Tag Archives: Great Granny Webster

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Have you noticed that recently novel writers have begun to explore the realities of old age, and especially of Alzheimer’s? In February 2015 I posted my review of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. The main character, Maud, in that novel has Alzheimer’s and is treated very respectfully by her creator, even if her misunderstandings cause some humour, mostly it is at the expense of others.

Florence Claybourne is the main character in Three Things about Elsie and she may be suffering from Alzheimer’s.  She also has a series of connected mysteries to solve about her past, involving her best friend Elsie.

Three Things about Elsie is the 35thin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Three Things about Elsie

This novel has a light touch. The plot drives it along, sometimes stretching the reader’s credulity, but none the less enjoyable.

The main character, and for most of the novel the narrator, is Flo who is 84 and lives in a sheltered flat, but she is a bit of a loner. She has never married, and was delighted when Elsie also turned up at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. The reader learns two things about Elsie very quickly: she is Flo’s best friend and she is someone who always says the right thing to her. This is important for Flo is outspoken, combative and not easily placated once she has an idea in her head. Also, she is finding it hard to remember things. The third thing about Elsie provides the narrative drive and we do not learn this third thing until near the end.

Flo and Elsie are befriended by General Jack. There is a mystery that involves them from the time when they were young women and worked together in the factory. When Ronnie Butler arrives at Cherry Trees Flo is devastated. She believed that he drowned decades before. Indeed, she believes that she killed him.

With General Jack they investigate the new arrival and begin to uncover some unpleasant events in 1953. Elsie’s sister was deliberately killed in a hit and run, by Ronnie Butler. Now going under the name of Gabriel Price, the new arrival plays mind games with Flo. She gradually recovers her memory of the events, with help from Jack and Elsie and a visit to Whitby, and these events are not at all what she thought had happened.

Florence Claybourne

The novel is framed as Flo has fallen and lies on the floor of her flat waiting for rescue. The reader’s sympathies are therefore immediately with Flo, and we are prepared for her to be mistaken about all kinds of things, including the identity of Gabriel Price.

It is hard to show diminishing mental capacities without some crazy moments, some of which can be quite frightening. One of the best scenes in the novel comes when Flo visits the doctor for an assessment of her mental state. He begins by checking her name, but then she disconcerts him by asking his. Then come the questions.

It’s strange how easily you can become flustered when someone is watching you. If they were casual questions, asked at a bus stop or in a supermarket queue, I’m sure the answers would come to us easily, but when Dr Andrews is staring down at you with his pen waiting over a piece of paper, you begin to doubt your own name. He started by asking the day of the week. Of course, I knew it was Tuesday, but going to Whitby threw me off and I plumped for Thursday …

‘Take seven away from a hundred,’ he said. ‘And keep going until I tell you to stop.’

I looked at his clipboard across the coffee table.

‘You have the answers,’ I pointed. ‘Printed at the side.’

Dr Andrews curled his arm around the sheet of paper, like a child in a classroom. ‘You shouldn’t worry about what I know,’ he said …

The last thing he did was hold up a piece of paper. It said Close Your Eyeson it.

‘Why would we want to do that?’ I said.

‘Because I’m asking you to.’ Dr Andrews held the instructions a little closer.

‘Is it a surprise?’ I said.

I heard Dr Andrews sigh. ‘Do you not usually do as someone asks?’

I frowned. ‘Not if I can help it.’ (397-8)

She may be awkward but Flo is very appreciative when treated well. For example, when Handy Simon does not patronise her but offers genuine sympathy and comfort when she needs it. And it is the strong character of Flo that appears to many of the characters in the book to be provocative and difficult: to the staff who run and clean Cherry Trees, excepting Handy Simon; the policeman who interviews her in Whitby; Dr Andrews; just about everyone.

Old women often have wisdom. One of the finest inventions of the novel is Elsie’s idea of the long second, which helps Flo remember.

It’s when you catch the clock, holding on to a second so it lasts just a fraction longer than it should. When the world gives you just a little bit more time to make the right decision. (49)

What Flo remembers about herself is important. Being 84 she has a long back-story. She is not just a forgetful old lady. She has always stood up for people, she has been generous and appreciative. And she has value in the present because she helps people find their strengths.

But if you find Florence Claybourne a little too much on the saccharine side, you could try the corrective of the previous woman in this series: Great Granny Webster. The link is here.

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon published by Borough Press in 2018. 455pp

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Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

This short novel is a fearsome portrait of a fearsome old woman. Great Granny Webster lives in Hove, Sussex, in a dark house, spending her time sitting upright in a chair, doing nothing. This has been her way of life for decades. What makes her live in this way?

Great Granny Webster is the 34thin 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.

Summary of Great Granny Webster

This short novel is narrated by the great grand daughter who was 14 years old when she spent three months with the old woman in Hove in order to recuperate after an illness by taking in the sea air. The poor girl has to live with her great-grandmother in a rigid routine, waited on by one maid who is also very old. The description of the routine in the house is chilling, and very strong.

Often I would be in the same room as Great Granny Webster for hours and she would say not a single word to me. She would just sit there bolt upright in one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. One felt that originally it had only ever been intended to stand like a decoration in some imposing baronial hall. (13)

By contrast the narrator’s Aunt Lavinia is a fun-loving socialite of the post-war period. She is also described in detail, and we understand that she is no happier than Great Granny Webster. She is described in this way:

Aunt Lavinia was then thirty-two and she was always described as “jolie laide.” A play-girl in the style of the twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. (29)

The second chapter provides a dramatic contrast to Aunt Lavinia’s grandmother, but we soon see that they are both iron-willed in pursuit of their chosen path.

A third chapter explores Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. To this house Great Granny Webster’s daughter went when she married. She goes mad and her devoted husband is quite unable to keep up the fabric or the conventions of this vast aristocratic house because he is so keen to support her. The footmen and butler wear rubber boots to serve the meals – always pheasants – as a protest against the damp conditions. This is the home of the narrator’s father. He died in the war but he frequently went to visit his grandmother in Hove before his death, and the narrator tries to find out what he liked about his visits. Again, we have a contrast, this time of the chaotic household and the rigid one.

Finally, years later, the narrator is called to the funeral of the old lady. In a scene of bizarre and ludicrous awfulness, the old lady’s ashes are tipped into her grave with only the narrator and her ancient maid as mourners.

The old woman

Behind this fearsome portrait of a sad old woman and those who were influenced by her lies the question – why on earth did she behave as she did? As a child and young woman she was was exposed to and constrained by those Victorian values and expectations of what it meant to be a woman from the upper classes. The rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all these come from that upbringing. No matter that there have been major changes in society, two world wars and the ‘60s; no matter that her daughter is incarcerated for life in a lunatic asylum; that her granddaughter commits suicide; and her son-in-law appeals to her for help; despite all this she holds on to her rigidity and independence.

We are left in no doubt that it was a toxic upbringing, and that it had profoundly terrible effects on subsequent generations. We are to understand that much of this novel was based on Caroline Blackwood’s own experiences.

My reactions

I may have given the impression that this is a tough book to read. But the descriptions are marvellous and some of the details quite hilarious. Perhaps to show affection, but in any case highly inappropriate, the old lady indicates to her great-granddaughter that she will leave her a four-poster bed. One of the ornamental pineapples is a little loose and the old lady is very concerned that when it is moved into storage the removal men may be careless.

“I want you to realise that there are no reliable furniture removal firms any more. Now-a-days they send just anybody. All you get is a couple of rough young men with no breeding at all, no sense of the way one is meant to handle beautiful possessions. I therefore want someone responsible to be there to supervise the movers when they come to take my things from my house.” (25-6)

She is speaking to a schoolgirl.

One of the charms of this book is the construction of the sentences, often long, often beginning with a subordinate clause, and all constructed with considerable rhythm. In the first example above she gives us no less than five adjectives to communicate the sense of that chair: one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. The quality of her writing adds to the pleasure of reading this book.

Caroline Blackwood

Girl in Bed (1952) by Lucien Freud

This writer was unknown to me before this novel was recommended for the older women in fiction series. Caroline Blackwood was born in 1931 and died in 1996. She lived vividly, married Lucien Freud (painter), Israel Citkowitz (composer) and Robert Lowell (poet). She came from the extremely wealthy Guinness family and lived in London, New York and Ireland. She wrote other books, including biographies of Princess Margaret and Lucien Freud. Her life was blighted by alcoholism. Great Granny Webster is probably her best-known and most admired work.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwoodfirst published in 1977. I used the edition published by New York Review Books Classic. 108pp

Thanks to Jennifer Cairns for suggesting this book for the series.

Picture credit: Girl in Bed (1952) by Lucien Freud, for which Caroline Blackwood was the model. Used under ‘fair use’ for information and education.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews