Tag Archives: A Reckoning

Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Reading

Bookword’s top ten stories of women’s old age

When Paul Bailey, novelist, compiled his list of Top Ten Stories of Old Age for the Guardian in February 2011 he mentioned only two by women writers: ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ a short story by Alice Munro and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – at 3rd and 4th place respectively. Where were the women writing about older women? There is an irony in this list, which I will reveal later.

Bookword’s top ten stories

There are plenty of strong, bold, feisty and resolute older women in fiction, mostly created by women writers. Some of these older women hate the idea of dying, some live as they always have, some take on new challenges, some are brilliant and some are ill or suffer with dementia. Here’s Bookword’s list of top ten stories of older women, (with links) in an order that reflects reading of the blog series (see below). It includes one male author.

  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.25 Stone Angel
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a Canadian novelist, 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.
  3. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. On her death bed, Claudia Hampton resists the infantalising aspects of hospital care and reveals that she has always been a feisty woman. As an old woman she is all the women she has ever been.117 All passion cover
  4. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West tells the story of Lady Slane released into widowhood after many years of being married to a great man. She blossoms with new friendships and independent decision-making.
  5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, this novel is about a grandmother and granddaughter and it reveals another strong older woman, with the full range of emotions and much wisdom. She is the kind of grandmother who has wisdom without being a Mrs Pepperpot.

    Dorothy Whipple

    Dorothy Whipple

  6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple is another grandmother/ granddaughter story, set in a northern town in the early 20th century. The novel reveals the strength of the old woman in family relationships.
  7. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.164 cover S Riding
  8. South Riding by Winifred Holtby features several strong characters, including Mrs Beadows, an alderwoman, who provides compassionate service on the council to her impoverished inter-war Yorkshire community.
  9. A Reckoning by May Sarton focuses on Laura Spelman’s attempts to meet death on her own terms. Strictly speaking the heroine did not meet my criteria, being only 60, but the story is an interesting one, and the main character faces the end of her life with determination to do it her way.
  10. 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. 151 E missiing cover 3

Fiction about older women

I strongly believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people. Fiction allows us to enter other worlds and lives which we might not otherwise experience.

The series reviewing older women in fiction on this blog began after I attended a course about growing older. All the examples from literature we were given related to men: Odysseus, King Lear, Prospero, some poetry including, of course, Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle. Where, I wondered, were the older women? I began seeking out and reviewing fiction about older women for Bookword. To date there have been 16 reviews and there is a fine list of nearly 50 titles of fiction relating to older women compiled with the help of readers. Add to the list!

A note of an irony

The irony of Paul Bailey’s article is this. In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor Mrs Palfrey makes friends with a young novelist, Ludo, who undertakes to act the part of her nephew in the Claremont Hotel. In his introduction to this novel Paul Bailey reveals that Elizabeth Taylor met him and based some of Ludo’s circumstances on his life.

Which book would you have placed in the top ten stories of women ageing? Is it even included in the Bookword list? Please add your comments.

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts on Bookword.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

A Reckoning by May Sarton

The story of this novel about an older woman who is dying of cancer may have put you off. The situation is not a comfortable one: Laura Spelman has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and told she has a year or two to live. She wants to make the best of the final stage of life, to choose whether to have treatment or not, how she lives, with whom she keeps company and to make some kind of reckoning of her life.

Safely inside [her car] she sat there for a few moments sorting out the jumble of feelings her interview with Dr. Goodwin had set whirling. The overwhelming one was a strange excitement, as though she was more than usually alive, awake, and in command: I am to have my own death. I can play it my own way. … I’ve got to do it well. (p7)

68 M SartonWe follow her through her final months and learn about the compromises she had to make. It turns out not to be possible ‘to have my own death’. Nor can she manage to play it her ‘own way’. But she starts out well. Laura tells people in her own time. And at first she rejects dependency upon others, but soon has to allow others to help her, especially her housekeeper and her doctor, and comes to appreciate their professional care. She also finds that other people have demands to make of her: her children and sisters in particular.

Reckoning can means several allied but distinct things:

  • A computation
  • A statement of an amount due, a bill
  • An account for things due or received
  • An appraisal or judgement
  • Retribution (as in Day of …)
  • And in nautical use ‘dead reckoning’ means finding your position through a calculation on direction and distance (rather than on astrological computation).

Any focus on older women in fiction is going to explore living in the shadow of death, ask questions about what it is to be an older woman. In everyday use ‘reckoning’ refers to both accounting and a sense of some payment being due. Is this, then, what the final stage of life should be: a computation about how much one owes and is owed? Laura Spellman offers us an approach that is admirable. As her doctor says, she is not dying while still alive, rather living until she dies.

68 M Sarton 1I chose this book as the 4th in the series exploring older women in fiction. But it barely qualifies as Laura Spelman is only 60. The novel was first published in 1978, and things have changed in thirty-five years. People live longer and  few would accept that they have lived their full term at 60 as Laura appears to. This novel is also of its time in the way she writes about lesbian and gay love as forbidden and dangerous, and in the way she needs to explain feminism. If I had read it then I would probably have been more impressed by it.

68 datesCredit is due to May Sarton, who wrote a great number of books: fiction (20), non-fiction (12 including her journals), poetry (17) about women’s lives. She had a 13-year relationship with a woman, but refused to allow her writing to be described as lesbian. She preferred to be known as a lesbian woman who wrote. In A Reckoning I think Sarton draws on the nautical meaning for Laura’s analysis of her life, she is considering her position, based on direction and distance travelled. May Sarton’s own life is less celebrated these days, but she made a huge contribution to feminism.

This is not literary writing, not polished, not every word counts. I have read so much Elizabeth Taylor recently that I notice when writers spell everything out, as May Sarton does. In A Reckoning I found too much eggnog, sleeping and dozing, listening to Haydn, reading Herbert’s poems, and not enough about her thoughts and responses to her physical decline.

There is an episode in the hospital that seems to serve the author by showing us how infantalising hospitals can be for the sick and dying. But medically it appeared to offer nothing to Laura; the doctor said he wanted x-rays to check on progress of cancer. She died more or less on her return home.

The strength of this book is in the reckoning of Laura’s relationships, with her husband, her mother and sisters, her adult children, friends and the strangers who provide necessary services for her as her health disintegrates. But in the end, the most significant reckoning is with being a woman, and having loved a young woman very intensely. This collection of explorations both works and doesn’t. The reunion with her friend of her youth seems too late and to add nothing to her life, only allows her to die.

I don’t think this is an especially good read. But it certainly adds to the canon of strong older women in fiction. Thanks to whoever recommended that we added it to our list.

 

The next Readalong in the Strong Older Women in Fiction group will be The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I will post in February. Yes, Tove Jansson is the Finnish author of the Moomin books. But this novel for adults contains a life-affirming character in the grandmother. You should read it if you haven’t.

 

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction