Tag Archives: Penelope Lively

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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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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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.

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Older women in fiction: the top five posts

I am very proud of the series on older women in fiction on this blog. The reviews are among my most read posts, which means there is an appetite for fiction on this subject. Looking at the whole series it is clear that these novel writers do not want to present the stereotype of the cosy granny. Instead, they show the realities and suggest some feisty alternatives to the stereotype. Here are the five most read posts from the series with summaries and links to the comments. All are highly recommended.

mrspalfrey green1 Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, with a little money and some class. Not wanted by her daughter she goes to live with other elderly people in the Claremont Hotel near the Cromwell Road in London. She meets an aspiring novelist as a result of a fall and presents him as her nephew. Confusions result. There are sharp observations, gentle humour and an honest look at what it meant to be old and lonely in the 1960s and ‘70s. A lesson for today as well.

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

  1. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)

25 Stone AngelThe Stone Angel is by a Canadian and follows the slow loss of capacity by the aging Hagar Shipley as she becomes dependent upon her son and his wife. It is an arrangement that suits them all badly and as she declines further she is institutionalised. She escapes and experiences adventures and insight before she dies. She is a fighter, ‘a holy terror’ according to her son.

Thanks Litlove for the recommendation

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published by Virago Modern Classics

  1. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (1931)

117 All passion coverThe widow of a great man steps out of his shadow and away from the controlling impulses of her many children to live her final months on her own terms. As a result 88-year old Lady Slane meets people who have more qualities than her former husband, despite his achievements. And she herself becomes a force for good. It is set in London in the years between the wars.

Thanks Emily Books for the recommendation

All Passion Sent by Vita Sackville-West published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)

46 Moon TigerAnother feisty woman this time aged 76, a journalist, who on her death bed is reflecting on her life. We are given further insights as she is visited by people from her past. The novel, as all by Penelope Lively, provides insights into the effects of one’s past on the present, as we see from the extended passage from the diary of Claudia Hampton’s lover who died in the war. As a result we come to see Claudia’s final weeks and her whole life in a different way. This novel won the Booker Prize.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively published by Penguin Modern Classics.

5 The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972) Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

80 Summer Bk coverAn evergreen book that centres on the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they spend their summers on an island off the coast of Finland. This grandmother is an artist and is tetchy, wise, ailing and independent.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson published by Sort of Books


Some further reflections

All but one of the books explored so far in the series have been written by women. A Passage to India by EM Forster is the exception. Mrs Moore is not one of the main characters in the novel, although the idea of Mrs Moore is more extensive than her presence. You might also notice that several of them are published as classics, and that Virago is responsible for three of the five.

During the last two years I have built up a list of fiction containing older women, including suggestions from readers of the blog and twitter users. You can find it here. Please make suggestions for additions to the list.

Please add your comments to these reviews. I have noticed that people do not tend to comment on reviews of books on Bookword, or not as much as they do on other topics.

The 12th post in this series will appear in February, when I look at Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

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

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Claudia Hampton is 76 years old and approaching the end of her life. In fiction final days are serene, composed, moving calmly towards reconciliation and conclusion. Or it might be a gloomy time, full of regrets for those who will live on as well as for the dying. In Moon Tiger Penelope Lively gives us an alternative to both the serene and the gloomy end of days. Claudia is spending hers as vividly as she lived the rest of her life.

46 Moon Tiger

The structure of the novel reflects a view of life not as linear (no journey metaphors here), but as happening all at once. Claudia’s life is an accretion of her experiences, of her achievements and failures, of those she has loved. As she lies in hospital, attended by medical staff, she is visited by people she has known, and by memories of her life. The story is told from multiple and rapidly shifting perspectives. At some points we are with her in her hospital bed, then shift to her visitors, whose different experience of the same events is caught by a slight changes.

She has a project.

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment: she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ (p1)

This is the opening paragraph. The history of the world is in immediate contrast with the infantalising language of the nurse (‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl’). We may be amused by Claudia’s intention, but by the end of the novel we understand that it was a good description of her occupation, even if it was composed in her head

On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone.’ (p2)

As an old person she has been written off, no longer ‘someone’, but the reader soon learns that Claudia has a continuing, rich and fecund inner life. The novel was first published in 1987 (it was the Booker prize winner that year). Can we be confident that medical staff are less patronising today, recognise that a person is still a being, even on their deathbed?

From childhood Claudia’s life has been a challenge to the accepted view of how a woman should live in the twentieth century. In her first years she regarded her brother Gordon as her equal, tied together in argument and competition. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. In the desert she met and fell in love with Tom, but he was killed. Fiction often presents the love of a woman’s life as her main story. With Tom’s death Claudia’s life should, in conventional terms, have been over, or at least ruined, and without further interest to a reader. But her life continued, for forty more eventful years. After the war she had a long affair with Jasper, an exploitative opportunist, and still did not marry, despite having a daughter. Asked why she has attracted so few proposals of marriage her reply suggested a truth – men have had a good sense of self preservation. The daughter, Lisa, was raised by grandmothers. Claudia wrote successful popular history, out of kilter with the grand narratives of post-war academic writing. Old women are usually thought of as moderating their stance towards the world but Claudia does not do this. She lives a life that is too challenging.

The novel then refutes the conventional narrative of what a woman should be and that the endpoint, the purpose of her life is marriage, and motherhood. The ‘happily ever after’ that threads through fairy stories, school stories, romances, and much of ‘women’s’ fiction is not Claudia’s ambition. She has forty more eventful years after Tom’s death.

Neither Claudia nor Penelope Lively accepts the fiction writer’s traditional focus for women. In the conventional version, women’s lives after marriage, when children have been reared and become adults, are of little interest. (There are exceptions: see the growing list of books with strong older women in fiction.) How many years to live after that, in maturity and old age? More than half your life. How to be someone when the world tells you – you should have gone? (A phrase a colleague came across recently is coffin-dodger.)

And the final days and hours? Claudia spends these as she has lived. She examines her life, the final days are another accretion of events, strata laid down as in geology. Addressing her long-dead lover, Tom, in the final chapter, she says,

I am twice your age, You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of the forty years of history and forty years of my life; you seem innocent, like a person in another century. But you are also, now, a part of me, as immediate and as close as my own other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself.

… I need you, Gordon, Jasper, Lisa, all of them. And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing. (p206-7)

As in life, so in places, as Claudia describes when she revisited Cairo, the site of her love affair.

The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same, sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes, Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once. (p68)

Penelope Lively was interviewed in 2009 (two decades after Moon Tiger was published) by Sarah Crown in the Guardian. ‘The idea that memory is linear is nonsense, What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself – can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time.’

We should not assume too close an identification of Claudia with the author, not least because Penelope Lively was not in her 70s when she created the character and she is still very much with us. She said, ‘while she is not me, I did give her some of my thoughts about the operation of memory and the nature of evidence. I never entirely liked Claudia, but I had great respect for her, and envied her ability to crash through life in a way that I cannot.’

It’s an unsettling book. The comfortable cliché of the journey’s end is rejected. I suspect that some people find Claudia too difficult, an unsympathetic character. She is not prepared to live as other people want or expect. Do we need to like Claudia in order to see that she offers a different approach to being an older woman?


I am indebted to Jeanette King’s book Discourses of Ageing in Fiction and Feminism: the invisible woman, published in 2013 by Palgrave McMillan.

This readalong is the first on this blog exploring older women in fiction. Next, in October, will be Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks.


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Onward, old legs!

I’ve been searching for fictional examples of strong older women for a few months. The lack of obvious characters started me off, but the responses to my search has resulted in a decision to initiate three blog activities and I want to persuade you to come along with me.

My search began when I attended a day course at London’s adult education centre, City Lit. The course tutor drew on literature to consider Growing into Ageing, and for guidance about the purpose of the last phase of your life.

We looked at poems by Dylan Thomas (‘Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, which was used by Margaret Laurence as the epigraph for the Stone Angel), DH Lawrence (Uprooted) and Mary Oliver. I took the title for this post from her poem Self Portrait.

We looked at Shakespeare: King Lear, Jacques’s speech in As You Like it and Prospero in The Tempest. And we considered what we could learn from Homer’s Ulysses.

You will have noticed only one female writer (someone referred to Jenny Joseph’s poem Warning; you probably know the first line ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ to double the number of female writers). Also no novels. So I began my quest for strong older women in fiction.

Since I began my quest I’ve had to refine my terms:

Older – older than the person reading the blog? I use the term to mean 55+ (all kinds of problems of defining age with numbers, but I’ll leave that to our next book). For some that seemed young (A comment from twitter: ‘that made me laugh because 55+ seems very young to me’) and for others unimaginably old.

Strong – strongly written, ie not one of EM Forster’s flat characters, but a fully drawn character; with a bit of a determination about her like Hagar Shipley or Jenny Joseph.

Fiction – I was asked did I mean classics or contemporary. My response was – any, which led to a suggestion from theatre (Paulina in The Winter’s Tale).

25 Stone Angel

My original list is the most read page on my blog to date, closely followed by the review of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. I have added some suggestios to the list with contributions from Twitter, the blog, conversations with other readers, academic reading and a conference related to the wide-ranging New Dynamics of Ageing research project (its scope includes literature, other arts, science, sociology etc).

38 Strong W books

Now to my three actions. First: a new Readalong. I plan to read a novel that includes a strong older female character and post on the subject every two months. I will start with Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively in August. It will alternate with the other Readalong (see About the Book Group), which is intended to be more general.

Second, here is the revised, extended but not definitive list – additions are marked §. I hope that you will find lots of interesting reading here. Feel free to make more suggestions. Dickens anyone?

Margaret Atwood    The Blind Assasin (Iris)

Angela Carter           Wise Children (the twins) §

Agatha Christie        Miss Marple series

EM Forster                A Passage to India  (Mrs Moore) §

                                     Howard’s End (Mrs Wilcox) §

Margaret Forster     Isa and May

Patrick Gale               Notes from an Exhibition (GBH) §

Jane Gardam             Last Friends

Linda Gillard             Various

Siri Hustvedt             The Summer without Men

Tove Jansson             The Summer Book §

Doris Lessing            Various §

Penelope Lively        Heatwave

                                      Moon Tiger

Olivia Manning         School for Love (Miss Bohun)

Ian McEwan               Atonement (Bryony)

Jill J Marsh                Beatrice Stubbs series

David Mitchell          Ghostwritten (Chinese woman and Irish scientists)

Deborah Moggach   The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Toni Morrison          Beloved

Barbara Pym            Various

Carol Shield             The Stone Diaries (Daisy Goodwill Flett)

May Sarton               The Reckoning §

Wm Shakespeare      The Winter’s Tale (Paulina) §

Joanna Trollope        Various

Elizabeth Taylor       Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Salley Vickers           Miss Garnett’s Angel

                                     Dancing Backwards

Alice Walker             The Colour Purple (Celie)

                                     Possessing the Secret of Joy (Tashi)

Dorothy Whipple     Greenbanks

Mary Wesley              Various

Virginia Woolf          Mrs Dalloway

                                     To the Lighthouse (Mrs Ramsey)

Third: I am adding a category to my blog, to help people find these reviews more easily: older women in fiction.

So please add to my list, and join me in the new Readalong, – make your comments and your suggestions.

 mrspalfrey green

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