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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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A Tribute to Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin died on 23rd January 2018. We lost two inspirations on that day. Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, also died. Hugh Masekela was my sound track in the ‘90s. In exile he played his accessible and lively jazz. I heard him once at the Town and Country Club in London and again at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in Hyde Park in June 2008. Remember Bring him back home (Nelson Mandela) and Soweto Blues? Both involved in the struggles for freedom and equality.

Humanity of Ursula le Guin

The South African Hugh Masekela and the American writer Ursula Le Guin shared a belief in the power of the imagination, and also the determination not to compromise democratic principles. Masekela endured the traumas of apartheid and exile.

Ursula Le Guin endured treatment as an outsider, as an “other”. As a woman at Radcliffe in the 1940s she was not quite at Harvard. As a woman writer she was treated with disdain and was ignored. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy she was dismissed. Yet she held onto her ambitions and her determination and has written powerfully about voice, ageing, beauty, death, women writers and the publishing industry. In her tribute Margaret Atwood praised Ursula Le Guin’s thought experiment. I salute her long career fighting against exclusion and discrimination.

Ursula le Guin the storyteller

Her narrative talents are evident in all her fiction. Many, like me, have been attracted to her novels for young people, in particular The Earthsea novels, and gloried in the stories well told. There are important moral ideas in these novels, about growing up, responsibility, self-awareness and the power of language.

I would recommend the Earthsea Trilogy to anyone who has not read them, as well as her many books and short stories for adults.

Ursula le Guin’s approach

In an interview with John Wray in the Paris Review from 2013 she reveals her essential interest as a writer.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. …

INTERVIEWER

What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?

LE GUIN

Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

We can read this playfulness as she tries out various ideas about what society might be like if one element was different. One example that appeals to me is The Left Hand of Darkness which explores what a society might be like that is not founded upon gender distinctions. The Dispossessed plays with ideas about anarchy and Natasha Walter, writer and activist, recently picked it as her life-changing book.

I suspect that searching for one answer was a common masculine approach to writing in the mid-20th century and one reason why she was marginalised. Her work was described as science fiction or fantasy, labels used to marginalise the writing. Yet it was precisely her ability to open up questions, to consider other possibilities, other lives, to challenge ‘othering’ and discrimination that appealed to me when I first met her writing.

Ursula le Guin on writing

In addition to her fiction Ursula Le Guin has written many essays, and provided some guidance for storywriters. Steering the Craft (1998) has the subtitle Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator and the Mutinous Crew. In this book she provides many insights for writers and writing groups, including the importance of sound and rhythm in writing. She quotes Virginia Woolf often, explaining

I find her thought and work wonderful in itself, useful to anyone thinking about how to write. The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction. (47)

I have referred to her wonderful essays in Words are my Matter in previous blogposts, especially her ideas on imagination and how it is not the same as creativity and why writers need it and how to develop it in two posts: A Writer trains her Imagination and Imagination and The Operating Instructions.

Ursula Le Guin has referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends by endorsing the central significance of literature.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6 Words are My Matter)

She has plenty more to say in these issues about a range of topics.

Some Playfulness

I love her way of spiking some worn-out arguments, like the use of the generic pronoun “he” to include “she”. It doesn’t.

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

This is from another collection of essays: The Wave in the Mind (another quote from VW). She writes well on ageing too:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

This is another example of her ability to magically combine playfulness, imagination and seriousness. I wish I had read that essay when we were writing about ageing.

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

I will miss both formative influences – Ursula Le Guin’s and Hugh Masekela’s. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have been listening to his music while I have been writing this post. Thank goodness we have their recordings and books to return to.

Some references

I must remind readers of the BrainPickings blog which present writers’ ideas so well.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula Le Guin (2004) published by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

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A Reckoning by May Sarton

The story of this novel about an older woman who is dying of cancer may have put you off. The situation is not a comfortable one: Laura Spelman has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and told she has a year or two to live. She wants to make the best of the final stage of life, to choose whether to have treatment or not, how she lives, with whom she keeps company and to make some kind of reckoning of her life.

Safely inside [her car] she sat there for a few moments sorting out the jumble of feelings her interview with Dr. Goodwin had set whirling. The overwhelming one was a strange excitement, as though she was more than usually alive, awake, and in command: I am to have my own death. I can play it my own way. … I’ve got to do it well. (p7)

68 M SartonWe follow her through her final months and learn about the compromises she had to make. It turns out not to be possible ‘to have my own death’. Nor can she manage to play it her ‘own way’. But she starts out well. Laura tells people in her own time. And at first she rejects dependency upon others, but soon has to allow others to help her, especially her housekeeper and her doctor, and comes to appreciate their professional care. She also finds that other people have demands to make of her: her children and sisters in particular.

Reckoning can means several allied but distinct things:

  • A computation
  • A statement of an amount due, a bill
  • An account for things due or received
  • An appraisal or judgement
  • Retribution (as in Day of …)
  • And in nautical use ‘dead reckoning’ means finding your position through a calculation on direction and distance (rather than on astrological computation).

Any focus on older women in fiction is going to explore living in the shadow of death, ask questions about what it is to be an older woman. In everyday use ‘reckoning’ refers to both accounting and a sense of some payment being due. Is this, then, what the final stage of life should be: a computation about how much one owes and is owed? Laura Spellman offers us an approach that is admirable. As her doctor says, she is not dying while still alive, rather living until she dies.

68 M Sarton 1I chose this book as the 4th in the series exploring older women in fiction. But it barely qualifies as Laura Spelman is only 60. The novel was first published in 1978, and things have changed in thirty-five years. People live longer and  few would accept that they have lived their full term at 60 as Laura appears to. This novel is also of its time in the way she writes about lesbian and gay love as forbidden and dangerous, and in the way she needs to explain feminism. If I had read it then I would probably have been more impressed by it.

68 datesCredit is due to May Sarton, who wrote a great number of books: fiction (20), non-fiction (12 including her journals), poetry (17) about women’s lives. 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. In A Reckoning I think Sarton draws on the nautical meaning for Laura’s analysis of her life, she is considering her position, based on direction and distance travelled. May Sarton’s own life is less celebrated these days, but she made a huge contribution to feminism.

This is not literary writing, not polished, not every word counts. I have read so much Elizabeth Taylor recently that I notice when writers spell everything out, as May Sarton does. In A Reckoning I found too much eggnog, sleeping and dozing, listening to Haydn, reading Herbert’s poems, and not enough about her thoughts and responses to her physical decline.

There is an episode in the hospital that seems to serve the author by showing us how infantalising hospitals can be for the sick and dying. But medically it appeared to offer nothing to Laura; the doctor said he wanted x-rays to check on progress of cancer. She died more or less on her return home.

The strength of this book is in the reckoning of Laura’s relationships, with her husband, her mother and sisters, her adult children, friends and the strangers who provide necessary services for her as her health disintegrates. But in the end, the most significant reckoning is with being a woman, and having loved a young woman very intensely. This collection of explorations both works and doesn’t. The reunion with her friend of her youth seems too late and to add nothing to her life, only allows her to die.

I don’t think this is an especially good read. But it certainly adds to the canon of strong older women in fiction. Thanks to whoever recommended that we added it to our list.

 

The next Readalong in the Strong Older Women in Fiction group will be The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I will post in February. Yes, Tove Jansson is the Finnish author of the Moomin books. But this novel for adults contains a life-affirming character in the grandmother. You should read it if you haven’t.

 

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Writing the Women’s Revolution

A birthday being a good moment to reflect, I noticed that I am not mellowing with age. I am as fierce (aka strident) a feminist in my 60s as I was in my 20s and 30s. Pursuing feminism in the midlands in the late ‘60s and ‘70s I was conscious that my study and my reading was shaped by my beliefs. I researched and wrote about Mary Wollstonecraft for my history degree, for example. Her published works were hard to find at that time. I have an American edition of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, picked up during my visit in 1967-8. (BTW, as they tweet, my sister emailed me this image from Desktop Retreat blog. ‘I love this picture of you writing your blog?!’ Had she spotted that the picture on the wall is a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft?) Mary Wollstonecraft – an early example of writing the revolution.

49 blog writing

I think I was one of many women, reading like mad! The second wave of feminism, as it has been called, was fuelled in part by sharing women’s writings. I was well placed to enjoy them as I was emerging from the canon of English Literature as taught in school. (I was already alert to new fiction, requesting On the Road by Jack Kerouac for the school library. Request refused.)

We found that it was in our collective action that we learned, explored, argued, sought support for our private troubles and laughed and laughed and laughed. How did feminists ever get a reputation for dourness? One of the activities of the Rugby Women’s Group was discussing books, and these are eight books I remember being especially influential at the time. Most of them seem to have come from abroad, especially from the US.

The Feminine Mystique (1963) Betty Friedan, asking why American women were not happy in the suburbs and suggesting some reasons. She called it ‘the problem that has no name’.

The Female Eunuch (1970) Germaine Greer, the Australian who made her name in the UK, challenged the prevailing views, especially about sexuality it seems to my memory. She also made us understand that we had learned to judge ourselves though men’s eyes.

The Second Sex (1949) Simone De Beauvoir, the French consort of Jean-Paul Sartre (how impressive was that!) wrote magisterially about women’s status over the centuries.

Our Bodies Ourselves (1971) Published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, an innovative health guidebook for women. It’s hard to remember now but when it was first published medical records were closed to patients, and women had to have their husband’s permission for prescriptions for contraception.

49 Angela Davies

If they come in the Morning (1971) by Angela Davies. This book and her Autobiography (1974) were shocking because they revealed the treatment of African-Americans, and the hounding of a black woman communist. She was imprisoned, for goodness sake.

49 Fear of F

Fear of Flying (1973) Erica Jong was explicit about women’s sexual desires and invented the phrase ‘the zipless fuck’.

The Women’s Room (1977) Marilyn French’s American novel is about a women who finds herself when she rejects her cosy life in the suburbs (see Betty Friedan, above).

The Children of Violence Sequence (1952 – 69) Doris Lessing’s five novels, beginning in Rhodesia but continued in London as the protagonist, Martha Quest, became politicised. The Golden Notebook was also written during this period in 1962.

 

In the UK there were important and interesting new developments in publishing. In 1973 Virago was established, the dark green covers showing up quickly on the shelves of like-minded women. (She’s celebrating her 40th birthday this year!) The Women’s Press was also set up at this time, and its subscription ensured that those of us who didn’t live in metropolitan areas still got to read the zebra striped publications.

49 Sp Rib

And of course there was Spare Rib: a monthly magazine, with pre-digital layout, bringing us news to which we had no other access.

This was the time when women were reviled for bra-burning, for rejecting the marriage-status defining title of Miss or Mrs. (We pioneered using Ms, and it saddens me that today it is often mistakenly believed to to indicate lesbianism, I hear, or divorce.) Spare Rib and to some extent the Guardian’s Women’s page published on Tuesdays, gave a different voice, a serious consideration of the matters that concerned us.

Some of us were campaigning for abortion rights (Abortion Act 1967), better contraception including for unmarried women, maternity rights, and later supported the miners’ wives and were active against the US base at Greenham Common. Others were involved in trade unionism, parliamentary politics, education, mental health, housing, consumer rights …

In whichever strand of feminism one was active there were women writing to support the revolution.

 

Do you have memories of significant writing from the second wave of feminism? Who will be remembered as the feminist writers of today?

 

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