.

Joseph O’Connor at Literaturhaus Cologne 2015. Hpschaefer www.reserv-art.de

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. Published by Vintage, 2010. 246pp

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The top 5 posts about older women in fiction on Bookword in 2016

In the last 12 months the same reviews from the older women in fiction series have continued to be read, more or less. There has been a slight change in order for four of the top reads, and a replacement for the 5th: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, from August 2014, replaces Mrs Dalloway is Ageing.

The older women in fiction series now has 25 posts. My purpose in starting it was to counter the invisibility of older women in fiction, and to introduce some novels and sort stories in which readers can enter lives and other worlds that they might not otherwise understand. We need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about the less visible to understand their experiences.

The five most read posts on older women in fiction in 2016

Here they are, with links.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity. It was her last published novel appearing in 1971.
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, A Canadian novel, first published in 1964, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her as she ages.
  3. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. The only recent novel in this top 5 lists, it was published in 2014.
  4. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel, first published in 1924. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.
  5. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Lady Slane is the widow of a very great man and she surprises everyone by her choices in her final years: choices of place to live, friends, activities and interests. Her passion is not spent, even if her former husband’s was. This novel was first published in 1931.

    Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Over to you

There is a list of over 70 titles, all relating to older women in fiction on the blog. It was compiled with the help of readers. You could add your suggestion to the list!

Does the most read list surprise you? Which book would recommend for the top five stories of women ageing? Is it included in the Bookword list?

Please add your comments and suggestions.

 

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Filed under Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews