On the day that Eva Carroll receives her first pension payment she leaves home. This is not unique behaviour for an older women in this series: Lady Slane, left home, when her husband (a Very Great Man) died in All Passion Spentby Vita Sackville-West. We are in the late 1960s when 65-year old Eva closes the door on her living but arthritic husband of forty years and a house in a nice part of Montreal. But the price of her freedom is high. Like Lady Slane, she confounds the wishes and understanding of her own offspring.
The Book of Eve is the 36thin the series about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.
The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe
The story is set in Montreal. Eva leaves her comfortable life and her husband of 40 years when she receives her first pension cheque. The marriage has been unhappy for some time, especially since her husband Burt became arthritic, demanding and penny-pinching. She strikes a defiant note from her first paragraph:
The real surprise – to me anyway – was not really what I did, but how I felt afterwards. Shocked, of course. But not guilty. You may say, and be right, that the very least a woman can be is shocked when she walks out on a sick and blameless husband after forty years. But to feel no guilt at all – feel nothing, in fact, but simple relief and pleasure – that did seem odd, to say the least. How annoying for God (not to mention Adam), after all, if Eve had just walked out of Eden without waiting to be evicted, and left behind her pangs of guilt, as it were, with her leaf apron? (1)
Eva goes to live in a down-at-heel area, finding a couple of rooms in the basement of a boarding house. She finds herself having to cope with almost no money and learns to live more frugally. She also develops an ability to find things on the street, which she then sells to the local pawnshop. She discovers the pleasures of the library and of reading whenever she wants.
She learns the pleasures and then the challenges of living on her own. Her son, who has a family of his own, cannot believe that she will not return to her husband, that she is not just making a point.
Her life had been so circumscribed by her husband’s demands that she had no friends. Now the other residents in the boarding house provide some community for her, along with a local cat.
But it is not so much about leaving her husband, more about fulfilling her desire to explore life, to have some freedom, to do the things she wants. This includes, somewhat reluctantly, developing a loving and sexual relationship with a man who also sought freedom.
Constance Beresford-Howe writes in a conversational style, often omitting the noun or pronoun in a sentence. God is often referred to, as in the quotation above. Her narrative races along, in a believable way. We are meant, I think, to take this as everywoman’s story from before recorded time.
The older woman, Eva, in this novel is 65 years old. She made her appearance when ideas about women’s independence and liberation were recently being widely expressed again. There is reference to Quebec’s laws about what women were entitled to from marital property. Nothing, even if she had made a contribution, as Eva had.
The early part of the book recaptures that excitement of the late 60s, early 70s, for feminists (Women Liberals as one character calls them). Life and its opportunities seemed to be about to open out for women.
But before this happens she is finds herself very alone, and with no one to care for her. She has a grim vision of the alternative.
Who needed or cared about me now? What use was I, fat old parasite, member of the third sex now, an irrelevant and uncalled-for detail of the human race. And a swift exit had at least some dignity, unlike those horrible lingerings to be seen in nursing homes, where death is the friend who too seldom drops in. No, much better to accept it now, and go. (32)
And she meets all kinds of contradictions and challenges. Her path is not an easy one.
Constance Beresford-Howe was a prolific Canadian writer, who lived from 1922 until 2016.
She was born in Montreal where she was educated to a high level, and then taught English literature and creative writing in universities, both in Montreal and in Toronto, retiring in 1988. She came to live in Suffolk for the last 10 years of her life.
Unlike Eva, she was happily married for 56 years, and she and her husband adopted a son. She was very unflashy and unpushy about her novels, and not many of them survive in print. She wrote ten novels between 1946 and 1991. Only The Story of Eve has been in print since its publication in 1973.
Recent posts in this series:
Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood
The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens
The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe, first published in 1973. I read the edition published by McClelland & Stuart in 2001. 211pp
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