Category Archives: Older women in fiction

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

It is unusual is to find a novel of historical fiction that features an older woman. And not many books in this series about older women have been written by men. Iain Crichton Smith locates this old woman at the start of the 18th century at the time of the Highland clearances in Scotland. Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 45th in the series. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literatures, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

Consider the Lilies

It is the time of the Highlands Clearances in the early 1800s. An old woman, Mrs Scott, is visited by the agent of the Duke. Patrick Sellar tells her that the Duke will be putting her out of her house. The land is to be used for sheep.

Mrs Scott is over 70, a widow. She lives on her own, looked after by the village, and a staunch church-goer. She has lived in the house all her life. She has no family to turn to as her son emigrated to Canada. What is she to do? 

She seeks advice from the village elder, who has nothing to offer. And then from the minister, who disgusts her by lying and counselling compliance with the Duke. On her return from her visit to the Manse she falls into a stream and is rescued by a radical family who care for her until she recovers. Mrs Scott revises her opinions of this family. Like all the villagers, the Macleods are also to lose their homes. The villagers will face the threat together.

Mrs Scott

Mrs Scott is an independent woman, with a great deal of pride. She believes in behaving correctly, according to the dictates of the church. In the first chapter, when she receives Patrick Sellar with highlander’s courtesy, it is clear that the old ways will not protect her against the threat this uncouth man presents. He sees her as stupid when she is being respectful.

Her life is governed by her strict adherence to religion, the Old Testament kind. In the past, we learn, this belief led her to care for her mother, suffering from dementia, without revealing the terrible demands to her neighbours. It also meant that her own son left for Canada. And although the villagers provide some help, this crisis reveals that she has no one to advise her. She is a woman of some resolution however and does not wait patiently for her fate.

She consults the church elder, who turns out to be more concerned for his own future and is weak in the face of this crisis. And she approaches the minister, a man to whom she has never before spoken. He lies to her, blames the sins of the villagers for this misfortune and recommends compliance with Patrick Sellar’s order.

It is this betrayal by the church that provides the turning point for Mrs Scott. She stumbles away from the Manse, but falls into a stream on the way home and is rescued and cared for by another villager, Donald MacLeod. Until this moment he has been everything she stands against, including an atheist. But she comes to see that he and his family are more caring than those to whom she turned.

She refuses to betray the Macleods to Patrick Sellar when he returns and we see that she has learned the value of community, care for your neighbours, has moved to a different set of values and beliefs.

Writing the novel Consider the Lilies

The demographic trends, probably as a result of better public health and improved medical science, means that we are living longer today. It was rare for people to reach their 80s in the past. Iain Crichton Smith had a reason for choosing a very old woman to be the protagonist of this novel. Using one of the weakest villagers emphasises the inhumane actions of the landlord and his agent.

The novel strongly conveys the cruelties of the Highland Clearances, and was very much in tune with social history at the time it was written, in the 1960s. The landowners and the church together are the antagonists in this novel. Iain Crichton Smith (1928 – 1998) was brought up on the Isle of Lewis and spoke and wrote in Gaelic as well as English. He was critical of dogma and the abuse of authority, as revealed in this novel.

And the title? It is from the New Testament and suggests that Mrs Scott is as significant as any other person. But it also suggests that appearances can deceive and its use questions whether God will provide. 

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:28-31)

The author mixed fact with fiction. The clearances took place and there was an agent called Patrick Sellar who went on to make a good living out of the farms that replaced the villages. He worked for the Duke of Sutherland’s estates. He was later accused of causing the death of an old woman in an arson attack on her cottage. Of course he was acquitted. 

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, 1968. I read the edition published by Phoenix in 2001. 144pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

Even if you can’t say her name (and I can’t) you cannot have missed the presence of Olga Tokarczuk on the literary scene. Flights won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. (It came a year late due to some politicking which is irrelevant.) Many of her compatriots celebrate her creativity. Most pleasing, passengers on public transport in the city of Wroclaw were allowed to travel free if they were carrying one of her books on the weekend that the award was announced. Jacek Dehnel, poet and translator, says ‘she is the greatest writer in my language today’. 

There are others in Poland who see her as anti-Catholic, unpatriotic, leftist and suggest that she has promoted eco-terrorism. This last charge probably relates to Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones in which hunters in the narrator’s village are being picked off. Does she deserve the criticism or the accolades?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 44th in the series. I am trying to read more novels in translation since I was guest host on Global Literatures in August, looking at older women around the world. This novel was suggested to me by Emma Wallace the producer of the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour. It featured a discussion of  fiction by, for and about older women in which I took part in August.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones

From the start this novel presents itself as a bit of a mystery. There is the title, a quotation from the unorthodox English poet and visionary William Blake. His work features at the head of each chapter and in the subject matter of the novel as the protagonist is helping her former pupil and Blake-enthusiast to translate Blake into Polish. I do not understand the title.

The mystery is also in the subject matter. Who is killing the hunters in this border village? The narrator, Janina Duszejko (or Mrs Duszejko as she prefers) lost her two precious dogs to hunters and she spreads the idea that it is the animals taking their revenge. But the story also has the qualities of a fable in that animals have magical qualities. 

The story is located in a village on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the margins of two countries. Like the narrator, the village is out of kilter. Poland is compared unfavourably to the country across the border where all is perfect. The village empties every winter. Events often take place at night when it is hard to see clearly. The murders occur periodically and the police are confused by the evidence. The narrator is drawn into the search to identify the murderer. 

Mrs Duszejko has some friends, also outsiders: Oddball her neighbour, Good News a friendly woman who keeps a secondhand clothes shop, Dizzy a former pupil, and Boros the etymologist. They help each other and form a loose social group.

The themes of the novel concern the treatment of animals, ageism, being outsiders and it has a definite political edge. 

The older woman

The narrator Mrs Duszejko is in her 60s and something of an oddity, considered so by the authorities, partly because she is old and lives on her own and is a vegetarian. She does not live as an older woman is expected to. She doesn’t know she should sing at a funeral, remove herself from the scene of a hunting when instructed by the hunters, wears what she likes, is single. She finds herself treated as older women are, that is ignored most of the time, patronised at other times. Her behaviour frequently confuses those who question her, and the reader. She writes weirdly, with capital letters for many but not all nouns. She also suffers from Ailments, which are never clarified or defined, nor do they appear to limit her activities a great deal.

She is also discounted because she is passionate. For example her letter to the police does not receive an answer, despite asking for explanations of some important aspects of the murders. Like all old women, and many old men, she is ignored and made invisible.

Here is her account of her meeting with the police commander.

I could almost hear his thoughts – in his mind I was definitely a ‘little old lady’, and once my accusatory speech was gathering strength, ‘a silly old bag’, ‘crazy old crone’, or ‘madwoman’. I could sense his disgust as he watched my movements and cast (negative) judgement on my taste. He didn’t like my hairstyle, or my clothes, or my lack of subservience. He scrutinized my face with growing dislike. (35)

And here is another older woman, the Writer, who suggests this with Mrs Duszejko’s agreement.

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’ (221)

Mrs Duszejko studies astrology, and this was an aspect of the novel I found hard to understand. Perhaps it is as good a way of understanding the world as any?

Olga Tokarczuk

She writes novels that are in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian). It could be seen as a simple mystery, but identifying the perpetrator of the crimes is not the most important aspect of this book. More significant questions are posed.

The smoother argument made in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is that conforming to nature is sanity, whereas conforming to humanity is idiocy. To be in constant grief due to the cruelty of man is not misanthropy, it’s pure logic. “What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” Duszejko asks. “What on earth is wrong with us?

From August 2019 New York Times review by Sloane Crosely.

This is an inventive writer, one who changes her approach and who is making a name for herself, and perhaps for Polish fiction. I am on the side of the applause. She does that excellent job in fiction of showing us the world as we do not normally see it, and this time through the eyes of an older, activist woman.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in Polish in 2010 and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 266pp

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish and also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. My review can be found here.

And some blogs I found useful in reading Drive Your Plow are The Lonesome Reader and Translating Women.

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

I like the way the translated version of the title sets up a tension between the image of a biddable older woman and breaking the rules. All the best titles hold some contradictions I believe. And here is an older woman who is not the stereotype of the little old lady. Indeed she is not afraid to stand up for herself and for others and to create a community of older activists in the process. A great basis for a novel about an older woman. This is a guest post, by a writer friend, Carole, who responded to my request for examples of older women in fiction and got herself volunteered. 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules is the 43rd in the series of older women in fiction. This is what Carole wrote for me:

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules

Here is a little old lady who fights back. Martha is no passive acceptor of whatever is thrown at her by life. She takes an active part in shaping her future and that of her friends. 

When greedy new owners force cutbacks to staff and services, Martha Andersson decides that conditions in prison would be preferable to those endured by the inmates of the Diamond House Retirement Home. A lack of outings, microwaved meals and a cocktail of appetite suppressants and sedatives make doing time seem a luxury to the residents. Spurred on by a hidden stash of cloudberry liqueur, Martha encourages her friends to form the League of Pensioners and to embark on an adventure. Together they set off to commit a crime that will get them banged up.  

Although Martha is a 79 year old lady who knits and uses a Zimmer frame, she is portrayed as a woman who is so much more than just that. She has a past life with skills that can be utilised to help her overcome the present crisis. She has a strong character that inspires her to want to fight injustice, a logical mind and an imagination. She is so much more than ‘a little old lady’. While medication may have masked the talents of Martha and her friends, it has not robbed them of their ability to remember the people they were – and still are. Within the limitations that age has inflicted (an ability to forget things and slower reactions) Martha wrestles with her problems and comes up with ingenious solutions that utilises the talents of her friends in League.

While occasionally disbelief must be suspended, Martha is portrayed as a real and likeable character. The plot is funny and shows us people who are having relationships, who worry about how they look and what they’re going to eat. They bicker and gripe but mostly they rise to the challenge. Despite their crimes I found that I was on their side and their honourable intentions were enough to carry me through to the end. It is interesting that the original title in Swedish offers no inkling as to the age of the protagonist. It may be that the change of title was made because of our fixed ideas about what ‘little old ladies’ should be doing in their twilight years. 

The book raises questions about what we expect from ‘old people’ and whether dignity should be a right. It shows how easy it may be to sit back and accept a restricted life and limited opportunities as part of ‘growing old’ never questioning whether something better is possible. Worse may be the ease with which we (i.e. younger than ‘old’) accept that prognosis for others – defining them by their years not their ability. Although it is greed that has sparked the changes in the Diamond House Retirement Home, the book raises questions about the standard of care offered in so many of our own retirement homes where cost cutting is biting into the normal stuff that we, who consider ourselves to be less than ‘old’, may take for granted. Read in the present light of questioning whether it is wise to write people off just because they are old or infirm, this book gently highlights some thoughts on the matter. Martha shows that by utilising people’s changing abilities and encouraging adapted skills, great things can be achieved. 

It is a book that I would strongly recommend. It is light and easy to read with a humour that underlines the most serious of questions. Martha is a likeable character who bravely battles the system but she, and her friends, also show acceptance of other people’s foibles whether these are caused by old age or just part of being human. While the book has a tremendous feel-good factor, it gently gets you thinking. 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules  by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg. First published in 2012 by Bokfürlager Forum, Sweden under the title Kaffe med Rån  (Coffee with Robbery). This edition published in 2014 by Pan Books. Translated by Rod Bradbury.

Guest post written by Carole Ellis

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The current trend of using ‘girl’ in titles continues to rile me. It carries more than a trace of condescension. This novel is the story by a woman in her 80s, hardly a girl. However it was recommended. It does not present as a potboiler, or who dunnit, so I gave it a go. 

The Boston Girl  is the 42ndin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me twice recently: by someone who read my blogs on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative in August, and by my sister, who kindly sent me a copy to read.

The Boston Girl

An 85-year-old woman, Addie Baum, is asked by her granddaughter to talk about how she got to be the woman she is today (in 1985). In reply she narrates the story of her life, lived mostly in Boston. Addie was born in 1900 into an immigrant Jewish family. They were poor and had already lost two children. When Addie begins her story her older sister, Betty, has not long left the family home to live on her own. A second sister, Celia, is frail and much protected by her father. Neither parent finds happiness in Boston and there is little kindness in their household. Addie is the only one born in the new country. She is determined to do well despite their tragedies and their poverty.

Addie does well at school, but the family are so poor that she has to leave after only a year at high school. Things improve slightly for the family when Celia marries a widower, Levine, inheriting his two young sons. But marriage, step-mothering and keeping a household are beyond Celia and she commits suicide.

Gradually the events of Addie’s life improve due in part to her friendships with other young women, which last a lifetime and which sustain and motivate her. There are her failed love affairs and then her meeting with her future husband, a lawyer defending children in employment. Her own employments begin with office work and moves into journalism, and finally to social work in support of children. The author refers to the significance of Abbie’s resilience on her website. But her connections and the necessity of earning a living seem to be as important in determining her decisions.

The final years are swiftly dealt with. The interest is largely in her life before her marriage.

The chief influences are of immigration, Jewishness and being female. This novel is not about an older woman so much as what happened to this older woman before she arrived at the age of 85.

Addie Baum at 85

The granddaughter’s question is not answered in any depth: how Addie got to be the woman she is today. Her Jewishness, her gender and the times she lived in which she lived are hardly credited with being part of the answer. At heart this is a feelgood novel, a young girl finds her way to eventual happiness despite early poverty and some bad experiences. The short chapters make it an easy and enjoyable read.

Reading it did provoke me to wonder how I would answer the same question. 

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, first published in 2014. I read the edition by  Simon & Schuster. 392pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

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Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford

This is a post from a writer friend of mine, orginally posted on the Global Literature in Libraries blog. Like many writers Annie is a reader and her choice is a contribution to the theme of older women who thwart expectations. Eleanor Bannister might be expected to have an unadventurous retirement. Indeed she appears to expect it of herself. But that would be to under-estimate this older woman as Annie reveals.

Eleanor and Abel 

In this small town America older women are expected to work for the church, give charity lunches and continue to do their bit for the community. An uncompromising ex-school mistress Eleanor Bannister is aware that the eyes of the town are watching her as her relationship with Abel, an itinerant builder develops.  She is defiant, wary and to her chagrin vulnerable in this area of her life hitherto unexplored.

Eleanor’s routine is disrupted when the roof of the ‘honeymoon cottage’ left to her by her parents is damaged in a storm. The same storm blows Abel into town, looking for somewhere to rent. A competent builder he persuades her to let him repair the cottage.She is reluctant, she wants shot of the place, too many memories of her childhood, she still isn’t over the death of her parents some years before. Slowly she gives in and he becomes a regular feature in her life. The goal posts are moved bit by bit as she becomes used to his presence.

There is constant comment from her neighbour and life long friend Grace, who is jealous of the intruder but slowly gets to like the idea of a man in Eleanor’s life. Eleanor is in denial that she is romantically involved and repeatedly resorts to prayer and her diary as a means of dealing with this upset.

Abel has pretty quickly told Eleanor he is in love with her, the first time he sees her she is in her nightdress barefoot on the grass and that is when it happened. It’s not the Eleanor she feels herself to be and she is embarrassed but secretly excited by this.

Abel is polite but continues to woo her despite her determination to keep him at arms’ length. It’s a game of to and fro, each holding his or her ground as petty tiffs and reconciliation shape the development of their relationship.

At the point when Abel is really starting to get to her, Eleanor feels like shedding her old life. She sees her home as she now feels others see it, stuffy and old fashioned. On a whim she gets rid of all her clothes except of course her underwear and Grace is enlisted to help her buy a whole new wardrobe. Her clothes go to charity but she then sends Grace out to buy back her dressing gown, she can’t quite go through with it. 

Abel’s past life emerges in the form of his daughter who much like him has drifted through her life. He had told Eleanor he could never be sure he wouldn’t blow out of town just as quickly as he had blown into it as he’s always had a restless spirit.

His daughter leaves her own child in their care as she sets off to look for her errant husband.

The honeymoon cottage is finished, but Abel then takes off to look for his daughter. Eleanor is now in a state of confusion having committed herself to a man who might at any time just disappear from her life. 

Eleanor’s character

Eleanor resembles a woman from the pioneer era. Tough, independent, resilient, she built her life around these qualities, steering the town’s young population into adulthood with a stern resolve. She has never expected to be liked, she isn’t known for her sense of humour. Duty is important. Once one stage of life is finished another takes over and retirement means she can still have an important role in the community. She has little concern for the opinions of others or at least she likes to appear that way. Her weaknesses lie in the fact that she has clung onto the view of herself as a daughter to the parents with whom she lived. She seems unable to move on from this role and one wonders if the same doesn’t hold for her view of herself as a retired schoolmistress. 

As the book evolves a very emotional Eleanor emerges. The desire to look after someone again takes over – she wants to iron Abel’s shirts as she’d done her father’s. It causes her all sorts of distress as it makes her vulnerable, something she dislikes. There is the fear of losing what she has so lately found. She finds she is more flexible than she thought; the prospects make her anxious, change is a challenge which she likes but find very scary.

Summary

The book was very easy reading. I was attracted to the character of Abel although I found him unbelievable. Eleanor’s character could at times be annoying, she is strong but rigid. I wished her to pack up her belongings and take off with Abel and perhaps this is what the writer intended. The limitations of small town life had been too thoroughly absorbed. The writer has captured the intimacy and involvement in its residents’ lives. The routine of everyday life and the challenge of sharing these with a hitherto stranger, whether to leave the door open when you’re in the bathroom, are those small but important details that face anyone regardless of age.

For older women readers who might like the idea of finding a relationship late in life this is a book to go for. The chances of finding a tall, slim, handsome at 75 drifter in your neighbourhood, who is fit, sexy, a sympathetic listener, saves his money, is incredibly practical and prepared to do his share of the cooking might be pretty unlikely but that’s what fiction is all about. A good holiday read.

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford published in 2003 by Arrow Books. 188pp

Written by my guest: writer Annie Morris.

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Older women in fiction around the world

So this month I am guest blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, thanks to an invitation from Karen Van Drie. Karen had seen the series on Older Women in fiction on Bookword and suggested I did a version of older women in translation. 

A blogger’s dream invitation

It’s a blogger’s dream, my blogging dream – an invitation to blog almost daily for a month about older women in fiction in translation. Regular readers will know that I have been writing about older women in fiction almost from the start of this blog. And I have also been supporting initiatives to publicise women in translation such as Women in Translation Month, which is August: #WITMonth.  

Why Older women in Fiction?

A common complaint of older women is that they become invisible. My blog series is in part a challenge to that invisibility in fiction.

More urgently, we need to change how people see older women. James Baldwin said,

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it. [quoted in the TLS by Sarah Ladipo Manyika* 28.5.19}

When I began looking for my own examples of older women who were not sweet, eccentric or death-fixated I was underwhelmed. I decided to collect readers’ ideas about better models of older women in fiction and now I have reviewed 40 titles and have a list of another 40 on my blog page about the older women in fiction series.

Not enough older women in translation

But there was a problem with Karen’s invitation. As far as I have discovered there are not many books in translation into English about older women in fiction. On Bookword to date there are only four (about 10%):

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Finland)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

The Woman of Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (Egypt)

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc (France)

The shortage of older women in translation is an amplification of the failure of publishers to include fiction by women in translation on their lists. Some of the smaller independent publishers do great work it must be said. To some extent the market will develop as the population of older women increases, as it is worldwide. But for now I am just being eagle-eyed and watching the initiatives for promoting fiction in translation. You can help by making suggestions. There is the excellent Biblibio blogwhich hosts Women in translation month; The Global Literature blog; and the PEN organisation. 

So with no shortage of older women, only of translations, I suggested to Karen that I could provide posts on older women around the world.

Blogging about the Older Women in Fiction around the World

On Global Literature in Libraries Initiativeblog the continents will be my organising principle for this month:

  • Week 1 North America
  • Week 2 Europe
  • Week 3 Africa and the Middle East
  • Week 4 fiction from the UK 
  • Week 5 a roundup of those that got missed.

Where are the older women from South America and the Far East and – most surprising to me as there are so many excellent writers – from New Zealand and Australia? 

Not all books with strong examples of older women are written by women, although the large majority of them are. You will find several examples of books by men over the month. 

I have not written all the posts. I asked some other readers/writers to contribute.

Like a Mule bringing Ice Cream by *Sarah Ladipo Manyika will be featured in Week 3.

I am so grateful to Karen Van Drie for this opportunity.

…and on Bookword?

During August I will be blogging as usual on Bookword, posting every five days. Some posts will be edited examples of the more editorial posts from Global Literacies, but I will also be posting the next in the Decades Project on Children’s Literature where we have reached the ‘70s. And I may post some book reviews if my reading prompts me to. 

But it is Women in Translation Month so I hope to keep most of my posts with that theme in mind.

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Paul Torday Prize and Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Dear @gransnet, I tweeted, you want more fiction about older women? Well look on this page and you will find links to 39 reviews and more than 40 other titles, all about older women. 

Gransnet have also noted that older women writers are not widely known. They are not alone. There is now a prize for people over 60, publishing their first novel.

So in this post I am going to bring you the 40threview of an older woman in fiction and a little something about older writers.

The Paul Torday Memorial Prize

Paul Torday (1946 – 2013) published his first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, aged 60. The family decided to set up the Torday Prize in his memory, celebrating first novels by authors aged 60 and over. The prize is £1000. It is one of the Society of Authors awards.

Judged in 2019 by Anita Sethi, Mark Lawson and Kate Mosse, here is the short list:

Sealskin  by Su Bristow (Orenda Books). You can find my review here.

Walking Wounded  by Sheila Llewellyn (Sceptre)

Silence Under a Stone  by Norma MacMaster (Doubleday Ireland)

The Sealwoman’s Gift  by Sally Magnusson (Two Roads)

The Tattooist of Auschwitz  by Heather Morris (Zaffre)

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson (Doubleday)

So, dear @gransnet, not only writers over 40, but first novels over 60! What a generous and encouraging gesture it is by Paul Torday’s family to create this prize. 

You can find out more about the Paul Torday Memorial Prize here.

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

And the winner was Anne Youngson for her novel Meet me at the Museum. It turns out to be about an older woman as well as by an older woman. It was recommended to me by one of my sisters, and I was as charmed by it as she told me she had been.

Tina Hopgood is a farmer’s wife in the East of England whose life is circumscribed by the farm and she cannot even remember why she got married. She develops a correspondence with the curator of the Tollund Man museum in Denmark. It comes about because she originally writes to the archaeologist who found Tollund Man. The reply comes from Anders Larsen, a lonely widower. Tina is in distress, it transpires, over the death of her best friend, and the Tollund Man represented unfinished matters between them. 

So this gentle epistolary novel develops to explore their relationship, first by traditional mail and then by email. Each shares their troubles and concerns, and provides support to the other. Writing letters makes it possible for them to talk about the disappointments of their lives, their marriages, their children, the everyday and the events that transpire during the timeframe of the novel.

The story ends before they meet, after the predictable crisis in Tina’s marriage. There is a fair bit of philosophising, as these two are both around their 60s. They learn to evaluate their lives and identify what they have missed out on and what they want from now.

Anne Youngson published the novel when she was 70. She had had a distinguished career in engineering, but the press liked the idea that she is a grandmother. 

Meet me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson, published in 2018 by Doubleday (Penguin). 207pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

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Should You Ask Me by Marianne Kavanagh

Older women are frequently portrayed as either dotty or having great insight and wisdom, at least in more popular fiction. In this novel Mary Holmes is presented at the outset as one of the dotty kind, but she gradually appears as an elderly woman who is full of insight and wisdom. And she has a story to tell.

Should You Ask Me  is the 39thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me by someone on my recent French trip, about which you can read here. You can find a list of all the previous posts in the older women in fiction series with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

It is June 1944 in Wareham, a small town in Dorset. Like much of the south west of England the area is full of American troops, part of the build-up to D Day. Mary Holmes, an old woman of 86 presents herself at the police station. She has information about the identity of two bodies that have been discovered in the local quarries. And then she claims that she killed them.

William, the constable detailed to question her and take her statement, is very severely wounded and suffering from PSTD. He has his own story, concerning his love for Stella, a woman evacuee with a young baby. As Miss Holmes tells her story, William relives his past in a series of painful flashbacks.

Over the course of several days William and Annie spend hours together as he tries to prise her story out of her. He goes from doubting her fanciful and long-winded narrative to believing her detailed story concerning a shipwreck, two young men, the young Mary and an elaborate plot to avoid sharing the spoils of the shipwreck with the village. And two murders.

Eventually Mary gets William to relate his own story of lost love and military training that went horribly wrong, and to suggest that he needs treatment. It is partly a novel about guilt and confession.

Mary Holmes

We first meet Mary as she presents herself to William who is not from Wareham and does not know anything of her.

Underneath the black hat, which had a small silky bow to one side, her hair was a silvery grey. The skin of her face was so criss-crossed with tiny lines it looked like soft paper that had been crumpled and re-crumpled many times. She was wearing a black coat, with a pink scarf tucked in at the neck and cream woollen gloves, buttoned at the wrist. […] Her accent was old Dorset, a hum of long vowels. (5)

The story she has to tell about the two bodies happened 60 years before, and she has mulled over it a great deal. She will not hurry the retelling, which is frustrating for the constable and his kindly sergeant. She attends the police station every day for an hour or two to share a cup of tea with William and to relate a little more of her detailed story.

The tale she has to tell is full of violence and betrayal and guilt. 

As she shares her story she notices William’s pain, physical and mental and the care afforded him by Sergeant Mills. Eventually William tells her his own story of love, betrayal and his own close encounter with death. He too lives with guilt and is unable to forgive himself for the explosion that killed a fellow soldier, ruined his leg and probably his future.

Old woman as novelist’s device

This novel is about the slow telling of a double murder-mystery. In many ways Mary Holmes is the device that allows Marianne Kavanagh to tell the story slowly. And to take the reader back to the village as it was before the First World War, back into the late 19thcentury.

But this is not to dismiss this character as a thin one. Her creator is careful to tell us that she had a busy and successful life after the murders, running the forge and then the local garage, including servicing the cars of Lawrence of Arabia. 

I have criticised other novels about older women for assuming the only thing of importance that happened in their lives concerned romantic events in their youth. Their older selves have been fashioned and determined by the events of this time. But Mary Holmes is a more rounded character than that.

And Marianne Kavanagh has written a good story.

Should You Ask Meby Marianne Kavanagh, published in 2017 by Hodder and Stoughton.  272pp

Recent posts in this series:

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie  by Joanna Cannon

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The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

Women hold up half the sky, as they say. And take their share of suffering, and grief. This account of the life one Palestinian woman takes us through her hardships. Ruquyya is 70, and she has been asked, by her son, to write her story. At times we wish she hadn’t agreed, for her suffering, the suffering of so many Palestinian women, is intense. Published in Cairo in 2014 The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour was translated by Kay Heikkinen.

The Woman from Tantoura is the 38thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

Ruquyya is not a woman with experience of or enthusiasm for writing, but her adult son, Hasan, has encouraged her and bought her a notebook for the purpose, on the cover of which he had written “al-Tantouriya”, the Woman from Tantoura.

He said, “Mother, what I am asking for isn’t a composition but testimony. What I want from you is testimony […], even if it’s long and detailed, concerning large events and the small ones too. Write whatever comes to mind, and tell it however you like.” (162-3)

And this is what we get, her testimony from the attack on the village of Tantoura in 1948 to the present day. About half way through her account, she finds herself unable to continue. She has reached the point when Beirut was under attack and she would have to describe what happened in the Gaza Hospital. She wrote go Hasan and told him that that she could not go further. Hasan called her.

“I got your letter. You say, what sense is there and what’s the use? I say that I wanted others to hear your voice, the voice of Ruqayya the woman from Tantoura. Your four children, we know that voice because we were raised with it. We know you and we know you have a lot to tell people. It’s not only the story I’m interested in, I’m after the voice, because I know its value and I want others to have the chance to hear it.” (185)

Ruqayya protests, saying it will kill her to continue. Hasan replies,

“It won’t kill you, you’re stronger than you think. Memory does not kill. It inflicts unbearable pain, perhaps; but we bear it, and memory changes from a whirlpool that pulls us to the bottom, to sea we can swim in. We cover distances, we control it, and we dictate to it.” (186)

So this is the frame for this novel. A woman, telling her story. In one sense it’s every Palestinian woman’s story, of displacement, murder of her family members, seeking safety with family or friends, in neighbouring countries, holding the idea of the homeland. 

Born in the village of Tantoura on the sea in 1936, Ruqayya is 12 when the village was claimed for the new state of Israel. Like so many people, she flees with her mother and aunt and cousins. This is the Nakba, a word which means disaster or catastrophe and refers to the exodus of Palestinians from their homes. About 700,000 people fled, about half the Palestinian Arab population. Like many women, Ruqayya’s mother locks the house when they left and wore the big iron key on a string around her neck until she died. 

The family find shelter in Lebanon, in Sidon, also on the sea. Ruqayya’s father and brothers had been killed by the forces that evicted them. Her mother does not give up the dream of returning symbolised by the key, or of finding her husband and sons alive. But Ruqayya saw their bodies.

The family try to maintain their connections, and to ensure that everyone is fed, sheltered and provided with an education. The girls need husbands, and although she was promised to a young man before the Nakba, Ruqayya’s life has changed and she marries her cousin Amin, a doctor. They have three sons and move to Beirut, again a city overlooking the sea. But Beirut becomes troubled and then dangerous, and for a while bombing is more or less continuous. Amin brings a baby home to Ruqayya, and they take her on as their own. 

The part of her story that Ruqayya cannot tell is what happened to Amin, who was last seen in the hospital in Beirut. 

Ruqayya and Maryam, the adopted daughter, stay for a while in Abu Dhabi with her son Sadiq who makes a good living as an architect. Later they move to Alexandria for Maryam’s medical studies, and finally Ruqayya returns to Sidon.

What I found in The Woman from Tantoura

This is a novel that offered me a new perspective on events concurrent with my life. I had hardly considered the events in human terms, despite spending a few days in Israel in June 1967 before being airlifted to Cyprus.

The story of Ruqayya is the story of cherishing a dream to return to a homeland, but surviving and enduring the diaspora. The attachment to the homeland is strong, as symbolised by that key, passed on to Ruqayya by her mother and then to a granddaughter. The final chapter relates a visit that Ruqayya makes to the border with Israel, looking out over the land she was born in and cannot visit, and meeting people from the other side of the barbed wire.

It’s a story of endurance, of such suffering, loss and hardship; of the violence that took her father, brothers and husband and many friends, and turned them into martyrs; of the joy of reunions, weddings and other feasts; of displacement and injustice. And it’s the story of the women who ensure their families are provided for.

I learned a great deal, including about Naji el-Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist who was assassinated in London in 1987. Many of the women in his cartoons wear the embroidered dresses referred to in the novel, and the keys around their necks. The events in the Middle East are observed by Naji el-Ali’s creation, Handala, usually with his back to the viewer.

Handala, from the cartoons of Palestinian cartoonist Naji el-Ali

It is a novel that asserts the importance of giving voice to those who have been neglected, downtrodden, ignored. The testimony of the women of Palestine is a significant part of Middle Eastern history, and crucial to understanding the tortuous realities of the Middle East today. 

A book that I read in my reading group a couple of years ago that gave me a journalist’s view of the same time and place is The Lemon Tree  by Sandy Tolan (2006). 

Radwa Ashour

Radwa Ashour lived 1946-2014. She was Egyptian and suffered family dislocation when her poet husband was exiled to Hungary. She was a student of literature in Egypt and the United States. She taught at the Aims Shan University in Cairo. She was honoured with a Google Doodle on 26thMay 2018.

Google Doodle 26th May 2018, Radwa Ashour

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour, published in 2014 by the American University in Cairo Press. 368 pp

Translated by Kay Heikkinen

Recent posts in this series:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie  by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster  by Caroline Blackwood

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