Tag Archives: Penguin Books

God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

God’s Own Country is a grim story about a young lad who finds himself in opposition to his parents’ generation, the newcomers to the Yorkshire Moors and their class, ramblers, neighbours, and eventually the law. Sam Marsdyke’s story illustrates a highly divided country: generation against generation; urban against rural; class against class; even the experiences of the beautiful Yorkshire countryside brings people into conflict.

The Story

Sam Marsdyke (19) is the only son of a farming couple living on the Moors. He has a bad reputation because he was caught with a girl at school and there was an alleged rape. The story is told in the first person, so we only have Sam’s version for what happened. New people move into the farm next door, not to farm but to live in ‘God’s Own Country’ and they have a daughter, Jo Reeves (15), on whom Sam becomes fixated.

Jo has her own difficulties with her parents, not least that she didn’t want to move away from London, specifically from Muswell Hill. She visits Sam as he works on the farm, and eventually proposes that they run away, and so they do, across the Yorkshire Moors until they reach the sea at Whitby.

Their impetuous escapade becomes a progressive nightmare, as neither the girl not Sam makes any plan or has any sense of reality. Sam in particular becomes less realistic as their flight proceeds, until he believes he has to restrain the girl. She had no plan but to frighten her parents into noticing her anger.

The novel’s strengths

When it was published in 2008 God’s Own Country attracted lots of good attention, especially as it was Ross Raisin’s first published novel. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Betty Trask Award and for International Dublin Literary Award in 2010.

The judges of the International Dublin Literary Award commented:

Marsdyke’s flight across the Yorkshire Moors is a journey from civility into depravation but also a desperate, anarchic rush for freedom, which completely absorbs and overwhelms the reader. Written with an extraordinary verbal ingenuity and a riotous play with dialect, this is a fresh and vivid novel which challenges our view of those who slip through the conventional nets of sanity.

Sam is brilliantly realised, through his own voice: his language, his continuous inner commentary, his anger and his imagination are all brilliantly evoked. Here is the opening, somewhat challenging as I walk a great deal.

Ramblers. Daft sods in pink and green hats. It wasn’t even cold. They moved down the field swing-swaying like a line of drunks, addled with the air and the land, and the smell of manure. (1)

The evocation of the Moors, a landscape in which Sam is entirely familiar, is in his characteristic voice.

I was up early. The sun had just started to show himself when I stepped into the yard, a ball of orange half-hid behind the Moors. That was the best time, when the Moors were coming alive with creatures waking in the heather, and the dark was shifting to reveal a mighty heap of heather spreading fifty miles to the sea. This new family weren’t fussed about that, mind. Their sort were loopy for farmhouses – oh we must move there, the North Yorks Moors is God’s own country – but they couldn’t give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out of the bedroom window. They knew nothing what I knew of it. Spaunton, Rosedale, Egton, thirty moors each bigger than your eye could frame, fastened together by valleys cutting into the earth between, lush with forest, flowers and meadow grass, where there weren’t towns or villages drying it all up. (9)

First person narrative novels require skill to bring off. Sam frequently speaks in the voice of others (as in that quotation), which reveals his attitudes, and that he is often mistaken about people, and about Jo in particular. He manages to tell us the story of their adventure on the Moors, and reveal to us his unreliability both as a narrator, but also as a young adult. And, he manages to retain some of our sympathy, despite the situation in which he puts the young girl.

My trip to Yorkshire

During the recent hot weather I spent a few days in Yorkshire walking with a friend. The photographs are from our walks near Grassington. We enjoyed ourselves greatly, but were frequently frustrated by the lack of signs for the routes and footpaths.

God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin, published in 2008. I read the Penguin edition. 211pp

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My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge bowled me over and I have wanted to read My Name is Lucy Barton since it appeared last year and was so well received. Its publication in paperback was not until March this year and now I have read it.

Lucy Barton is not Olive Kitteridge.

I really enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge, which I reviewed for the older women in fiction series last June. Two things about Olive Kitteridge appealed to me: first the main character was a rather irascible older woman, not easy to like, and the other characters found her hard to get on with. This made her a very unconventional character. Second, the structure of Olive Kitteridge was unusual. It was made up of a series of short stories, and Olive Kitteridge was not the main character in all of them. This allowed Elizabeth Strout to explore Olive Kitteridge from different viewpoints and at different times in her life.

Elizabeth Strout is a skilled writer and so she has not repeated these novelistic features in this book. With Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout has in some ways been more conventional. The main character, Lucy, is more sympathetic to the reader than grouchy Olive, being rather tentative as she recalls the time she was seriously ill in hospital.

The novel is framed by the recollections from her hospital bed. Her mother comes to visit for five days and the women talk. The narrative is structured in a series of short sections, not chapters, having no titles or numbers, each simply beginning on a new page. So it shares some of the episodic nature of her previous book, but the focus is steadily on Lucy Barton. And all of it goes to answer the implied question of the title: who is Lucy Barton?

So who is Lucy Barton?

This novel explores what has made Lucy Barton the person she is, and by implication asks the reader to consider the influences on her own life. There are three main influences:

  • Other people, especially her mother.
  • Her location, Amgash Illinois in her childhood and New York as an adult
  • Her career as a writer.

Lucy is remembering being ill in a New York hospital with complications after appendicitis. She missed her husband and young girls, and she lay looking at the Chrysler Building through her window. Her mother, who she hasn’t seen for perhaps ten years, comes to visit her from Illinois. Her mother has no sophistication, never been on an airplane before, stays sleeping in the chair in the hotel room for 5 days and night and then leaves.

The women talk, and their relationship is revealed by their conversation and by the omissions in what they say. The reader begins to see that Lucy’s uncertain identity and sense of self are built from her relationships, and childhood poverty (cultural as well as financial).

Her mother tells several stories about people they knew in the past. Most of these people have unsuccessful marriages. Some of the mother-daughter talk appears pointless, or breaks off at key moments or seems to be a repetition of a sad childhood game.

I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands. “Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”

She flicked her hand at me, still looking out the window. “Silly girl,” she said and shook her head. “You silly, silly girl.”

I lay back and closed my eyes. I said, “Mom, my eyes are closed.”

“Lucy, you stop it now. “ I heard the mirth in her voice.

“Come on Mom. My eyes are closed.”

There was silence for a while. I was happy. “Mom?” I said.

“When your eyes are closed,” she said.

“You love me when my eyes are closed?”

“When your eyes are closed,” she said. And we stopped the game, but I was so happy – (135)

Other people are less important than the mother who could not tell her she loved her: her silent and hopeless father; Jeremy the artist who suggested she should be ruthless and perhaps already was; the novelist Sarah Payne who gave her advice on her writing; and her husband.

Chrysler Building, New York photo by David Shankbone, August 2008 via WikiCommons.

Lucy left the small town in Illinois for New York City, and loves its variousness, the vivid people she meets and sees. The changing view of the Chrysler Building is a delight to her, reminding her of how far she has come from her roots. She reflects however that the dark experience of her childhood remains present.

But there are times, too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. (14)

On Sarah Payne’s writing course Lucy is struck by this comment:

And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do. (98)

And Lucy has become a successful writer, but still is struggling to understand who she is and what she thinks and what she does.

I love the cover: the window is cut out to show the Chrysler Building. The designer should receive a mention.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Penguin 193pp

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2016.

In April 2017 Elizabeth Strout will publish her latest novel in America: Anything is Possible.

Over to you

Have you read this book? Or others by Elizabeth Strout? What did you think?

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Claxton by Mark Cocker

Claxton was a great Christmas present, given to me by my daughter last year and finished 12 months later. It’s lasted all year and indeed I can foresee dipping into it time and time again, savouring the detail of the observations, and the language of the short descriptions. The book’s apt subtitle is Field Notes from a Small Planet.

Summary of Claxton

Claxton is a village east of Norwich in Norfolk. Mark Cocker has lived there since 2001, and he makes minute and detailed observations of wild life and landscapes for his columns in the Guardian and the Guardian Weekly. 140 of these are collected here, arranged by the months of a year. I read each month’s collection of about 10 short pieces in the corresponding month of 2016.

There is so much to relish here. Most of the pieces relate to the immediate surroundings of Claxton, but some are from travels further afield in the UK and even in Greece. He has a particular eye for bird life, but other fauna and flora, especially trees, are also lovingly observed.

The significance of place is emphasised in his Introduction.

Claxton is above everything a book about place, but it is also a celebration of the way in which a particular location can give shape and meaning to one’s whole outlook. (1)

Some examples

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

 

11th June 2012 on bumblebees:

Wait by the flowers and watch them traffic back and forth. Follow one for a few seconds and you’ll quickly appreciate the insatiable busyness of these wonderful creatures. We often think of them as amiably slow but the sheer speed with which they assess each flower, take nectar, or truffle through the pollen and move on to the next bloom is astonishing. In a minute they can cover hundreds of flowerheads. … Within a short while the foraging ceases and the bee will swing windward and rise high above the garden, vanishing into the horizon sometimes at canopy level. So much of bumblebees lives is spent in perpetual transit and even when you find a nest its happening as subterranean and largely hidden. (91)

16th August 2005 on meadow brown butterflies:

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Some meadow browns seem almost an exact analogue for the spent condition of the season. During the course of their two-week adult life the wings become bleached to a dull sepia and the edges clipped almost as if a child had patterned them with a butterfly-sized pair of scissors. Occasionally they are so tattered it is a wonder that they can fly at all. The ‘bites’ out of the wing edge can be the work of birds and are evidence – believe it or not – of a canny defence mechanism. At the moment the bird attacks, it is drawn by a sequence of dark spots on the meadow brown’s underside and is tricked into pecking at these rather than some vital organ on the abdomen. Thus the butterfly escapes with no greater loss than a little wing power. (117)

26th November 2012 on the avian disturbances caused by a peregrine falcon:

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

A criss-cross pattern of several thousand pink-footed geese was spread skywards for more than a kilometre. Amid their glorious barking chorus were the more musical anxiety calls of Canada geese and the nails-on-blackboard braying of greylags. They descended then rose several times and on each occasion the waves of wildfowl refuelled a general panic. A tight thousand-strong press of golden plover roved through the others like a mobile storm, while above were thinly spread flights of lapwings, starlings, ruff and black-tailed godwits. (167)

See what I mean? These three examples demonstrate Mark Cocker’s love of language and of the common or English names of natural phenomena. To promote English terms the book includes a glossary of species with both English and Latin names. And the whole is enlivened by Jonathan Gibbs’s illustration that are placed at the start of each month’s entries.

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker. Published by Penguin 2014. 238pp

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Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

What’s the connection between Exeter Station and a publishing revolution? Let’s be precise, it’s Exeter St David’s Station, there being other stations in Exeter. As I frequently pass through or catch a train to and from Exeter St David’s I was entranced to discover that it was the site where Penguin Books originated.

A book for the price of a packet of fags

The story goes that returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter station platform. It was 1934. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. The paperback revolution began.

271 AllenLane

It was probably not so much the soft covers but the desire to produce books for the same price as a packet of cigarettes that contributed to the success of his idea. A note for younger readers: smoking was not at that time considered a danger to health or a socially unacceptable activity.

Not on our time

The idea was not immediately taken up enthusiastically by Allen Lane’s employers, Bodley Head. They did not think it would be successful, and required him to do the work for his publishing idea in his own time. Fortunately he had colleagues who did support the idea, including one who came up the idea of the slightly comic penguin that would become identified with the new format. One of the team was sent off to London Zoo to draw the penguin for the original colophon.

271 penguin

Later the format was expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays.

Democratic

Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The Bookseller May 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers.

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

The first titles

Penguins Books began with ten titles.

  • Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  • Dorothy L. Sayers The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  • André Maurois Ariel
  • Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
  • Mary Webb Gone to Earth.

Other authors were Susan Ertz, Compton Mackenzie, Eric Linklater, Beverley Nichols and E.H. Young.

According to a story in History Today, one enthusiastic reader was responsible for Penguin books being selected by the Woolworth’s buyer: Mrs Prescott.

A key moment came when the book buyer for Woolworth’s, a man named Prescott, was approached. He did not like the sample he was shown, but his wife’s enthusiastic reaction changed his mind (or so Penguin legend has it) and he ordered 63,500 copies. That meant that at least the first Penguins would not make a loss. (Richard Cavendish, History Today)

Another note to younger readers: Woolworth’s was an early version of Poundland-type shops but with a shade more class. It went under in the great bankers’ crash of 2008, and I’m not going to remind you about that, because you should know.

271 Allen Lane and Lady Chat

The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence in 1960 was one of Penguin Books finest hours. The battle to have the book declared obscene was lost despite the claim made by the chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones that it was ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’. Mrs Prescott probably turned in her grave.

Original Penguins Livery

You can still pick up early Penguins in second-hand shops. Most of mine have telltale pencil prices inside the cover, or addresses of previous owners, often institutions. The early editions are very attractive, irresistible even. I treasure mine. Don’t get excited about my copy of Ariel by Andre Maurois in the photograph. It’s a 1985 facsimile. The others are pre-war editions.

271 My penguins

Book sales at Exeter St David’s Station today

Allen Lane’s experiment was a success. For a time. Penguin Books has been swallowed up by the commercial publishing giant Random House. And at Exeter St David’s Station the only books sold today have to be tracked down in the dingy cave that is WH Smith’s. The book selection is at the far end of the shop, reached by squeezing through passengers buying magazines, sweets and fizzy drinks for their journey. The shop stocks best sellers, fiction and nonfiction. Nothing I was tempted to buy and I doubt whether Allen Lane would have thought much of the selection either.

271 ExStD

Ironically, at No 1 in the fiction shelves was Girl on a Train. I doubt I will ever read a book with ‘Girl’ in the title unless I am persuaded by someone whose judgement I trust.

Penguins I loved

My love of reading was fostered in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Puffins, and later by the Pelicans that no self-respecting teenager aspiring to be an intellectual would be without. I read Freud from them, and soon discovered ST Bindoff’s Tudor England. And on and on, through many adult novels, history books, polemics, art collections and suddenly here we are in 2016. Books, Penguin Books. And it all began at Exeter St David’s.

Related books and posts

JE Morpurgo Allen Lane, King Penguin.

Jeremy Lewis Penguin Special, The Life and Times of Allen Lane

Stephen Ware, ed Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970

Banning Books on this blog November 2015

Allen Lanes files are held at Bristol University Library

 

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Bookword in St Petersburg

We followed Anna Karenina and took the train from Moscow to St Petersburg. It is the tourist route. The countryside of Russia was flat, spacious, dominated by coniferous woods, rivers and dachas, occasionally interrupted by communities of brutalist concrete blocks of flats before quickly giving way again to the dark green trees.

Wedding of Alexander II and Princess Alix of Denmark in 1894 by Laurits Tuxen in The Hermitage. The future Edward VII is amongst those attending. Via Wikicommons.. ( http://gallerix.ru )

Wedding of Alexander II and Princess Alix of Denmark in 1894 by Laurits Tuxen in The Hermitage. The future Edward VII is amongst those attending. Via Wikicommons.

I had less idea of St Petersburg from books than my out of date image of Moscow (see earlier post To Moscow with Books ). But this is the city of Anna Karenina and of Peter and Catherine the Greats. In the nineteenth century in this city the aristocracy spoke French, they lived a glittering life of an elite more distant from the serfs (emancipated only in 1861) than from the upper classes in Europe within which the royal famiiy was intermarried.

Unexpected bookish things in St Petersburg

201 Bks in St P hotelIn my hotel room I found two books, part of the rather racy décor which twinned sage and lime green, pasted bordello-like wallpaper on the corridors, and rich round colours on the uncomfortable seating in the foyer (cherry red, bubble-gum pink, royal purple etc). Books in the bedrooms? My books were Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Books were a feature of every room, but apart from an opera libretto I didn’t find out what other guests had been given.

201 Idiot cafeOne evening we dined in The Idiot restaurant. How could we not? I expect there are pubs in London named after Dickens’s novels, but can you imagine Pride and Prejudice Café, or Middlemarch Diner? It was a good experience. The décor was suitably writerly and the lighting very low and gloomy. I was disappointed to hear a tourist ask the waitress how it got its odd name.

History in St Petersburg

You expect to find a city’s history written on its buildings: the wide boulevards of Paris that prevented revolutionary activity; Amsterdam defined by its canals; Berlin’s triumphal   Brandenburg Gate. Although Moscow was full of monuments to the three great Russian victories (over Napoleon, and Germany in the two world wars) I expected to see and hear more of St Petersburg’s history.

On the face of it St Petersburg wears its history proudly. Its buildings in the centre of St Petersburg still present the city of Peter and Catherine the Greats and the deposed Romanovs. The French influence is everywhere, in the pastel buildings, the wide spaces, the palaces.

201 Winter PalaceThis city saw some of Russia’s most significant 20th Century events: the square of the Winter Palace was the scene of the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1905. A peaceful demonstration of striking workers came to meet the Tsar, and were fired upon at will be the troops. This event lead to the first Russian Duma (parliament) and the beginning of the end of Romanov power. The Palace was stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

The Peterhof, a post-war reconstruction

The Peterhof, a post-war reconstruction

The Siege of Leningrad (the name of St Petersburg at that time), we were told, lasted nearly 900 days (8th September 1941 to 27th January 1944) and that most of the centre was destroyed. We were given no idea about the human damage. Despite huge destruction the city was reconstructed and rebuilt within three years rather than modernised. So all those marzipan buildings are reconstructions?

The façade of St Petersburg presents a very modern European city then, a reconstruction where the difficult events of the 20th Century are laid aside. There is more people’s history in the novels I read.

  1. The Ice Road by Gillian Slovo

201 iceroad coverThe ice road is the route across the lakes that saved the people of Leningrad during the siege. It is no easy road, of course.

The Ice Road is more than 500 pages long, and covers the story of several characters, told with different voices and points of view, from the early ‘30s to end of the siege of Leningrad. It follows their lives through the pogroms of Stalin and the fear that followed, including the outbreak of war and the siege. Their stories interweave as characters influence the outcomes of each others’ lives.

One theme of the novel is the corruption of ideals through the apparatus of the state and through the urge to survive. People make compromises for each other, make mistakes, love and care even when it jeopardises them.

The Ice Road by Gillian Slovo (2004) published by Virago 541pp

Shortlisted for Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction.

  1. The Siege by Helen Dunmore

201 Siege coverThis novel is tough, as fits its subject. It is less to do with the politics of the city more about individuals and what happens when they struggle to survive in extreme circumstances. We follow four people as their lives become smaller and smaller as a result of hunger and cold. As the siege persists their focus recedes from the higher aspects of human life, love, work, beauty, care for the family to brutal survival preoccupations, and surviving means letting go of loved ones and ideals. What matters is the search for food and for wood.

The Siege by Helen Dunmore published in 2001 by Penguin Books 320pp

Shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverThe early short stories in this collection date from Teffi’s life in St Petersburg before the Revolution. She fled to Paris, as so many White Russians did, and continued to write there. Her story about meeting Rasputin reads as if it were an actual experience of encountering this mythic man (mythic even at that time). Perhaps it is an imagining in order to understand the phenomenon that got so close to the Tsar’s family and whose death is the stuff of legends.

Another story I enjoyed is called Tolstoy and it is an account of the author as a young girl calling on Tolstoy to ask him not to kill off Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace. I had heard the story on Radio 4 in April 2015 (no longer available) and been charmed by it. It reflects the power of fiction upon a young.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Related links

Check out tripfiction.com for recommendations for reading in different locations.

The Goodreads list of Books set in St Petersburg is headed by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with War and Peace fourth on the list. Other classics are included, The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin by Pushkin, The Overcoat by Gogol, and Fathers and Sons by Turgenev.

That list reminds me of how many Russian classics I have yet to read.

Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)

Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)

Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)

Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

To Moscow with Books (Sept 2015)

 

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The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard

The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard is something different in the series of older women in fiction. The 16th post in the series considers a popular, contemporary novel. What picture of an old woman emerges in this novel?

192 Twlight H coverThe Story

Eleanor Lee is causing concern to her family because she is old and has accidentally set fire to her house. They want her to go into a care home. She is an intelligent and considerate woman, so after resisting she agrees. First, she insists, she needs help in sorting the stuff in the house, especially books, photographs and letters. Peter arrives to do the job, a young man with a broken heart.

Peter and Eleanor spend their evenings together and she gradually reveals her secret. He finds the evidence that would reveal the truth to Eleanor’s family. It concerns a love affair in her youth (seventy years before), at a time when such things were not publicly acknowledged. The events had destructive repercussions in Eleanor’s own family and changed the course of her life.

The story of the younger woman dominates. This novel is not about old age, for the central story is the young Eleanor’s. Nothing is changed for the old woman by telling her secret to Peter. Eleanor achieves no resolution of her doubts about what happened, no accommodation or relief, no desire to reveal her past to her own children. Nothing in the life of old Eleanor changes by revisiting her past.

The Old Woman

Eleanor Lee is 94, nearly blind, but independent minded. She is feisty but foresees decline. This portrayal of an old woman draws heavily on the idea of ageing as decline. It is a prevalent view, almost unquestioned, in our society. Here is Eleanor describing to Peter how she sees her future:

‘You do not understand – indeed, why should you and how could you? – the gross indignities of old age.’

‘Indignities?’

‘Yes. Soon, I will very probably need someone to cut up my food. To wash me. To cut my toenails. To pluck the little coarse hairs from my chin. To wash my dirty clothes. To take me to the toilet. To wipe my bottom. I can’t see if you are blushing but you probably are.’

‘No, I’m not.’ Indeed, Peter did not feel embarrassed by the old woman’s words; he almost felt uplifted by them.

‘Then I’ll become incontinent. I’ll dribble. People will spoon mush into my mouth.’

‘This all sounds rather drastic, when you seem so strong, so self-reliant.’

‘Ageing is drastic. It is very bodily. Maybe I’ll start to lose my memory; very probably I will. We can’t escape these things, you know. Bit by bit I’ll go into the darkness. I won’t be their mother any more, or their grandmother, their great-granny. I’ll be like an ancient leaking baby.’ (49)

The intended effect on Peter, and the reader, is of shock at the horrors of old age – decline into ‘an ancient leaking baby’. It is not clear to me why Peter ‘almost felt uplifted’ by what she says. The use of the word ‘almost’ is ambiguous, and what is uplifting about her words? The revolting picture she paints is in contrast to her actual situation, for she manages a household with support, and is not dependent for everything, every personal thing, on other people. Perhaps this image, put into Eleanor’s own mouth, of decay and dependence is intended to draw attention to the contrast between the old and the young woman.

There is a second depiction of fearful oldness in the character Meredith, Eleanor’s vindictive step-sister. Meredith suffers from dementia, and Peter and Eleanor pay her a visit, which is another vision of hell. Is the reader meant to be frightened or disgusted by the decay of old age?

The novel is narrated as if, since the grande passion that is at the heart of the novel, there has been very little of importance in life for this old woman. It seems unlikely to me that after seventy years, the love affair would still have been the main story that Eleanor told about herself at 92, especially as Nicci Gerrard suggests that she had an important career in teacher education, brought up children, was independent from an early age. Are women defined by their relationships to men, or is that only in popular fiction?

I was not convinced that Eleanor would so strongly have wanted to keep her secret from the younger generation. And that she is capable of telling it to a stranger. Did the secret matter so much? Is the framing of the main story, as the reminiscences of the old woman, a plot device?

What we learn

We are invited to agree that the preoccupations of the younger Eleanor Lee would remain into old age – the necessity of keeping her secrets hidden. To this end, Eleanor sets fire to the filing cabinet, and unwittingly to the house, and then employs the troubled young man to find and destroy the evidence and to listen to the story.

The Twilight Hour is at heart a historical romantic novel about a love affair at the moment when Britain was entering the Second World War. The old woman is attractively drawn, but nothing is changed by her revelations, and we have to believe that all that matters in one woman’s long life was a brief passion, experienced seventy years before.

The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard (2014), published by Penguin pp407

 

To view all posts in the Older Women in Fiction series, please click on the relevant category or see the list on the page Older Women in Fiction.

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