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 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
A Reckoning by May Sarton
At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey
The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg
Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon