Falling in love is what young women do in novels. Doris Lessing, always a radical, asks ‘how is it when an older woman falls in love?’ Written when she was in her seventies, Love, Again explores this question through the experiences of a 65-year old, Sarah Dunham. I did not enjoy reading this novel very much.
Sarah’s story is contrasted with the history of a much younger French woman, Julie Vairon, who lived in the nineteenth century in rural France. Julie was an outsider, being from Martinique, mixed race and very independent. She was also attractive to young men. They fell for her, as any young man may for an attractive young woman. This first love was followed by a more mature, deeper love. Neither passion could be regularised into marriage because of Julie’s unsuitability. This story is re-enacted in a stage play written and produced by the older woman.
Sarah falls for the young actor, Bill, playing Julie’s first love. It is painful, especially as the young man wants to be the centre of everyone’s attentions, the cast as well as the production team. He courts Sarah, as he courts everyone. They are all powerless to resist his attractions, although he is a sulky boy. Sarah then falls for the director of the play. Her interest in Henry is reciprocated, but never consummated. He is half her age.
Sarah experiences these two longings, for Bill and for Henry, as a kind of sickness. She had assumed that she was over the desire for a man. She had been widowed many years before and had many lovers thereafter but for the last 15 years has been single and celibate. Very early in the novel we find Sarah reading about growing old gracefully, and grateful that she does not have to endure the emotional tumults of love any more. Love, inevitably, comes to her again. And why should it not?
The headlong fall into love is vividly described as extremely uncomfortable, accompanied by all the irrational emotions associated with a younger woman. Doris Lessing is making a claim for the sexuality of the older woman, which is a good thing. But Sarah Dunham is profoundly unsettled by her feelings, associated as they are with her younger self. Being in love is a distraction from the business of being older, it seems.
And in Love, Again Doris Lessing seems to be saying that age disbars women from the practice of sexual love but not the distraction of its feelings. In some ways, of course, love in old age is much the same as at any time of love. Here are Sarah’s musings as she tries to avoid her eyes being drawn to the young actor, Bill:
There seems to be a general agreement that being in love is a condition unimportant, and even comic. Yet there are few more painful for the body, heart, and – worse – the mind, which observes the person it (the mind) is supposed to be governing behaving in a foolish and even shameful way. … For people are often in love, and they are usually not in love equally. They fall in love with people not in love with them as if there were a law about it, and this leads to … if the condition she was in were not tagged with the innocuous ‘in love’, then her symptoms would be those of a real illness. (p136)
A few pages later she is consumed with love and jealousy.
I’m sick, she said to herself. ‘You’re sick.’ I’m sick with love, and that’s all there is to it. How could such a thing have happened? What does Nature think it is up to? (Eyeball to eyeball with Nature, elderly people often accuse it – her? – of ineptitude, of sheer incompetence.) I simply can’t wait to go back to my cool elderly self, all passion spent. I suppose I’m not trapped in this hell for ever? (p180).
So Sarah experiences the emotion of love as a sickness, one from nature, but not quite natural. The business of age is rather to have moved beyond passion. But there is a suggestion that this is a terrible fate, not to be loved or desired as an older woman. As Lynne Segal suggests in Out of Time, the sickness derives from Lessing’s belief that a woman’s essence is to be found in her young body. Love is a kind of narcissistic action, and the older body is an abomination.
Doris Lessing has visited this theme at different times: women only have presence for others, especially for men, when they are sexually attractive. For example, in The Summer Before the Dark there is an arresting scene in which the heroine walks before some men on the street. When she arranges herself as an available woman they notice her, whistle at her. When she presents herself as older, less provocative she becomes invisible. The dark of the title is middle to old age. Love, Again revisits this darkness.
There are other kinds of love explored in this novel and these are more rewarding for the older woman: Sarah’s friendship with Stephen (who is about 50) who suffers from extreme and deep depression; her own history of love including marriage; lesbian love experienced by Stephen’s wife and housekeeper; family love (her brother and his wife and daughters, one of whom is especially difficult).
My unease about Sarah Dunham is that for Doris Lessing she seemed only to be vibrantly alive when she was sexually alert, desiring and desired. She also seems to say that older women can be in love but have little chance of mutual sexual love. In old age they are destined to grieve for the loss of their physical attractiveness and sexual fulfilment. Must women must expect dissatisfaction?
There must be some novels that consider an alternative outcome for an older woman in love? What are they? I don’t want to accept Lessing’s version the only possible one.
If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.