Tag Archives: loneliness

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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The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The woman in the attic is known to be mad. From Jane Eyre onwards, if there was a woman in your attic: beware. For not only was she mad but she was vengeful. Indeed there are many vengeful women or mad women in literature. This woman, Nora, is angry, as she tells us in her first sentence:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. (3)

Actually she tells us she is angry and isolated, pretty much the two themes for this character. And she proceeds to tell us just how angry and why.

242 Woman upstairs cover

The story

Nora Eldridge is a primary school teacher in Boston. She is in her late 30s. Her life is not very eventful, even if she has a secret artistic life as a creator of tiny rooms of feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson. She has a good life, although sad to have lost her mother. She lives alone, visits her father, sees a friend or two.

Into this quiet and rather boring life come the Shahid family: Sirena, soon to be an internationally famous artist; Skandar the Lebanese academic on a year’s secondment to Harvard; Reza, their child in her class. Nora falls easily for all three, mostly for representing what she is missing in her life – artistic success, a sexual relationship and a child of her own, but also for their exoticism and the verve they bring to her life. They are in Boston for less than a year. She is betrayed by each of them. They disappear out of her life as if that year had been nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t much to them, but Nora had felt alive in a new way. And worse, a year after they left, she discovers that Sirena has violated her privacy in an almost pornographic way.

The themes

The themes of this novel are loneliness and betrayal. She frequently refers to herself as the woman upstairs, to distinguish between herself and the mad women in the attic. But we are forced to imagine that those mad women were also betrayed in some way, or perhaps only lonely and needy.

We see that the hopes she develops for herself and the Shahid family are all in her head. Her skills, as an artist’s technician, a babysitter, a good listener are used by them and mean nothing more than services rendered, not the basis for close friendships.

Her anger brings her finally to acceptance of her life, and one can’t help feel that she has lost something of value by becoming realistic.

The writing

Despite the action taking place mostly inside Nora’s head, there is a fair bit of humour in this book. For example, the names of the school children: Chastity, Bethany, Noah, Aristide, Ebullience. We know a great deal about the school community through these names.

The pace of the writing got a little too slow for me in the middle section when the artistic collaboration between the women is growing. By this stage we have understood that Nora is unlikely to rein in her obsession with the family.

But the introspection also allows for some very perceptive points about women, and especially women who live alone.

The Woman Upstairs is like that. We keep it together. You don’t make a mess and you don’t make mistakes and you don’t call people weeping at four in the morning. You don’t reveal secrets it would be unseemly for you to have. You turn forty and you laugh about it, and make jokes about needing martinis and how forty is the new thirty, and you don’t say aloud what all of you are thinking, which is ‘Well, I guess she’s never going to have kids now!’ and then, still less admissibly, ‘Is it because she didn’t want them, or because she didn’t get around to it (silly fool, a failure of time management) or is it, poor lamb, because of some physical impediment (pitiable case)? Why is she single anyhow? It’s not as if her career has been so spectacular – she’s only a school teacher, and among school teachers she’s not even Shauna McPhee.’ (279-280).

Angry, lonely women like Nora are more common than you think. They are too embarrassing for everyone, aren’t they?

I am amazed at the psychological insights of so many authors. Claire Messud really knows this character. The image of the nightmare Fun House, its horrors and allure, is a strong way to show Nora’s inner state. She allows us to see the workings of Nora’s mind in a sustained way, from start to finish.

Related posts

Annecdotalist’s review, posted in January 2016, considers the acceptability of angry women in novels, and the assumption that Nora is unlikeable. And she makes interesting comparisons with other angry protagonists, such as Barbara in Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and her own protagonist, Diana, in Sugar and Snails.

Over to you

What did you think of this novel? Did you think that Nora was unlikeable? Was she right to be angry? Did you find her unlikeable? Did she have your sympathy?

 

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Published by Virago in 2013. 301 pp

 

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Learning about Ageing from Mrs Palfrey

Mrs Palfrey is the main character in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1971 novel – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. She featured in the very first post about older women in fiction on this blog, which considered how an older woman was represented in fiction. Here I want to explore what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey about how older people are treated.

mrspalfrey green

The story

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, whose daughter does not want her to share her life in Scotland. Mrs Palfrey finds an advert for residential accommodation in the Claremont Hotel, Cromwell Road, London. When she arrives she finds that a group of similarly aged people are already in residence. They share no connection beyond the hotel, but they have loneliness, reduced economic resources and declining physical capacities in common.

External contacts feature large in the social life of the older people at the Claremont, and Mrs Palfrey is pleased to have a grandson working at the British Museum, and she confidently expects an early visit. Not only will this provide her with company but also enhance her status in the residents’ small world.

When Desmond fails to visit she encourages Ludo to stand in for him. Ludo rescued Mrs Palfrey when she fell outside his bedsitter, and he willingly agrees to act as her grandson. Inevitably le vrai Desmond appears and confusions abound. Much of the narrative is concerned with Mrs Palfrey’s relationship with Ludo.

This novel offers a stark reminder of what it is to be old, and especially how the old are treated. But it is not depressing. There are cheerful spirits, warmth and enjoyment to be experienced.

Let us count the ways old people are treated.

  1. Family neglect

None of the old people would live in the Claremont if their families had taken them in. They all rely on their families for visits, trips out and material for social interactions. But the families for the most part see the old people as a duty.

Mrs Post is waiting anxiously for a cousin, but it is raining.

A summer’s evening drive had been promised, with a picnic. It was a yearly occurrence, and gave the cousin, who was ten years younger than Mrs Post, a sense of duty done which might last her, with any luck, for the following twelve months. [Mrs Post said] ‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for the treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’ (129-130)

Mrs Arbuthnot leaves the Claremont for alternative accommodation ‘Her indefatigable sisters had found it for her, and much humiliation she had borne while they were doing so.’ (102). She needs a place where ‘someone must be paid to dry up after her’ for she has wet her bed on several occasions.

When her grandson does not turn up at the Claremont Mrs Palfrey makes unsuccessful attempts to invite old friends who find excuses not to visit her.

  1. Economic exploitation

Choosing to provide care for the elderly as a commercial enterprise does not guarantee the quality of the care, or attention to needs. The management of the Claremont barely welcomes the older people, treating them as an inconvenience rather than guests.

The receptionist was coldly kind, as if she were working in a nursing-home, and one for deranged patients at that. (2)

Mrs Palfrey considers the outlook from the room she has been allocated.

From the window she could see – could see only – a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered, and a cast-iron fire-escape which was rather graceful. She tried to see it that it was graceful. The outlook – especially on this darkening afternoon – was daunting; but the backs of hotels, which are kept for indigent ladies, can’t be expected to provide a view, she knew. The best is kept for honeymooners, though God alone knew why they should require it. (3)

And of course, the quality of the food, served in a three week menu rotation, is very poor, despite mealtimes being important markers in the institutional day.

And when Mrs Palfrey falls just outside the hotel, the manager Mr Wilkins wants her out of sight, more concerned to remove this embarrassment from the pavement than with her best interests.

  1. Regard them as Eccentric

It can be dismaying to consider the darker side of old age, the loneliness, physical decline, neglect and ultimate death. To distance themselves from these aspects of age many of the reviews of this book on other blogs describe the residents as eccentric. They are not.

Mrs Arbuthnot is malicious, spikey and unkind. She is also crippled with pain from arthritis, and suffering the humiliation of incontinence.

Mrs Post is anxious, always out of her depth, especially beyond the walls of the hotel, getting the right library books for Mrs Arbuthnot, or dealing with sharing the fare for a taxi.

Mr Osmond tells dirty jokes in a loud whisper to any man he can buttonhole, and likes to hold himself aloof from the ladies. He writes complaining letters to the Daily Mail of the ‘It would never have happened in former times …’ He is hopelessly out of his depth in dealing with slight acquaintances at a Masonic dinner and in his expectations of Mrs Palfrey.

Lady Swayne makes the most appalling prejudiced and bigoted announcements, prefacing them with ‘I’m afraid …’

I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common-or-garden Church of England. I’m afraid I’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny. (81)

Mrs Burton who loves to drink with her brother-in-law, or without him.

These people are all trying to cope with the difficulties of ageing. And while we might not condone some responses, they can hardly be described as eccentric – that is unusual or strange. Elizabeth Taylor’s craft is in revealing why they behave in these ways.

The film adaptation (2006) locates the story in the early 21st century, makes much less of the privations of age, and rather encourages the idea of eccentricity. I didn’t like it at all.

  1. Having respect

The delightful Ludo is respectful, attentive and helpful to Mrs Palfrey in a way that none of her family manages.

Mrs Palfrey grey

Learning from Mrs Palfrey

Despite all this, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is both a funny and an uplifting book. There is plenty of comedy narrated in Elizabeth Taylor’s controlled and wry style.

Mrs Palfrey has a three-part code of behaviour:

Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. (9)

She struggles with all three and frequently has a word with herself when she begins to feel down. To be old and alone may be difficult, suggests Elizabeth Taylor, but there is dignity and new experiences to be had at any age.

In this delightful novel Elizabeth Taylor does a great job of respecting older people and sympathetically revealing the challenges they face. She doesn’t lump all older people together, shows us individuals coping in the face of difficulties. She uses wit and humour to point up how people respond to each other to protect themselves from these difficulties.

168 AgeUKWriting 40 years ago she identified an enduring feature of old age. Loneliness is still a killer for old people, even in a busy city like London. (God bless the Freedom Pass). There is a campaign end loneliness and AgeUK has also highlighted the issue.

Elizabeth Taylor did not live to be old herself, she died of breast cancer aged 63, her family still close to her. Yet she knew what it was to be treated with disdain, impatience, contempt and neglect in old age. We see all of these in this book.

§§§

I must thank my book group for enhancing my understanding of this book.

I have reviewed all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this website. You can access them by clicking on the category Novels by Elizabeth Taylor or Elizabeth Taylor in the Tags.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was the first book to be reviewed in the older women in fiction series. You can see the complete list here.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics 206pp

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