Category Archives: Older women in fiction

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

I have not reviewed a book in the older woman in fiction series for some months. I correct this here with a thriller from Korea, specifically put my way by Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

What I liked about The Old Woman with the Knife was the serious way it undermined common ideas about how older women should behave, and how they decline physically. Older women often say that they have become invisible, meaning that they are not noticed, do not stand out from other people. The main character exploits this in order to carry out her trade: contract killing.

This is the 57th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Old Woman with the Knife

Hornclaw is 65 and has managed to survive as a contract killer in Korea. We meet her on the subway, when she is very deliberately not standing out from the crowd.

…she is a model senior citizen, wholesome and refined and respectable. Rather than making a show of how deserving she is of a seat, she stands by the full senior section at the end of the car and doesn’t complain. Her clothing is appropriate for a middle-class senior citizen, perfectly aligned with the standard of old age: off-brand but decent clothes, down to her hat and shoes, purchased at Dongdaermun Market or on sale at a department store. Unlike some, she doesn’t bellow songs, her face ruddy with drink, taking up space with various kinds of sporting equipment. She exists like an extra in a movie, woven seamlessly into a scene, behaving as if she had always been there, a retiree thrilled to take care of her grandchildren in her golden years, living the rest of her days with a frugality baked into her bones. People stare at their phones, headphones in their ears, shrinking from and swaying with the unending wave of humanity, quickly forgetting an old person has entered their midst. They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant, recyclable. Or they never even saw her to begin with. (13)

Many older women readers will recognise the idea of being ‘like an extra in a movie’, being passed over or not seen to begin with. Perhaps it happens to men too.

She has bought her survival as a contract killer at the cost of loneliness, close only to her dog, Deadweight. She has lost everyone she cared for along the way. She began life in a poor family, was sent to live as an unpaid servant in a distant cousin‘s household and abandoned there by her family. She had to find her own way and was helped and then more or less adopted by the mysterious Ryu. It was Ryu who rescued her, taught her the trade of murder and set up a company in which she was the chief worker. Even after many decades it is his voice that she hears guiding her to remain unremarked in a crowd.

In the opening chapter Hornclaw kills a commuter. He was behaving in an obnoxious way towards a young female passenger on the subway. There is, I admit, a small satisfaction in such a man being despatched. On leaving the cloakroom where Hornclaw cleans her poisoned knife she nearly collides with the emergency service workers who are rushing to the scene. 

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner …
Didn’t I tell you to slow down or stick to the edges but to make a big loop? What if you bump into someone and drop something? You would be announcing, here’s all the evidence, to the whole world.
She can recall Ryu’s expression when he told her that as if it were yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. (20)

But as she had grown older things have changed. In the agency for whom she works a younger male colleague seems bent on ruining her reputation and her effectiveness. A small mistake takes her to the doctor at the clinic, and she develops affection for Dr Kang and his family. This weakness is exploited by her rival and there is a violent showdown.

While I loved the feminist and anti-ageist stance of the story, I also found myself disconcerted by the lack of questioning of the morality of extra-judicial or contract killing. Perhaps I am asking too much. It’s a fantasy after all. But I find it hard to read about such things as though the victims are merely extras in a film, or disposable characters in a video game.

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. She made her literary debut in 2009 when her novelWizard Bakery won the second Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her 2015 short-story collection Geugeosi namaneun anigireul received the Today’s Writer Award and Hwang Sun-won New Writers’ Award. This is her third novel, and the first to be translated into the English language. [From the Canongate website]

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, first published in 2013, and in the English translation by Canongate in 2022. 281pp. The English version was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

There is no sudden change when a woman becomes old, in my experience. What I see is that women from their youth spend their days doing things: reading, pursuing interests, gardening, maintaining relationships, worrying about their bodies, money, relationships and their children. And as they get older they continue to be absorbed by these things. And one day they realise that they are ageing, and another day they come to see that they are old. And they continue to read, pursue interests, work in the garden, maintain relationships, worry about their bodies, money, relationships and their children.

There is a quartet of older women – the main characters – in The Weekend. Charlotte Wood has not so much written about ageing as about a group of women who have been friends for decades and are now in their 70s.

This is the 56th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Weekend

Four Australian women have been friends for decades, and now they are in their 70s. One of them, Sylvie, has died and the others have agreed to clear her beach house before it is sold. It is about a year since she died. The weekend they choose to do this is Christmas, and it’s very hot.

Sylvie owned the house and is still present through her possessions, and the memories that the women have of her, sparked by the items in her house. They have an expectation that they will be grieving for their friend individually and as a group during the weekend. Wendy finds some postcards that Sylvie has kept, sent by friends as they travelled the world, including one from her in Paris. She is amazed to find that she knows very few of the people who sent the cards. I have had this experience at a funeral of finding that my knowledge of my friend was partial. There were parts of his life of which I knew nothing, despite thinking of him as a close friend. 

Dominating the work of clearing Sylvie’s house is Jude, a woman of fine taste and a very controlling manner. She can communicate contempt in a few words about, say, stale bread. She has been living with a secret for forty years – she is the kept woman of a very rich man. The group know this, but they have never met him. Jude’s non-verbal communication is one of the most creative aspects of Charlotte Wood’s writing: she bangs plates and pots, raises an eyebrow, glares, sighs, rolling of eyes and none of it is in pleasure.

Wendy is an intellectual, who has lost control of her body. She owns the dog, Finn, who intrudes upon every scene with his tremors and incontinence, his smell and his anxiety. She is too fond of Finn to contemplate putting him down. This attitude mirrors, perhaps, a dominant and contradictory view of the very old: with love but frustration at a life lived beyond independence.

Adele is an actress, now permanently resting, but with high hopes of a comeback and maintaining a punishing regime to keep her body and good looks. She meets a rival actress who has been getting the parts that she wished for, and the battle between these women is a feature of the central section of the book. The struggle between Sonia and Adele for the attention of the younger man, a theatre producer provides some comedy, at the expense of all of them.

These women are not so much battling old age as dealing with the issues with which they are presented at this moment in their lives. Their lovers, and children, their financial situation, their preoccupations and their antagonisms have been arising throughout their lives. They have not always supported each other and have exacerbated the each other’s difficulties at times. 

As the three women are reminded of Sylvie, and her foibles and strengths, they see the other two friends against the backdrop of her life and death and begin to wonder why they are still friends, or indeed ever were friends.

Over the weekend each of the three women meets a crisis, and after some very difficult moments, they also find strength in each other. But it is painful, not just because they are ageing, but also because life and friendships are hard. 

I thought this was an excellent novel. It depicts women in their 70s but is not about living in fear of death, despite the death of one of them; nor is it about nostalgia and memories and trying to regain a vanishing past; nor are they amusingly handicapped by forgetfulness; nor are they querulous and demanding; nor do they have magical powers of insight bestowed by advancing years. Their lives are not so different from my friends in their 70s, or indeed my own.

Adele reflects the continuity of life that is a feature of this novel: 

Life – ideas, thinking, experience, was still there to be mastered … She had not finished her turn, would not sink down. She wanted more.

Charlotte Wood

This award-winning writer lives in Sidney and is in her 50s. In 2013 she was appointed as the inaugural Writer in Residence at the University of Sidney in the Charles Perkins Centre, a research facility that brings science and art together, for example, to look at the complexity of old age. The Weekend is her sixth novel and is very successful, being awarded prizes and picked as Book of the Year by many publications.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, published in 2019 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 258pp

Related posts

The Boookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

Simon Lavery prompted me to get a copy of this novel with his review on his blog: Tredynas Days, last December. You can see his review here.

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As We Are Now by May Sarton

The title of this novel is taken from a New England tombstone, included as its epigraph:

As you are now, as once was I;
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s May Sarton was concerned that women should be able to choose the way in which they lived. This novel explores how an old woman can live her life as she wishes, albeit that she is approaching death and is dependent upon strangers. 

This is the 55th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to the reviews. This  is the second novel by May Sarton in the series, the first was A Reckoning, published in 1978, five years after As We Are Now. Thanks to Anne Goodwin who recommended it, and her book is also included in the series: Matilda Windsor is Coming Home.

As We Are Now

May Sarton was never afraid to take on difficult issues in her writing. Both novels included in the older women in fiction series address the same question: how can women retain control of their lives when they are getting older and sicker and more dependent. In A Reckoning, Laura has been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She responds in a positive way:

I am to have my own death. I can play it my own way. … I’ve got to do it well. (p7)

She is not able to achieve this. Like Laura, Caro Spencer is alone in the world. Up to this point she has lived an independent life, but at 75 suffered a heart attack. She left her house to live with her older brother, with whom she has always been close. But he has recently married again and she did not get on with the new wife. Caro has been placed in a remote old people’s home, a farmhouse, run by a mother and daughter. The care provided is not monitored, the mother and daughter team try to save money, and the other residents, referred to generically as ‘the old men’ are more or less comatose.

Caro wants to make sense of her life, before she dies bring everything together. She decides to write her thoughts in a notebook.

I call it The Book of the Dead. By the time I finish it I shall be dead. I want to be ready, to have gathered everything together and sorted it out, as if I were preparing for a great final journey. I intend to make myself whole here in this Hell. It is the thing that is set before me to do. So, in a way, this path inward and back into the past is like a map, the map of my world. If I can draw it accurately, I shall know where I am. (10)

Her search for completeness, for integrating the different aspects of her life is thwarted as she perhaps foresaw by the ‘Hell’ of the care she gets. The only beauty in her life is found by looking out of the window, and by the friendship of Standish, another patient, who is deaf and bed ridden. She is punished for transgressions and tranquilised to keep her biddable. She is isolated and confused. 

We discover that Miss Spencer had lived an independent life, always a little out of step, as a Math teacher in a small town in the Midwest. She had an English lover who she visited in England and went on a couple of trips with him in Europe. The affair petered out with the interruption of the war. She appreciates elegance, such as mathematical problems, and music. But her sources of support are not adequate to the trials of being in this home. And she wishes that she had prepared better.

The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it. (23)

For a while she is provided with friendship by Standish, a local Methodist minister and his daughter and finally by Anna, the wife of a local farmer standing in for one of the carers while she is on holiday. Eventually she comes to see that the only way that she will regain control is by violent means.

It is a very telling book, not so much of the abuse of older people although it describes that. She is drugged, isolated, infantilised, humiliated and all independence is removed. We come to see the needs of an older person to find a good way to live their final years: dignity, warmth, friendship, connection and a place in a community. The title leads to a warning for readers: as you are now, as once was I. 

May Sarton

May Sarton was unceasing in her attempts to be heard. She published 53 books in her life, 19 novels, 17 collections of her poems, 15 non-fiction books, 2 for children, a play and some screenplays. She had a 13-year relationship with a woman, but refused to allow her writing to be described as lesbian. She preferred to be known as a lesbian woman who wrote. She lived in Europe and on the West and East coasts of the US, born in 1912 and died in 1995. May Sarton’s life is less celebrated these days, but she made a huge contribution to feminism. 

As We Are Now by May Sarton, first published in the US in 1973. Reissued in the UK by The Women’s Press in1983. This was the edition I used. 134pp

Related Posts

A Reckoning by May Sarton

Older Women in Fiction lists

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

You have probably heard of the multi-talented Vita Sackville-West. Born in 1882 she shone in many fields before her death in 1962. Consider the many ways you know of Vita Sackville-West.

Her love affair with Virginia Woolf

 

Somehow the rather intellectual Virginia was bowled over by Vita’s charms and they were lovers and great friends for many years. Their love letters were recently published by Vintage press: Love Letters: Vita and Virginia. Vita was also the lover of other women and men.

Orlando

One of the outcomes of that relationship was Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote, 

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

I like that: Orlando is ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’. It’s also great fun.

All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific writer herself, poetry, novels, journalism and biography. One of her 17 novels takes pride of place in the older women in fiction series on this blog: All Passion Spent, published in 1931. 

In the novel, Lady Slane is in her 60s. She is the widow of a Very Great Man, and when he dies her six middle-aged children meet and decide what she will do: stay with each of them in turn. To their consternation, she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid. These final years bring new friends and interests, and after a lifetime of being eclipsed by her husband, Lady Slane finds happiness on her own terms.

Sissinghurst Castle

You may also know that Vita Sackville-West was a great gardener. Unable to inherit the family property Knole, she bought Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and created a beautiful garden there, which you can visit as it is now a National Trust property. She wrote regular columns for the Observer on gardening from 1946 until 1961.

Her portrait

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Love that hat!

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

Vita came from a long line of rather remarkable and flamboyant women. She wrote about three of them in Pepita, published in 1937: her great-grandmother Catalina, her grandmother Pepita, and her own mother Victoria Sackville.

Her great-grandmother Catalina was a Spanish gypsy, who made her living selling second-hand clothes. It is not entirely clear whether Catalina’s barber husband was the father of her child Pepita. It suited people in their circle to suggest that the father was the Duke of Osuna, Catalina’s lover. The barber disappeared quickly from the story and died.

Pepita became a dancer of some renown in Europe, partly because she was very beautiful. She became very rich and supported her mother, who rose to be a landowner of a considerable estate in Spain. Pepita had been married briefly to her dancing master, but soon separated, apparently on account of her mother’s unpardonable actions – there’s a theme beginning here. While performing in Europe Pepita met the English diplomat and aristocrat Lionel Sackville-West. They became lovers, and he was the father of her children, including Victoria. 

He seems to have been a taciturn diplomat, one who did not observe the niceties of proper society for it was widely known that Pepita was his mistress and mother of his children. Pepita died in 1892 in the South of France, giving birth to her final child, who also did not survive. The children were farmed out, Victoria to a convent in Paris. Later her father needed her to act on his behalf in the social and diplomatic world of Washington. This was not a conventional arrangement as Victoria was not legitimate. Nevertheless, she played the part very well, and bowled over Washington society receiving many offers of marriage. 

Back in England she met and married another Lionel Sackville-West and went to live at the family estate at Knole. They had one child: Vita. Victoria was a very difficult and demanding woman, who also attracted admirers. 

Vita retells the stories of these women in Pepita. Her sources came from a trunk she found of papers, researched in Spain as part of a court case by one of her uncles. The Sackville-West men seem to be rather socially withdrawn, taciturn even, who liked these dramatic women, but did not exert themselves to make their lovers’ lives easier or mind much about the scandal that followed them. Vita’s own father did not (?could not?) leave Knole to her, so she invested her energies in Sissinghurst instead. 

As historic background to a talented and vibrant figure of the twentieth century, Pepita makes good reading, even if it is somewhat rose-tinted. 

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West first published in 1937 and reissued by Vintage in 2016. 266pp

Picture credits:

Sissinghurst Gardens: by Grace Kelly September 2011 via Wiki Commons

Pepita Dancing via Wiki Commons

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Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin

It’s 1989. Matilda Osborne is in Ghyllside Hospital in Cumbria. She has been there for about 50 years. She is being moved to Tuke House, half-way accommodation established to help the residents transfer to semi-independent living as part of the new policy – Care in the Community. Matty, as they call her, is 70 years old. The staff are not sure that she will manage the transition.

This is the 54th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. The author, Anne Goodwin, has also contributed to my posts about older women writers. You can find the links at the end of the post and you can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home

The reader follows Matty’s story from three perspectives. The first is of her half-brother Henry, 57 at the time of the story. He was 7 when Tilly (as he knew her) was sent away by her step-father. Both Tilly and Henry were devastated by the separation. Tilly’s mother, a widow, had married Mr Windsor and Henry was their son. But she died in childbirth, so Tilly had raised Henry. He has spent the years since she left searching for her. 

His job with the council is at risk as he does not see the point of using computers and refuses to be retrained. As he is approaching retirement he is transferred to humiliating positions where this is not an issue, which include organising a party for the local old people and dressing up as a Christmas elf, in a hilarious episode. He has not realised how close he is to his sister when he is enrolled into the local campaign to prevent the inhabitants of Ghyllside being rehoused on his doorstep.

A second perspective from which we see Matty is a social worker’s. Janice is newly qualified and her job at Ghyllside is her first. She is optimistic about the new policy and schemes to get Matty onto the first programme for relocation. She has been charmed by Matty. Waiting in the hall for an interview Janice meets the old lady for the first time.

Janice watched her pluck a jelly baby from the packet, bite off its head, and add its body to the tail of a procession snaking the bench.
Engrossed in the etiquette of a parallel universe, she seemed unaware of Janice, too self-absorbed to shimmy along for her to sit or deposit her bag. Yet the woman raised her gaze. “Did you run away from the circus?”
“Pardon me?” Janice would have been less shocked if the walls had addressed her. And, had she credited the patient with a voice stronger than a whisper, and the will to use it, she’d never imagined her speaking like royalty. (16)

Matty’s own perspective is also gradually revealed. She has spent half a century in institutions. She treats everyone as if they were her guest or her servant at her grand house. Her key nurse is her maid, for example. Any difficulties are explained away by the necessities of war. While Matty appears to be a dotty old woman, we can see that she has developed coping mechanisms. She is frequently overcome by thoughts of ‘the Prince’, who it emerges is her step-father. I imagined the prince of darkness. She has many very attractive qualities: a way of speaking her mind, generosity, hospitality, courtesy and resilience.

There are more than 60 short chapters in this novel, so the stories of Matty, her brother and Janice, bowl along with some amusing episodes and some which are more shocking. The past is a dark continent, and as we understand Matty’s story, we can see the difficulties for Janice and the new policy.

Humour in this novel comes from observing the professionals, the social workers and care staff for example. Or from watching Henry pursuing an adulterous relationship once a week with a hairdresser and she is getting fed up with him. Or seeing Matty cope with her life.

“Thank you, dear, that was delicious.”
Au contraire, the food is barely palatable but that is no fault of the maid, or the cook, given the challenges of producing an appetising menu in wartime. Indeed, it would be perverse to eat cordon bleu when the men suffer so dreadfully at the front. Besides, flattering the staff pays dividends. If theyare happy, so are the guests.
“Could you manage some jam roly-poly and custard?” (96)

As readers we are asked to consider the challenges of rolling out the policy of care in the community, including reactions to it. NIMBYism is a feature. We can also see how in the past attitudes to unwelcome behaviour, especially pregnancy of unmarried women, involved removal from the community. At the end of the 20thcentury racism and homophobia work their evil. 

And through these events we can see some of the damage done by long-term institutionalisation. They take your name. They take your past They take your history. They take control of your accommodation and movement. They treat you like a child yet you are not safe from sexual predation. Exploitation of women has a very long history, of course.

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin, published in 2021 by Inspired Quill. 405pp

Related posts

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? December 2015

Let’s have more older women writers  February 2020

Why we need more Older Characters in Fiction by Anne Goodwin. Her recent blog post on Inspired Quill Blog

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

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The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins wrote in the late 19th Century, publishing The New Magdalen in 1873. He had very enlightened ideas about the treatment of women for his time. His most well-known novel, The Woman in White, revealed the practice of inconvenient women being placed in lunatic asylums for the convenience of their families or their husbands. 

Asylums, diagnoses of madness and incarceration have a long history as a method of dealing with inconvenient people of whom the powerful disapprove:

  • Dissidents in Soviet Russia,
  • Unmarried, pregnant women in Ireland
  • Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK today.

In The New Magdalen Wilkie Collins takes up the issues of women who are deemed to have fallen, and in particular how society at that time did not understand how women in poverty might become prostitutes and did not allow her to redeem her reputation. She was forever judged by the lowest point of her life, not by her character.

The New Magdalen

Wilkie Collins was known as a sensational writer, that is one who could provoke sensations or emotions through writing. Since the novel was originally published as a weekly serial there needed to be many cliff-hangers. The novel is full of will she/will he? moments, or of people listening outside doors, decisions needing to be made immediately, and if only she had known moments.

Mary Magdalene is a New Testament character, who travelled with and supported Jesus and the apostles. Very early commentators interpreted her as a reformed prostitute or a promiscuous woman. Mercy Merrick is the new Magdalen, and her character is contrasted with Grace Roseberry. 

We meet the two women as their paths cross in a cottage in France in the middle of a French war with Germany. Grace is returning to London after the death of her only close family to find refuge in the household of a wealthy relative. Mercy is a nurse caring for some French soldiers. She tells Grace her story and her despair at being a permanent social outcast.

‘… Society can’t take me back. You see me here in a place of trust – patiently, humbly, doing all the good I can. It doesn’t matter! Here, or elsewhere, what I am can never alter what I was. For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. It doesn’t matter. Once my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me, the kindest people shrink.’ (16)

The able-bodied French retreat and Mercy and Grace remain with the injured until a bombardment is launched by the Germans. Grace is wounded and pronounced dead by the French surgeon before he flees to escape the German advance. Mercy is rescued by a journalist who provides her with safe passage. Despite some misgivings she has decided to take on the identity of Grace Roseberry. 

And so the scene is set for the contrast between the two women to emerge, and especially for reactions when the real Grace appears, having been restored to health. In the interval between her escape and the second section of the book, Mercy has established herself as a much-loved companion to Lady Janet Roy and the fiancée of her nephew, Horace, the journalist who rescued her. But when the real Grace arrives to claim her position in the household the dilemmas and tensions begin.

Around the same time as Grace reappears, so does Julian Gray, an unconventional preacher who has previously inspired Mercy. He too is a nephew of Lady Janet Roy. The true Grace is at first dismissed as a mad woman, so convinced is Lady Janet that Mercy is her relative, and Horace that his fiancée is who she says. But Mercy finds that her honesty will not let her maintain the fiction for very long, even if Grace is spiteful and vindictive and judges her according to the history she heard in the cottage.

‘Lady Janet! Lady Janet! Don’t leave me without a word.’ Illustration by George du Maurier

When Mercy finally confesses, each of the characters in turn must decide how they react. Lady Janet Roy wants to sweep everything under the carpet and maintain the fiction that Mercy is her ‘adopted daughter’. Horace is horrified and cannot imagine being married to such a woman, influenced in part by his mother and sisters who would never accept a wife from a disreputable background. Julian Gray supports her, and eventually falls for her, inspired by her bravery and determination.

It falls to Horace Holmcroft to articulate the prevalent view of society at the time in a letter in the epilogue which he writes to Grace Roseberry.

‘The existence of Society, as you truly say, is threatened by the present lamentable prevalence of Liberal ideas throughout the length and breadth of the land. We can only hope to protect ourselves against imposters interested in gaining a position among persons of our rank by becoming in some sort (unpleasant as it may be) familiar with the arts by which imposture too frequently succeeds. ‘ (374)

In the first scene, in the French cottage, when Mercy had told her story to Grace, the reader is reminded of the Christian attitude to sin. Mercy tells Grace that she had heard Julian Gray preach and it gave her the courage to persist in trying to make a good life for herself.

His text was from the words, Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over nine and ninety just persons which need no repentance.  …From that time I have accepted my hard lot, been a patient woman. (18-19)

Even when she becomes the wife of a man of standing and good reputation and is supported by Lady Janet Roy, Society does not relent. Mercy and her husband are forced to emigrate from England because she is not acceptable.

The novel was also produced as a play, and many scenes of the book can be visualised in this way: the French cottage, the room through which people can pass unseen, or hide from those meeting there. Some of the speeches were designed for theatre audiences.

Wilkie Collins

It is not irrelevant that Wilkie Collins himself ran two households, two women and their children, marrying neither woman. Both were acknowledged in his will: Caroline Graves was his ‘constant companion’, Martha Rudd as the mother of his children.  I suspect that such an arrangement would still be frowned upon today.

The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins, first published in 1873. I read the edition from Persephone Books, published in 2020. 397pp

Related post

Fallen Women about ‘fallen women’ in fiction, on Bookword October 2015

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Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Today’s post, featuring a fictional older woman, is from northern Europe. The novel was written in Finnish and is set in Estonia. Estonia has been occupied and claimed for centuries by its neighbours, even since the end of the First World War, and with considerable bloodshed and hardship. The lives of the two women in the novel, one older another two generations younger, are shaped by these events, and they have received abuse about their loyalties and been exploited for them. The fractured history of the country has broken families and friendships and most people have left the countryside. The novel is set in the village of Läänemaa and in 1992 it is dying.

This is the 53rd in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. It was recommended by a reader of my guest posts on the Global Literature in Libraries blog in August 2019. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.

Purge

We meet Aliide Truu as an old woman, apparently abandoned in her family home in the Estonian forest at the end of the 20th Century. Estonia is an independent country, recently freed from the hated Soviet influence. Aliide is the widow of Martin, a supporter of the Communist regime. She appears to be a harmless old lady, cooking up her brews, living a very small existence, with habits of suspicion and frugality. She is fearful for she must manage her house on her own and she is still taunted by village people for her Communist connections, although the village is more or less deserted. The young go to Tallin. 

Her life is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Zara, who is trying to escape from the traffickers who control her life. She is in a bad way. She has deliberately searched for this house and for Aliide. Reluctantly, suspiciously, Aliide allows her into the house and feeds her.

The book hops about in time, through the German occupation and the Soviet years. Neither was good for the village and its inhabitants. We learn more about Aliide’s past and her childhood in the village with her sister, Ingel. The re-evaluation of Aliide begins for the reader when we find that she had always been jealous of her sister’s beauty and accomplishments, and she resented her sister’s marriage to Hans, with whom Aliide is obsessed. 

The Communists have wanted to find Hans who opposed Communist rule, but the sisters hide him in secret places on their farm. Some brutal questioning takes place, including of Ingel’s child, Linda. The men involved reappear from time to time in the later narrative, and always have a terrible effect upon Aliide. 

Through Aliide’s contrivance using her husband Martin’s position, Ingel and Linda are exiled to Siberia, ending up in Vladivostok. This is the purge of the title, Stalin’s purge of Estonia’s collaborators with the German occupation. Aliide regains possession of the cottage and the care of Hans. Hidden from Martin and the village Hans becomes Aliide ‘s prisoner for several years, but he remains cold towards her. 

In the present of the novel, that is 1992, Zara’s traffickers are searching for her, and they have a good idea that she is near Aliide Truu’s cottage. She only managed her escape, after several years of sexual slavery, by violent means. Zara can speak Estonian, for it emerges that she is Linda’s daughter, Aliide’s great niece. As Pasha and Lavrenti close in on Zara, Aliide hides her as she hid Hans. 

 Brutality creates more brutality and finally, by appearing to be the sweet old lady we met at the start of the novel, Aliide finds a way to resolve Zara’s immediate difficulties. 

This novel has been issued in the ‘cult classics’ series by the publisher. Cult is a word that sometimes signals violence, and there is plenty of that in this book, especially violence against women. Suffering and mayhem has been visited on this village and its people and Estonia itself over the decades. The future is not likely to give Aliide a better life, although Zara can move on from her time as a sexual slave.

Purge does not offer any cosy solutions, or happy endings, or any comfortable idea that women working together will improve the world. Instead, it shows how deeply wounding the troubled history of northern Europe has been on women. The price of survival, and of collusion, is very high and includes damaged relationships, trauma, suspicion and violence, even within families, with no suggestion of resolutions. Perhaps the best image of this is the blowfly, which at the start of the novel is looking for rotting flesh in Aliide’s kitchen. It is also reproduced as a cut-out on the cover.

Sofi Oksanen

Born in Finland, with a Finnish father and an Estonian mother, Sofi Oksanen is well known in her homeland for her writing, plays, journalism and novels. Purge is her only novel to have been translated into English. It was first conceived as a play, then a novel and since its publication it has also been turned into an opera and adapted as a film. 

Purge by Sofi Oksanen, first published in Finnish in 2008, and the English translation by Lola Rogers by Atlantic Books in 2010. 262pp. 

Other European titles in the series: Older Women in Fiction

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg (Sweden)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Sweden)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)

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The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Is there a new genre of fiction? Or is it just a new take on an old theme in which a spirited older woman outwits jobsworths and solves mysteries that have escaped the usual investigations. Often the older women live in care homes or retirement accommodation. And they do their sleuthing in the company of others.

The Thursday Murder Club is a good addition to this genre if it exists. It is written with very little condescension (only occasionally referring to old people as pensioners). The older characters are not technophobes, full of nostalgia or the butt of the author’s jokes. The two key women in this novel are alert, healthy, imaginative, resourceful and above all experienced.

This is the 52nd in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books with links to the reviews here.

The Thursday Murder Club

Richard Osman enjoys the characters he has created and he indulges his creativity in a very convoluted plot, which requires a fair amount of ingenuity and many deaths to resolve. He relishes the activities in the Coopers Chase retirement community, all their clubs, (car parking management, stamp collecting, book group etc) healthy activities (swimming pool, bowls, Pilates, gym), rivalries and friendships. One of the clubs has been formed by Elizabeth and Penny. Penny is a retired Inspector from the local Kent Constabulary but now lost to dementia, and Elizabeth and the two men in the club, a retired psychiatrist and trade unionist, recruit Joyce to join them.

Elizabeth has had some kind of highly skilled career in an unspecified and secret organisation. She is whip smart, a lateral thinker and she possesses many connections from her former life, which become very useful when the club and the police (and the plot) hit a difficulty, you know, identifying the age of bones they find, or looking at CCTV to find someone. Joyce, who is a fairly new resident, introduces us to Elizabeth.

Well, let’s start with Elizabeth, shall we? And see where that gets us?
I knew who she was of course, everybody here knows Elizabeth. She has one of the three bed flats in Larkin Court. It’s the one on the corner with the decking? Also, I was once on a quiz team with Stephen, who, for a number of reasons, is Elizabeth’s third husband. (3)

Joyce keeps a diary, which forms part of the novel. She was a nurse and as a widow is rather lonely and would like male company.  She is happy to join the club, finding it all rather exciting. Her function is to ask all the questions that need to be answered on behalf of the reader. Her pursuit of Bernard, another resident of Coopers Chase is not pathetic as some writers would be tempted to frame it. In fact there are few unpleasant or pathetic characters in this novel. Those that are tend to die.

Elizabeth interrupts their investigation into an old case of Penny’s when the man who built Coopers Chase is murdered after a public argument with his partner, who own the company that manages it. No-one seems to be sorry for Tony Curran. Suspicion falls on Ian Ventham, his partner until he dies in the car park while a protest is going on about his plans to dig up the graveyard. Other people become involved: a nun, a past-it boxer, a priest, a flower seller, a widower, a vet and the police. And so it goes on. There are several more suspicious deaths to be solved before the Thursday Murder Club can feel their job is done.

I read this book when I was stuck inside with a broken ankle during Lockdown3. It was ideal reading material for my situation. As he says, it’s his first and, so far, his best book. Thanks to  Jane for the loan of her copy.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, published in 2020 by Penguin/Viking. 244pp

Other books in this genre of transgressing older women

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon 

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

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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The Book of Old Ladies by Ruth O Saxton

This book fits right in with this blog’s series on older women in fiction. I am pleased to have had my attention brought to it. And I am pleased that Ruth Saxton has drawn attention to thirty-one works of fiction that challenge the stereotypes so common in literature, and in the beliefs of society at large about the lives of older women. Many of the novels and short stories have been featured on the blog: either in the list of suggestions or reviewed in the 50 posts published so far in the series on older women in fiction.

This is the 51st in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books with links to the reviews here.

So what is The Book of Old Ladies about?

The subtitle reveals some of Ruth Saxton’s purpose in writing this book: celebration. In this case the celebration of ‘strong characters and vital plots’ of older women, works of fiction that make older women their focus. 

She describes how her reading life in the US began with some good young female protagonists (Jo March, Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre), but when she got to college there were no women writers on the literature syllabus. Even when women were allowed onto reading lists in academia, older women, she observed were ‘simply beside the point’. While women writers and women as protagonists have achieved a better status in recent decades yet there is still, she claims, a paucity of fiction about older women. This was important because

As I aged, my focus turned from the girl and the mother to the grandmother, or the woman my age, and I began to look for plots that might help me map a possible future beyond the familiar fairy tale where the old woman is stereotyped either as the wicked witch of the fairy godmother. … I kept running into the same old stories in which the older women are simply beside the point. (2-3) 

Early searches brought elderly female detectives to her attention, such as Miss Marple and Mrs Pollifax. She observed how they were able to detect because they were invisible. We might add that as outsiders they are able to see what the characters and perhaps the readers cannot. The Miss Marples of this world are no guide to aging and old age.

I wanted to read the novels in which fictional older women prepare for the journey of aging, inhabit the territory and become increasingly their truest selves. (4)

For Ruth Saxton this means finding examples of older women who do not behave as if their life is behind them, who challenge the notion that marriage and motherhood are the pinnacle of a woman’s life, that old age is all downhill. We need more women in fiction who are more than the wicked witch or fairy godmother; both stereotypes refer to how the older woman stands in relation to others. We need more old women who are characters in their own right.

Organising the examples

Her analysis divides the chosen texts into five categories:

  1. Romancing the past (the continuing story of marriage and romance for women, which will drive out creativity and artistic success);
  2. Sex after sixty;
  3. Alternate realities ( the older women consider their current situations without much attention to their pasts);
  4. Never too late; and 
  5. Defying expectation.

The discussion of thirty texts under these headings is an interesting approach, and with only a few pages to discuss each one inevitably makes the originals appear thin. But organisation into themes brings more depth.

She includes a novel that I also admire greatly: Margaret Drabble’s recent novel The Dark Flood Rises, and concludes with a personal note about how the book was influenced by a car accident. You can find my review of The Dark Flood Rises here.

Some reflection on vocabulary and the cover

Finding a suitable phrase to describe women over 60 can be problematic. When we were writing The New Age of Ageing we had long discussions about the language used about older people in English culture and how we should refer to older members of our communities. Every phrase brings with it a great deal of baggage. To call women ‘old’ is difficult, and over the years I (and fellow writers) have used the softer ‘older’. Even the word ‘women’ is experienced by some as less polite than ‘ladies’. And the combination of those two sets of words can be difficult. Try them (out loud)!

Old woman
Old lady
Older woman
Older lady

And the subtitle uses that coy expression ‘of a certain age’. We are afraid of age. Our society does not treat old people well. We find all kinds of ways of avoiding what is seen as a stigma or even a fault – being old

The cover is also intended, I suspect, to allay fears of too fierce an approach. It is pink, with silhouettes and the main title in elaborate, curly lettering  – a kind of Jane Austen appeal?

I am not sure enough of the nuances of American culture to know whether these observations apply across the Atlantic. 

Despite these reservations I am grateful to Ruth Saxton for drawing my attention to many texts previously unknown to me, and for offering some new perspectives on familiar books. Even on the occasions where I have taken a different slant on a text, I am still thrilled to find a writer who shares my ideas that books about older women are undervalued. 

I would make the same point about women in society in general – older women are undervalued. 

The Book of Old Ladies: celebrating women of a certain age in fiction by Ruth O Saxton, published in 2020 by She Writes Press. 295pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

My full list of about 100 novels featuring older women can be found here.

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Best Books for … the Long Haul

The virus mutates. And despite our fervent wishes and good news about vaccines, it is clear we are in for the long haul for yet awhile, for restrictions and lockdowns beyond the new year. No escape. Except perhaps into books.

To survive and even enjoy some aspects of the long haul I think we need a good combination of hope, persistence, resilience, patience and a long view. I have selected seven books that celebrate these qualities.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Middlemarch by George Eliot

These books are not all long, but they all feature some of those qualities we need at the moment. Personally, I am trying to hold on to a long view, and to remember that this too will pass.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn 

Let’s start with a book that was a great success with my reading group and the post I wrote about it has been read many times in the last year. The author and her sick husband lose everything and decide to walk the South West coast path, requiring resilience in the face of bad fortune and hope that things will turn around for them. It is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. It is a true story. My book group liked it enough to decide to read the sequel later this year: The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn 

You can find my review here

Women Talking by Miriam Toews 

This novel was inspired by a real-life event, the repeated rape of drugged women and children in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The women discover that the rapists were men of their own community. We follow the conversations of the women who meet to decide what to do while the men are away: will they leave or will they stay. Their manner of arriving at a solution is heart-warming and hopeful.

You can find my review here

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie 

This novel follows the lives of Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze from Nigeria, growing up in the time of military dictatorship. They both aspire to escape. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze does not get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. The couple meet again after many years when life has moved on for both.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  by Betty Smith

This book was recommended by a friend whose reading choices I respect, and she said that I will enjoy this book about tenacity in Brooklyn in a family of extreme poverty in the early years of the 20th century. It is also about books. I should read it soon.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

This book is from the Older Women in Fiction series here on Bookword. Moon Tiger features Claudia Hampton who is 76 years old and is dying. As  the doctor recognises, she was once someone. In fact she had a life full of action, research, important writing and love. The novel refutes the conventional narrative of what a woman should be and that the endpoint, the purpose of her life is marriage, and motherhood. The Booker Prize winning novel told the story of a long life fully lived. 

You can find my review here

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

This is a cheerful book that takes a long view. I recommend this story of a Russian Count Alexander Rostov, under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel from 1920 until 1954. He sees his own situation change and Russian history rolling forwards outside the windows. He meets interesting people, makes good friends, helps many fellow Russians in that time and manages to make a decent life despite his confinement. It is charming, witty, funny and a good well-told story. There is a happy ending.

You can find my review here

Middlemarch by George Eliot

And finally, I recommend a book that has breadth, depth, integrity and a great heroine. I don’t recommend Mr Casubon’s method of passing the time: endless research for his book on the key to all mythologies. Rather we could emulate the many devoted and trusty citizens of Middlemarch, not least Dr Lydgate and his sponsor, Dorothea. Published in 1871, the town is thought to have been modelled on an earlier version of Coventry, close to Nuneaton where Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) was born.

I hope that these final stages of the pandemic are not too hard on readers. And I hope fervently that we are in the final stages, dark times though they are.

Best Books for …

This was my fourth post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first three were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020

The Best Books for … a lockdown in May 2020

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the long haul?

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