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There were No Windows by Norah Hoult

There were No Windows is a powerful novel. Perhaps everyone who survives into their seventies begins to think of the threat of dementia. It’s a cruel condition that appears to rob the person of themselves bit by bit. There have been some excellent fictional accounts of older women with dementia. For example, I found Emma Healey’s depiction of Maud in Elizabeth is Missing to be respectful and well-imagined. Many novels treat older women as comic characters, forgetful to the point of amusement. As long ago as 1944 Norah Hoult presented readers with Claire Temple in There were No Windows, a woman who barely understood that there was a war on, and that the blackout and rationing had implications for every household. It is a sympathetic depiction of a women in her 70s who is at a loss to manage herself in the world. It is also a difficult and sad read.

Where can you hear the voices of older women? How often do you hear them or read them? I began the series, older women in fiction, on this blog assuming that I would not find many books featuring the lives of older women. I was wrong. Thanks to many readers I have compiled a list that now contains more than 100 titles, with 68 of them linked to reviews on this blog. This is the 68th post in the series.

There were No Windows

Britain is at war and Claire Temple is an older woman, in her 70s, living in a nice house in Kensington, looked after by one general servant who she addresses as ‘cook’. This is Kathleen, a young Irish woman who can stand up for herself. She needs to because Mrs Temple has become very forgetful and not very nice. Also, the war is on and they must both cope with new requirements: blackout, rations, disappearance of items such as cream and so forth. In addition, Claire is very lonely as so many of the people she once knew have died or moved away from London for the duration.

Claire was once a successful writer, of ghost stories, and knew all the literary set. She had been proposed to by Oscar Wilde, and lived with Herbert Temple, (apparently modelled on Ford Maddox Ford) whom she claimed to have married. She lives inside her head and her house as if nothing has changed: she has got older and is energetic and lonely. She realises that she has a bad memory. Gradually she understands that everything, including London, has changed. One afternoon she finds that a store, possibly on Kensington High Street, is closing although the clock says the time is ten-past four. She learns it is the effect of a war-time regulation in London.

‘O London, where have you gone?’ she cried out in her heart. The London she had known, of smart tea-shops, of taxis which appeared when one raised one’s finger, the London of theatres where one sat in a stall, and waved to one’s friends, and went over to talk to them in the interval, the London of book-shops, where one had only to ask for the manager, and say who one was, to be treated with respect. She had imagined that all that went on, though, of course, without her, because she was now shabby and old and, having lost her memory, had lost her friends. But the clock that said ten-past four had opened a crack in her world through which she viewed with horror for a few moments an abomination of desolation that was all about her. If one got on one of those red buses travelling east, she would see, she believed indeed she had seen, sandbags in Kensington Gardens. Kensington Gardens, sentimentalised by dear Barrie into a nursery for Peter Pans, Wendys and Nanas in perpetuity. Or so one had thought. But Kensington Gardens had not, after all, been made secure by Barrie. Was Barrie dead? Very probably, since everyone she had known, or even known of, seemed to be dead. (221)

In part one we read of Claire Temple’s experiences as she struggles with her diminished capacities, mostly through her battles with Kathleen. The reader can see what hell her life has become, how Claire cannot see beyond her own world. In the second section she is visited by three people from her past: a former friend, a former employee and her publisher. She is so lonely she entreats everyone to stay longer. But they find her company very difficult. She repeats her complaints, forgets who they are and makes unreasonable demands upon her visitors. In the third part ‘The Dark Night of the Imagination’, Claire’s imagination overtakes reality and she suspects cook and her paid companion, Miss Jones, of plotting together, to steal stuff and then to murder her. She visits the police to report them. She is treated like a mad old lady, a nuisance. In her own home she becomes more and more fraught. 

One night, when she has left the house in a temper, she sits on a seat and in the blackout, without her torch it appears to her that the houses have no windows. But no one sees what is inside Claire either, except perhaps her doctor, and she cannot see beyond her own sense of entitlement and disappointment in the world. 

Claire finds her paid companion boring and dull and she is provoked into making cruel and mean remarks about her to her face. After a scene of confrontation and violence, she is sedated and retires to bed until she dies. This is one lonely, old, deluded woman, with no one to help her. A friend told me that it may be the saddest novel she had ever read. Hoult modelled Claire on a real literary star she had known: Violet Hunt. She managed to convey the pathetic nature of Claire Temple’s way of dealing with her situation alongside the exasperation that everyone felt having to deal with her.

There were No Windows by Norah Hoult, first published in 1944 and republished by Persephone Books in 2016 with an afterword by Julia Briggs. 341pp

Older Women in Fiction Series: you can find the list of about 100 novels here.

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