Written more than 50 years ago, this novel addresses the loss of dignity and agency that came with advancing age at that time. Is it the same today? Are our older citizens treated with the same slight attention and dismissive attitudes? Mrs Gadny is our unwitting guide, admitted to the Jerusalem, a care home for women. She is unhappy and has begun to lose touch with the present time. She develops dementia while the other inmates look on.
This is the 50th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books and reviews on my list here.
At the Jerusalem
Mrs Gadny is delivered to the Jerusalem by her step-son and his wife. This couple took her into their home, for seven weeks, after both her husband and her daughter had died. Those seven weeks were not successful as no one in the family had familiarity with or affection for Mrs Gadny. Sometimes grandchildren are seen as closer to the elderly, but these children are no more able to make the necessary adjustments than the adults. Thelma is monstrously selfish and greedy and feels no obligation towards her husband’s step-mother, especially when it requires some sacrifices from her. What is the obligation of each generation to their parents? Today we are no nearer to a good answer to this dilemma. The section about the weeks that Mrs Gadny spends in her step-son’s home appears after we learn about her arrival and early unease at the Jerusalem. We can see that she is not comfortable here, but this section dissuades us from imagining that she was better off before.
Mrs Gadny had been in service, and she knows how things should be done and what are the correct terms used by people of class. She is a bit of a snob, for example she hates Thelma’s use of the word ‘lounge’ for sitting room. And she knows what is good taste in a room’s décor – it is not floral wallpaper. Although many of the other residents of the Jerusalem have also been in service, Mrs Gadny finds them coarse or intrusive. She is also much more reserved than they are.
At Matron’s request Mrs Capes, who lets everyone know that she is above her fellow residents, tries to befriend the new arrival. Matron explains this arrangement to Mrs Gadny.
‘Mrs Capes is what you’d call a “character”. She’s energetic, has a lively mind. You’ll take to her. She will amuse you, I can promise. […] I shall ask her to guide you round the Home: show you all the nooks, all the crannies. And she can introduce you to the other residents, describe their little ways.’ (8)
But in carrying out this task Mrs Capes manages to show her the worst aspects of the Home, even including the place where a former patient hanged herself with a lavatory chain. She also provides critical gossip about the other residents and recommends a spiritualist’s consultations. Mrs Gadny does not warm to her company and continues to feel isolated and unwanted.
Eventually, despite the affectionate care of one of the nurses, she breaks down and has to be put in a room on her own and finally sent to an institution where they can care for an old woman with dementia.
The older women
While Mrs Gadny lives both in the past and the present, for example she hears her daughter’s cough from time to time, and writes to a former neighbour who died some years before. Her fellow patients are also living reduced lives. They are an unlikeable lot: rather coarse, prone to airs, gossip and criticism. One constantly mislays her teeth, another says what everyone is thinking, another has raucous uncontrolled fits of laughter and so on. All of this behaviour is on show at the annual trip to Southend.
The staff, while kind, are unable to resist infantilising the residents. They call them patients. Even the food is like nursery food: jelly, junket, semolina. However, it is difficult to avoid seeing humour in the situations at the Jerusalem but it is not at the expense of the characters or at least it does not belittle them. For example, there is a 90th birthday party: it takes place in the dormitory where all nine women sleep and two of them remain all day. One of those has the birthday, and the celebration takes place round her bed. She has to be repeatedly nudged awake. The other bed-bound woman is fed birthday jelly from time to time.
Much of the narrative as well as the effect of this novel is conveyed through the direct speech which dominates the text. This is often very brief, and much of what is important is revealed by what is not said. In his introduction Colm Toibin praises Bailey’s ability to convey so much through speech. Here’s an example of the style:
A rumour had reached Mrs Gross’s ears. Had it reached Edie’s? Concerning a coloured nurse?
‘Nurse Percival told Maggy we might be getting one. She came to see Matron last evening.’
‘He invented steam.’
‘You’ve confused me.’
‘She come to see Matron, this nurse.’
‘Yes. What I gathered from Maggy is that she’s brown rather than coloured.’
‘Brown’s coloured, Nell.’
‘Not in my book. When I refer to someone being coloured, I mean black. Brown’s lighter than black.’
‘God help us!’
‘Take Daisy, that cleaner. The one who wears the trilby, she’s black. Maggy says this nurse isn’t a bit like her – no marks on her face. What I’m trying to tell you is Matron’s going to ask each of us in turn whether we approve. Of her looking after us.’
‘I don’t mind, do you?’ (164)
What care should be provided for older people? And how can care of people with dementia allow them dignity? As I suggested earlier, these questions are still with us today.
A note: In his introduction to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971) Paul Bailey noted that she had drawn on his habit of writing in Harrod’s banking hall to create the character of Ludo. Ludo was writing a book about elderly people called They Weren’t Allowed to Die There. She told him this after the publication of her book.
At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey was originally published in 1967. It has been republished in 2020 by Head of Zeus with an introduction by Colm Toibin. 219pp
Simon had recently compared this book with Mrs Palfrey. He preferred the Elizabeth Taylor. Here is a review from Stuck in a Book from May 2017
Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.
Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy