Older people, it is assumed, live lives defined by approaching death. And older women are often portrayed as eccentric and difficult. I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s book The Lady in a Van while I was reading Ghost Light. At the opening of the novel Molly Allgood appears to have a lot in common with Miss Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in the film.
However, Molly is 67, and very much concerned with the present, with living her life, and with pondering the life she once lived. While being almost penniless, grateful for some charity, she is not eccentric. She still finds occasional work as an actor. She started her career in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and was engaged to marry the playwright John Millington Synge. He died of Hodgkin’s Disease aged 37 in 1909. Molly was 24. She lived on for four decades.
This is the 25th in the series of reviews of older women in fiction. For others you can see the page ‘about the older women in fiction series’.
The older Molly in 1952 was 67 and living in London. London is in pretty bad shape, still full of bombsites, poverty and lodging houses. Molly is not in good health either. She has difficulty scraping together the means to live, and in the first scenes she evades a police officer who warns her against an old Irish vagrant who has been begging. She returns some empty bottles for the deposit and begs a loan and is given free food by those who look out for others.
Molly addresses herself in this self-description.
But you’re no beauty yourself any more. Be honest – the years aren’t kind. And you feel you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties with the troubled watchfulness of a child in an unfathomable world. And your old woman’s voice – how did that happen? Your wheezing, brittle croakiness, distracted, muted, and you gossiping to the teacups for company. There was a day many years ago in Connemara or Kerry, when you happened upon an old rowboat that had been dumped in a bog. Crossbench crushed and buckled, rotting tiller wrenched askew, it had sunk to its oarlocks in the oozing, black peat. Often, of late, when you become aware of your voice, the image has appeared in your thoughts. (59-60)
I love the Irish rhythms of Joseph O’Connor’s writing, especially when he is writing in Molly’s voice. And I like the way her references are from her past, from her home country, strong despite her travels and residence in America and London.
After her marriage she was known as Maire O’Neill, and she is sometimes referred to in this way in Ghost Light. She bemoans the lack of parts for older women actors.
But for a woman, once she has offended by outliving the age of childbirth, the roles disappear as honeybees in winter. A jealous auld hag. An irrepressible washerwoman. Some bitch to be bested in pantomime. (30)
It sometimes feels that these are the roles assigned to all older women in life, not just actors. I note again the film of The Lady in the Van. And in some ways Molly is pathetic, or at least draws out sympathy, like when she is warned by the policeman, or in the BBC studio when her health takes a turn for the worse. As the novel progresses we learn that she is not a person to whom life has been generous.
In the first decade of the 20th century, in Dublin, amid the growing nationalism of the Irish, Molly met John Millington Synge at the Abbey Theatre. Both Molly and her sister Sara were struggling to escape their impoverished Catholic childhoods and to make something of themselves on the stage. Synge was an esteemed Protestant playwright, favoured by Yeats and Lady Gregory.
There were so many contrasts between them: religion, age, health, profession, but they fell in love. When she found out about it, his mother objected to their relationship. Much of their courtship was spent walking out at the weekends in places where they were not known. They steal a month away in Wicklow. He becomes notorious as the author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots when it was first staged in 1907.
The story as fiction
Joseph O’Connor makes it clear that this is a work of fiction. For example, there are no surviving letters between the couple to draw on, probably no holiday in Wicklow. But the settings are authentic, and the characters of the novel are quite believable too.
The novel has an interesting structure, one that takes care to indicate that Molly did not end up as this lonely old woman because of her affair with Synge. Nor was the affair with Synge the only thing in her life as she lived for 43 years after his death – there was her acting career, her rivalry with her sister who went to Hollywood, a marriage, a son and a daughter.
The novel moves back and forth between young and old Molly, and is presented in a number of perspectives. At times Molly addresses herself, as in the extracts above. At other times we have a play script, a letter and the tenses are carefully handled, close to Molly in the present tense, using the past tense for more distance.
It is beautifully written, and its structure reflects life experienced not as a linear process, but revisiting episodes time and again.
Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. Published by Vintage, 2010. 246pp
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