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The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

What life was there for older women, especially an older widow, in post-war England? Despite all the changes of the previous half-century and two world wars that had required women to take on more active roles outside their traditional sphere of the home, in 1951 there was no role for older women. For widows of a certain class, anyway, such as Louise.

The Winds of Heaven is the 33rdin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts and readers’ recommendations on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Louise in The Winds of Heaven

At the start of the novel Louise, who is about 60, has been widowed for a year or so. Her husband was a bully and put her down at every opportunity. He left her with nothing except debts and a sense of shame.

Louise has no reason to live anywhere in particular and no resources to make choices. She has three daughters and a school friend and they accommodate her in dreary rotation. Winters are spent on the Isle of Wight in Sybil’s out of season hotel. When the summer visitors arrive Louise begins another sequence of visits to her three daughters.

The daughters are all preoccupied with themselves and the difficulties they have created. Louise has three relationships that are respectful. Her oldest grandchild, Ellen (11), needs more indulgent adults in her life and she forms a strong bond with her grandmother. Her son-in-law Frank treats her with respect and is thoughtful about her situation. And Louise meets Gordon Disher in a Lyons teashop in the opening scene. She spills her tea on the lurid paperback he is reading: The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini. It turns out that he is the author, and that like her he leads a lonely life, in his case selling beds in an Oxford Street department store.

When her winter sojourn at her friend’s Isle of Wight hotel comes to an abrupt end Louise has no one to turn to, and nowhere to stay. The final crisis and resolution follow quickly.

Feminism in The Winds of Heaven?

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are, but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching at their hats and hair. (1)

This is the opening paragraph of the novel, intended to be taken literally but the image of creeping about in the face of buffeting is apt for Louise. The wind is a recurring image in the novel. Louise certainly creeps about, not rugged but shrunk into her unsatisfactory life. With no resources she feels unable to find a way out of her situation.

Louise produces some very strong reactions among recent reviewers:

The Captive Reader found her pathetic and was disappointed in the novel.

A Corner of Cornwall saw the validity of this view but also found Louise likeable.

She Reads Novels was more enthusiastic.

But Booksnob found that Louise spoiled her reading of the novel, despite Monica Dickens’s humour, warmth and observations, because she wanted the author to suggest Louise could do with some courage and ingenuity and a be given a kick up the backside.

My own view is that Louise is very much of her age (I mean the 1950s) and class and furthermore has been subjected to abusive behaviour by her husband, neglect by her daughters and disdain by society as a whole. Her efforts at courage and ingenuity are usually failures. She is very sympathetically drawn. But I would not condone her level of passivity in older women today.

That Louise is pathetic, lacks agency and is far too obliging is a condemnation of the time she lived in and its attitudes to older women. It was not easy find a role as a widow in the 1950s, especially without financial means. Is it any easier today?

Everything in Louise’s life has conspired to make her rather timid and grateful for anything. Her husband treated her badly, undermining her at every opportunity.

She had borne three daughters, to her surprise, for her husband had set his heart on a son, and Louise was in the habit of giving him everything he asked for. That she failed to give him a boy with a long conceited nose like his own to look down on the world had not helped raise his opinion of his wife’s helpfulness to society. (1-2)

In her widowhood she continues to try to do right for others, but it often goes wrong. An ill-judged remark, an inappropriate gift, helpful actions that turn out to undermine the settled order of things; such moments reinforce her sense of being unwanted and outside society.

Despite revealing Louise’s terrible fate as an older woman Monica Dickens gave her a romantic and happy-ever-after ending.

Other widows in fiction have faced similar difficulties: Louise makes reference to ‘those dismal ‘residentials’, where they farm out most widows’ (209). I think immediately of Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in which Mrs Palfrey makes a good go of living in such a place. And Lady Shane in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West simply ignores her children’s decisions for her when she is widowed and choses her own rather surprising path.

Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens (1915-1992) famously said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in The States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published 10 books before The Winds of Heaven in 1955.

She is on the list of authors identified by Jane (beyondedenrock blog}: A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Her birthday was 10thMay. Thanks to Grier for recommending this novel for the series.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, first published in 1955. Republished by Persephone Books in 2010. 320pp

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The top 5 posts about older women in fiction on Bookword in 2016

In the last 12 months the same reviews from the older women in fiction series have continued to be read, more or less. There has been a slight change in order for four of the top reads, and a replacement for the 5th: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, from August 2014, replaces Mrs Dalloway is Ageing.

The older women in fiction series now has 25 posts. My purpose in starting it was to counter the invisibility of older women in fiction, and to introduce some novels and sort stories in which readers can enter lives and other worlds that they might not otherwise understand. We need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about the less visible to understand their experiences.

The five most read posts on older women in fiction in 2016

Here they are, with links.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity. It was her last published novel appearing in 1971.
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, A Canadian novel, first published in 1964, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her as she ages.
  3. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. The only recent novel in this top 5 lists, it was published in 2014.
  4. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel, first published in 1924. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.
  5. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Lady Slane is the widow of a very great man and she surprises everyone by her choices in her final years: choices of place to live, friends, activities and interests. Her passion is not spent, even if her former husband’s was. This novel was first published in 1931.

    Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Over to you

There is a list of over 70 titles, all relating to older women in fiction on the blog. It was compiled with the help of readers. You could add your suggestion to the list!

Does the most read list surprise you? Which book would recommend for the top five stories of women ageing? Is it included in the Bookword list?

Please add your comments and suggestions.

 

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Bookword’s top ten stories of women’s old age

When Paul Bailey, novelist, compiled his list of Top Ten Stories of Old Age for the Guardian in February 2011 he mentioned only two by women writers: ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ a short story by Alice Munro and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – at 3rd and 4th place respectively. Where were the women writing about older women? There is an irony in this list, which I will reveal later.

Bookword’s top ten stories

There are plenty of strong, bold, feisty and resolute older women in fiction, mostly created by women writers. Some of these older women hate the idea of dying, some live as they always have, some take on new challenges, some are brilliant and some are ill or suffer with dementia. Here’s Bookword’s list of top ten stories of older women, (with links) in an order that reflects reading of the blog series (see below). It includes one male author.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity.25 Stone Angel
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a Canadian novelist, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her.
  3. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. On her death bed, Claudia Hampton resists the infantalising aspects of hospital care and reveals that she has always been a feisty woman. As an old woman she is all the women she has ever been.117 All passion cover
  4. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West tells the story of Lady Slane released into widowhood after many years of being married to a great man. She blossoms with new friendships and independent decision-making.
  5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, this novel is about a grandmother and granddaughter and it reveals another strong older woman, with the full range of emotions and much wisdom. She is the kind of grandmother who has wisdom without being a Mrs Pepperpot.

    Dorothy Whipple

    Dorothy Whipple

  6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple is another grandmother/ granddaughter story, set in a northern town in the early 20th century. The novel reveals the strength of the old woman in family relationships.
  7. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.164 cover S Riding
  8. South Riding by Winifred Holtby features several strong characters, including Mrs Beadows, an alderwoman, who provides compassionate service on the council to her impoverished inter-war Yorkshire community.
  9. A Reckoning by May Sarton focuses on Laura Spelman’s attempts to meet death on her own terms. Strictly speaking the heroine did not meet my criteria, being only 60, but the story is an interesting one, and the main character faces the end of her life with determination to do it her way.
  10. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. 151 E missiing cover 3

Fiction about older women

I strongly believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people. Fiction allows us to enter other worlds and lives which we might not otherwise experience.

The series reviewing older women in fiction on this blog began after I attended a course about growing older. All the examples from literature we were given related to men: Odysseus, King Lear, Prospero, some poetry including, of course, Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle. Where, I wondered, were the older women? I began seeking out and reviewing fiction about older women for Bookword. To date there have been 16 reviews and there is a fine list of nearly 50 titles of fiction relating to older women compiled with the help of readers. Add to the list!

A note of an irony

The irony of Paul Bailey’s article is this. In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor Mrs Palfrey makes friends with a young novelist, Ludo, who undertakes to act the part of her nephew in the Claremont Hotel. In his introduction to this novel Paul Bailey reveals that Elizabeth Taylor met him and based some of Ludo’s circumstances on his life.

Which book would you have placed in the top ten stories of women ageing? Is it even included in the Bookword list? Please add your comments.

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Older women in fiction: the top five posts

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

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

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

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

  1. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)

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

Thanks Litlove for the recommendation

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published by Virago Modern Classics

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

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

Thanks Emily Books for the recommendation

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

  1. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)

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

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively published by Penguin Modern Classics.

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

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

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson published by Sort of Books

 

Some further reflections

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

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

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

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

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All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

When women’s destiny is marriage, what is one to do with the unassuming wife of a Very Great Man when she is widowed at 88 years of age? Here is the opening paragraph of All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband was an exceptionally eminent and venerated man (former Viceroy of India, former prime minister), and she was his exemplary wife.

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, find reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise old age as a sign of excellence. (p5)

117 All passion coverThe dilemma concerning Lady Slane’s last years is faced by her six children (in their 60s themselves). They decide that she will stay with each of them in turn. She has other ideas. She is in for the long game. She waits until p33 to become active in decisions about her own life, even in the novel of which she is the protagonist. We already know, however, that she has thoughts concealed from her adult children. 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.

This decision brings three new friends. The owner of the house, Mr Bucktrout, is a rather other-worldly man, with unusual ideas about the imminence of the end of the world, and about Lady Slane’s needs in the house. They become friends, along with the handyman, Mr Gosheron. Mr Bucktrout is rather a comic figure but kindly towards his tenant. Here is Lady Slane’s first encounter with her landlord. She had entered the house before him and was upstairs when she heard him arrive.

… peeping over the bannisters, she saw, curiously foreshortened to her view, a safely old gentleman standing in the hall. She looked down on his bald patch; below that she saw his shoulders, no body to speak of, and then two patent-leather toes. He stood there hesitant; perhaps he did not know that his client had already arrived, perhaps he did not care. She thought it more possible that he did not care. He appeared to be in no hurry to find out. Lady Slane crept down a few steps, that she might get a better view of him. He wore a long linen coat like a housepainter’s; he had a rosy and somewhat chubby face, and he held one finger pressed against his lips, as though archly and impishly preoccupied with some problem in his mind. What on earth is he going to do, she wondered, observing this strange little figure. Still pressing his finger, as though enjoining silence, he tiptoed across the hall, to where a stain on the wall indicated that a barometer had once hung there; then rapidly tapped the wall like a woodpecker tapping a tree; shook his head; muttered ‘Falling! Falling!’; and, picking up the skirts of his coat, he executed two neat pirouettes which brought him back to the centre of the hall, his foot pointed nicely before him. (p51-2)

Her third old gentleman friend is Mr FitzGeorge, a rich connoisseur and collector. They met years before in India, and each had very favourable reactions to the other, but took things no further. He has waited, and she has cherished her memories. After a brief rekindled friendship FitzGeorge dies leaving his fortune to Lady Slane. Her children are excited about the prospects of inheriting in their turn. She confounds them again by donating it to the nation.

Years before, she sacrificed her desire to be a painter to her marriage, and in her peaceful retreat in Hampstead she has time to reflect on what might have been if she hadn’t slipped accidentally into marriage. Her family, it is revealed, know nothing of her interior life, her youthful ambitions, or indeed of her desires now she is a widow.

So what are we to make of the title: All Passion Spent? Lady Slane has not indulged hers. Perhaps the title refers to the effects of ageing to disperse passion over time. Lady Slane’s passions were for painting and – unacknowledged – for the young FitzGeorge. Both were sacrificed to the Very Great Man.

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

All Passion Spent presents an attractive picture of an old woman. She confounds the expectations of everyone. She strikes out on her own (albeit with her maid) and finds new friendships. She spends her time as she chooses. These are all good things for an old woman to do. But she is hardly a role model, however as she has had to wait until she was 88.

Perhaps the best thing she does is free the next generation but one from the same fate. Her donation of FitzGeorge’s fortune to the nation frees her grand-daughter from the expectation of a good marriage based on her prospects. Deborah comes to see her and reveals that she would like to be a musician and, no longer seen as an heiress, can realise her hopes for her future.

There is much pleasure in this book, like the three gentlemen’s characters. They are depicted with humour and more than a touch of caricature. The same is true of Lady Slane’s French maid Genoux. She says ‘Miladi’ to everything, but plays no real part except to expedite and account for the smooth running of the domestic stuff. She too is an old woman, but her situation is not of concern to Vita Sackville-West. The author’s attitude is perhaps typical of her time and class – the novel was first published in 1931. And Lady Slane’s charm, despite all those years in the great man’s shadow, is genuine. I finished this book with a sense of a life squandered by the social expectations of the time, and only a little pleasure at the heroine’s resolution.

 Vita Sackwille-West con sombrero by E.O. Hoppe


Vita Sackwille-West con sombrero by E.O. Hoppe

One more observation about Vita Sackville-West – she looked good in hats! I think she knew.

This novel was recommended by Emily and you can find her enthusiastic review on her blog EmilyBooks. Thank you Emily.

Book Snob also reviewed it on her blog, in 2011, and found that the novel confounded her expectations that it was going to be a light read. She highlights the loneliness of Lady Slane in her marriage.

All Passion Sent, by Vita Sackville-West republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1983. Introduced by Joanna Lumley.

Next in Older Women in Fiction series is The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, published in 2009. It will be posted in October 2014.

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