Tag Archives: older women in fiction series

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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Widows in Fiction 

Victorian and early twentieth century fiction often reflected the view that the purpose of a young woman’s life was to get married. It is the happy-ever-after that women were sold well into the late twentieth century. Fiction also depicted the plight of the women who never married often leading sad and small lives. The previous post on this blog considers a novel which follows the single life of its title character: The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor.

In this post I turn my attention to those women in fiction who are no longer married, they have been widowed. Women have always tended to marry men older than them, and to live longer than men. Consequently there have always been widows, but literature does not promote a positive view of widows, often grotesque, fearsome, embittered. Think of Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, as an example. The list of older women in fiction reveals a range of reactions to being widowed, from enjoyment of liberation and rebelliousness to sadness and loneliness. 

Causing trouble

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwoodpublished in 1977.

One of the most fearsome and gruesome widows is Great Granny Webster. The narrator recalls how she had to stay with this widow for three months following a childhood illness.

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. (13)

The experience is terrifying for the reader too, and one has no confidence that the old lady changed in any way after the child left.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, published in 2016. 

A different kind of trouble erupted between two old women, both widows, in a more recent novel from South Africa, which tells of their feud. Set in Cape Town, Hortensia and Marion are neighbours who have in common their age, both in their 80s, success in their careers, and their widowhood. But they disagree about everything and feud about everything. An accident in which Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s house is badly damaged are the novelist’s devices to bring change to their relationship.

It’s a lively novel, with much action and argument. How can two older women behave towards each other in this way, the reader wonders.

Fighting spirit

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, published in 1968.

We can find novels that celebrate the fighting spirit of widows, who can be vulnerable without anyone to defend them. Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith is classic tale from the time of the highland clearances at the start of the eighteenth century. Mrs Scott is a fiercely independent widow, a tenant of the duke who wishes to use the land on which she lives for sheep. Mrs Scott is to be evicted. The landowner, his agent and the church all betray her, and it is the community who protect her and give her the strength to resist the actions of her oppressors. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, published in 1931.

Another widow who defies expectations, her family’s as well as the conventions of her time, is Lady Slane, in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Lady Slane is the widow of ‘a very great man’ and on his death her six children, all in their 60s themselves, plan for her future, staying with them in rotation. She will have none of this, instead she rents a cottage in Hampstead and befriends her landlord and the tradesman who returns it to good order. Her last years are full of happiness with her new friends, and she can help her granddaughter towards her own independence. 

Making the best of it

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971.

In this category, the standout character is Mrs Palfrey from Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. I like this description of her: clearly not a little old lady.

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag. (2)

Her daughter shows no interest in supporting her when she becomes a widow, and she has few connections in England. So she decides to live in a residential hotel on Cromwell Road in London. There she must mix with an assortment of older people in similar circumstances and pay attention to their values and conventions. This leads her into a collaboration with Ludo, a penniless young man who picks her up when she falls one afternoon. They trick the other guests into believing that he is her grandson. The novel is a study of loneliness in widowhood, and Mrs Palfrey is not the only lonely widow in this novel.

On their own

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published in 1964.

A Canadian novel is justly celebrated for its description of the desperation of Hagar Shipley as she becomes more and more of a burden on her son and his wife and loses her physical capacities and her independence. The novel is an indictment of the social customs that prevented Hagar from expressing her needs and wants, and her decline is brutal. 

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens first published in 1955. 

A particularly poignant example of a widow with no resources and overwhelmed by her loneliness in The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens. The author recognises the part played by gender differences in old age. This is the opening paragraph of the novel:

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are, but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching at their hats and hair. (1)

Louise has been bullied by her husband and has few friends and no confidence when she becomes a widow. She dreads ‘those dismal ‘residentials’, where they farm out most widows’ (209). She is unwanted and has no purpose in her life.

New beginnings

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, published in 2015.

Two novels reveal the power of community and relationships to enrich a widow’s final years. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf is a charming novel about two older people who find their way from loneliness to companionship through care of each other, grandchildren and a dog. Addie proposes to her neighbour Louis that they might mitigate some of their loneliness by sharing a bed occasionally. Not for sex, but for companionship. It shocks people in the close community of Holt in Colorado. Addie’s observation is full of optimism.

Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1922. 

Another favourite novel includes the redemption of the dreadful Mrs Fisher: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. What a dried-up old prune she is when she first joins the group of single women in a castle in Italy for the month of April. In her own opinion she has avoided the indignity of behaving as if she were younger than she is.

She herself had grown old as people should grow old, – steadily and firmly. No interruptions, no belated after-glows and spasmodic returns. (188)

To begin with she is an unhappy and lonely older woman, full of ‘shoulds’, who takes her dissatisfaction out on those around her, an image with elements of caricature. But the sun, Italy and above all the kindness and friendship of Lotty, who organised the trip, gradually transfigure the old woman, and she discovers the value and joys of friendship in her old age.

Click here to find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. 

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Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó

I have previously enjoyed two novels by the acclaimed Hungarian writer, Magda Szabó: The Door and Abigail. In Iza’s Ballad I found another profound novel which educated me about Hungary in the 1960s, and about human relationships everywhere, specifically mother-daughter relationships.

The mother, Ettie in Iza’s Ballad, is in her 70s, so she qualifies for inclusion in the series on Older Women in Fiction. This is the 64th post in the series (see below for link). In this novel Ettie carries a good deal of the story, being widowed and acquiescent in her daughter’s decisions about her future. Magda Szabó shows us a woman from a small town, where she has spent the last 50 years, now grieving her husband, and then uprooted as she is sent first to a spa for a week’s holiday, and then to Budapest to live in her daughter’s flat. 

It is a theme in novels about older women that their views are not sought or taken into account. For example, in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West. This denies a woman’s experience of six or more decades, her previous responsibility for a home and for a family, perhaps also for a job, and her ability to act independently. I would like to believe that today such disrespectful behaviour is not inflicted on older women today. I would like to believe that. 

Iza’s Ballad

Ettie has been happily married for nearly 50 years, living in a rural town, and raising one daughter. But her husband Vince dies of cancer, and it brings change to Ettie’s circumstances. Her daughter Iza whips her off to Budapest, with none of her old belongings. She will care for her mother in her modern flat, where her mother will have to do nothing. In her determination to care for her mother she forgets how much Ettie likes to be useful.

Iza was a determined child. She worked for the Resistance during the war, married Antal (also a doctor), set up a clinic, survived Antal’s decision to leave the marriage and works hard in Pest. She has a new lover, and now that she does not have to return to her hometown or financially support her parents, her biggest decision is whether to marry Domokos or not.

The older woman is deeply unhappy living in Iza’s flat, for she is discouraged from doing anything to help with the housekeeping or the cleaning. All her married life she enjoyed the search for the cheapest goods and food, she had valued hard work and lively social interaction with people she had known all her life, but these are all denied her. Iza makes the assumption that her mother should rest, do nothing in the house, and that this would be enough for her. Her happiness at living close to her daughter is whittled away, and she becomes a sad and lonely creature. The return to her hometown to oversee the installation of the headstone on Vince’s grave is the catalyst for her attempt to recapture happier times.

As the novel progresses, we learn about the history of each character. We learn why Vince was disgraced as a judge and then reinstated. We find out about Antal’s boyhood and how he was supported by a donor to make his way through school and university. It takes time to find out why Antal left his marriage to Iza, but we find out how the lives of so many have been interwoven as the more fortunate help those less capable.

The novel is full of contrasts: the metropolitan life – the rural backwater; war-time and peace; generations; old fashioned values – modern life; change – statis; and so forth.

Szabó does not promote any one set of values over the other. Rather she presents difficult relationships, resulting from the lack of communication, unquestioned assumptions and characters who do not see things the same way. 

Iza’s ballad is the key to her abrasive character and behaviour.

As for Iza, she hated sad stories as a child. There was one particular ballad from [her father’s] student days, that he could never sing to her because she would burst into tears and plead for the dead character to be brought to life again. She never heard the end of the song. (311)

Iza could not bear her mother’s unhappiness, so she tries to make everything right, but forgot to listen to how the old woman would like to end her song. The nurse who cared for Vince on his deathbed, sums up Iza’s approach to life.

‘Good Lord,’ thought Lidia, ‘how exhausted she must be with that constant self-discipline, that need to save not only her family but the whole world. How hard to live with the hardness of heart that dares not indulge itself by grieving over dead virgins [in the ballad]! The poor woman believes that the old people’s pasts are the enemy. She has failed to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present.’ (315)

How many today regard old people’s pasts as the enemy? How many, in dealing with older people fail to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present? Magda Szabó knows it well, and in this novel slowly reveals the pasts of her characters to show just that.

Magda Szabó

The author is perhaps the best-known Hungarian writer, and perhaps the most frequently translated. Born in 1917 she lived in Hungary until her death in 2007. From 1949 – 56 she was not allowed to publish work that did not reflect the dominant Communist Party views of idealistic realism. She was dismissed from her post in the Ministry of Religion and Education and taught for a while in a Calvinist school while out of favour (see Abigail). She also wrote poetry and plays,

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó, first published in Hungarian in 1963. The English translation by George Szirtes was published in 2015 by Vintage. 328pp

Related posts

The Door by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog July 2016)

Abigail by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog April 2020)

Reviews of Iza’s Ballad can also be found on Heaven Ali’s Blog from August 2017, and on JacquiWine’s Journal from December 2022.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (Bookword blog August 2014)

Older Women in Fiction Series – the list on Bookword

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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively ten years on

I read this novel nearly a decade ago. It was one of the first to be featured in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. I found in it a refreshingly unsentimental view of ageing in an intelligent woman. 

I noticed that it was chosen by the novelist Taiye Selassi in What Writers Read, which I reviewed very recently on this blog. She described how reading this book had a significant effect on her writing and claimed it as a ‘masterpiece’. Her comments encouraged me to reread it.

Moon Tiger

On my first reading I noticed how the protagonist, 76-year-old Claudia Hampton, is infantilised by the medical staff in the hospital. 

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment: she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ (p1)

On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone.’ (p2)

These two small incidents set the tone for the care of the old woman who was a very successful writer and historian. Such lack of respect, the ‘old dear’ view of older women, is distressing and can still be met with today, despite a better understanding of respecting the old.

The other, and much more significant idea in the novel is that memory and life are not understood as linear, not a long succession of events. Rather, Claudia’s life is an accretion of all the experiences and relationships she has had: as a sister, lover, mother, foster mother and writer. Those experiences are still with her, have formed her and are still part of her understanding of herself. She understands that ‘nothing is ever lost ‘and ‘a lifetime is not linear but instant’.

From childhood Claudia’s life has been a challenge to the accepted view of how a woman should live in the twentieth century. In her first years she regarded her brother Gordon as her equal, tied together in argument, competition, and physical attraction. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. After the war she had a long affair with Jasper, an exploitative opportunist, and still did not marry, despite having a daughter. Asked why she has attracted so few proposals of marriage her reply suggested a truth – men have had a good sense of self preservation. The daughter, Lisa, was raised by grandmothers. Claudia wrote successful popular history, out of kilter with the grand narratives of post-war academic writing. She lived a life that is challenging.

Working as a correspondent in Egypt was a vivid and important phase in her life. She revisited Cairo much later and makes this observation.

The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same, sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once. (p68)

It was in Cairo during the war that she met and fell in love with Tom, who was serving on the tanks. They had a passionate affair and planned to share their lives after the war. But he was killed. Although this is undoubtedly the main passion of her life, she has forty more years as she reflects as she approaches her own death.

I am twice your age. You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of the forty years of history and forty years of my life; you seem innocent, like a person in another century. But you are also, now, a part of me, as immediate and as close as my own other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself. (206)

Most novels would have made the love affair the climax of the narrative. But it is in keeping with the idea of the plurality of experiences that make up a life that this novel provides the reader with a different experience.

These features of Moon Tiger were what impressed Taiye Selassi when she first read it, and her reading encouraged her to continue with her own writing.

Bouncing back and forth between past tense to present tense, starting sentences without subjects, ending paragraphs with ellipses, moving from first person subjective to first person omniscient to third person objective and back again was the wildest, freest, most thrilling prose I’d ever read. It left me giddy, wondrous. Was writing allowed to be so free?! Was a writer? (115 in What Writers Read)

In that first reading she wondered at the ‘rebellious prose’, ‘dazzling structure’, and ‘unfurling of form’. And from understanding and admiring these characteristics of the writer’s craft and noticing the author’s confidence in her writing, Taiye Selassi felt empowered to write her own novel (Ghana Must Go). 

And all over again I found myself admiring the richness and intelligence of this wonderful book.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, published in 1987. I used the Penguin edition of 1988. 208pp

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1987

Related posts

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The original post from August 2013.

How it all began by Penelope Lively, also in the Older Women in Fiction Series in February 2018

Books about Reading and Writers, including What Writers Read, edited by Pandora Sykes, in January 2023.

The Bookword page about the series Older Women in Fiction can be found here

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School for Love by Olivia Manning

This short novel has been on the Older Women in Fiction list for some time, years. On holiday in Sussex recently I spotted a copy in a second-hand bookshop, supporting the Roman Archaeology at Fishbourne. And, because I associate Olivia Manning with the rather fearful idea of double trilogies, I was surprised and pleased at how accessible it was. It cost me all of £2.

This is the 59th novel in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

School for Love

At one level School for Love is a coming-of-age novel, as the central character is a 14- or 15-year-old boy. We are never told his exact age. His family was living in Iraq, but his father was killed in fighting there in the war, and soon after his mother died of dysentery. Felix has to travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem in the early days of 1945, where it has been arranged for him to stay with Miss Bohun until he can get a passage from Palestine (as it then was) to England. Miss Bohun is loosely related to his father by adoption.

The pension where he is accommodated has a very varied set of people living there. This reflects the movement of people through the Middle East during the war years. Frau Leszno and her handsome son Nikky are from Poland. They had been running the pension but got into financial difficulties. Miss Bohun arranged for them to stay on as servants, while she took over. There is old Mr Jewel in the attic, and later Mrs Ellis, a pregnant young widow, who take rooms. One room in the house is always kept empty, but ready.

Very much on his own in this adult household, Felix grieves for his mother and learns to think about a life without her. He observes the behaviour of the adults and is inclined at first to credit them with good motives. Gradually he learns that they mostly have mixed motives. He develops a kind of puppy love for Mrs Ellis, which at first she indulges, but then tires of. And he learns about how sex is viewed. And he learns to love the Siamese cat, Faro, who seems to be the only creature who pays any attention to him in all the world. 

It is thanks to the scheming and comings and goings at Miss Bohun’s house that Felix gradually learns something that is encapsulated in the title of the novel: School for Love. Mrs Ellis quotes Blake to him:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love … (166)

Felix asks her what the lines mean.

‘I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love.’ (166)

Another major theme of the novel is that of the time and place: Jerusalem at the end of the Second World War. The hostilities end in Europe in the summer months that Felix spends in the city. People are on the move. And the young Palestinians are waiting to regain their country from the British Protectorate. Israel does not yet exist. The novel captures the sense of a year of change, and a year after which things will become very different in Jerusalem. There is a quiet theme of the destructiveness of British colonial power, and the uncaring behaviour of the administrators. 

Miss Bohun

My interest was in the characterisation of Miss Bohun. She is almost a comedy villain, but not quite. For she does hurt people. As we see her through the eyes of Felix, we are at first inclined to treat her as slightly eccentric, but basically kind, as she has provided a home for him when no one else would. But a conversation about the rent and her treatment of Frau Leszno are early warnings for the reader. 

When Felix first meets her he is struck by how tiny this woman is. He has arrived just after a snowfall and expresses his pleasure at the snow.

‘You wouldn’t think so if you had to do the housework.’ Miss Bohun moved ahead with irritable quickness so Felix could not keep up with her. She paused on the stairs. Her face – featureless, like a long egg, in the gloom: her hair the same colour as her skin – was turned towards him but Felix was sure she was not looking at him.
‘I’m so busy,’ she said. (10)

And she leaves him abruptly. 

It emerges that Miss Bohun has many schemes for apparently doing kindnesses to people, but then exploiting them and kicking them out. She appears to be something of a miser, but generous when there is an advantage to her. 

She teaches English to adults, while getting them to do jobs for her, like harvesting the mulberries. These scenes are among the most comedic in the book.

Among her most arcane occupations are the ‘Ever-Readies’. This is something of a cult that flourished in the Middle East, a cult that expected the second coming any day. It is for this purpose that Miss Bohun keeps her empty room. She holds some kind of office and is often just off to preach to the group she calls ‘my Ever-Readies.’

Gradually the reader, and then Felix, come to see that Miss Bohun is not a nice character. But as Felix gets ready to leave, she is prepared to let him take the cat and she is about to take in Mr Jewel again. Felix has managed to track down the old man’s inheritance, but Miss Bohun is taking the credit for this. Miss Bohun’s behaviour towards the very young Mrs Ellis, pregnant and alone, is quite terrible. 

One explanation for Miss Bohun’s monstrous character is provided by Mr Jewel: no-one has ever loved her.

Olivia Manning

Born in 1908, Olivia Manning spent her childhood in Portsmouth and Ireland. In 1939 she was introduced to her husband, and they married and immediately left for Romania where he worked in the British Council. She spent the war years moving from Romania to Greece, on to Egypt and finally to Jerusalem where she spent three years. Their itinerant life was determined by the advances of the German and the Axis armies in the area. She fictionalised her experiences in the six volumes that make up The Fortunes of War.

She and her husband returned to London after the war where she continued to be a very prolific writer. She was always rather a diffident person and envied the recognition given to other writers. She died in 1980.

School for Love by Olivia Manning, first published in 1951. I used the Penguin edition from 1982. 192pp

A new edition was published by NYRB in 2009 which has a very lovely and fitting cover.

Related posts

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

JacquiWine’s blog review can be read here. She describes Miss Bohun as ‘a manipulative monster’.

HeavenAli’s review refers to Miss Bohun’s behaviour as ‘monstrous’. You can find that review here.

Stuck In a Book blog also reviews this novel, here.

These three bloggers were contributing to the 1951 Club, featuring books published that year.

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The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

There is no sudden change when a woman becomes old, in my experience. What I see is that women from their youth spend their days doing things: reading, pursuing interests, gardening, maintaining relationships, worrying about their bodies, money, relationships and their children. And as they get older they continue to be absorbed by these things. And one day they realise that they are ageing, and another day they come to see that they are old. And they continue to read, pursue interests, work in the garden, maintain relationships, worry about their bodies, money, relationships and their children.

There is a quartet of older women – the main characters – in The Weekend. Charlotte Wood has not so much written about ageing as about a group of women who have been friends for decades and are now in their 70s.

This is the 56th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Weekend

Four Australian women have been friends for decades, and now they are in their 70s. One of them, Sylvie, has died and the others have agreed to clear her beach house before it is sold. It is about a year since she died. The weekend they choose to do this is Christmas, and it’s very hot.

Sylvie owned the house and is still present through her possessions, and the memories that the women have of her, sparked by the items in her house. They have an expectation that they will be grieving for their friend individually and as a group during the weekend. Wendy finds some postcards that Sylvie has kept, sent by friends as they travelled the world, including one from her in Paris. She is amazed to find that she knows very few of the people who sent the cards. I have had this experience at a funeral of finding that my knowledge of my friend was partial. There were parts of his life of which I knew nothing, despite thinking of him as a close friend. 

Dominating the work of clearing Sylvie’s house is Jude, a woman of fine taste and a very controlling manner. She can communicate contempt in a few words about, say, stale bread. She has been living with a secret for forty years – she is the kept woman of a very rich man. The group know this, but they have never met him. Jude’s non-verbal communication is one of the most creative aspects of Charlotte Wood’s writing: she bangs plates and pots, raises an eyebrow, glares, sighs, rolling of eyes and none of it is in pleasure.

Wendy is an intellectual, who has lost control of her body. She owns the dog, Finn, who intrudes upon every scene with his tremors and incontinence, his smell and his anxiety. She is too fond of Finn to contemplate putting him down. This attitude mirrors, perhaps, a dominant and contradictory view of the very old: with love but frustration at a life lived beyond independence.

Adele is an actress, now permanently resting, but with high hopes of a comeback and maintaining a punishing regime to keep her body and good looks. She meets a rival actress who has been getting the parts that she wished for, and the battle between these women is a feature of the central section of the book. The struggle between Sonia and Adele for the attention of the younger man, a theatre producer provides some comedy, at the expense of all of them.

These women are not so much battling old age as dealing with the issues with which they are presented at this moment in their lives. Their lovers, and children, their financial situation, their preoccupations and their antagonisms have been arising throughout their lives. They have not always supported each other and have exacerbated the each other’s difficulties at times. 

As the three women are reminded of Sylvie, and her foibles and strengths, they see the other two friends against the backdrop of her life and death and begin to wonder why they are still friends, or indeed ever were friends.

Over the weekend each of the three women meets a crisis, and after some very difficult moments, they also find strength in each other. But it is painful, not just because they are ageing, but also because life and friendships are hard. 

I thought this was an excellent novel. It depicts women in their 70s but is not about living in fear of death, despite the death of one of them; nor is it about nostalgia and memories and trying to regain a vanishing past; nor are they amusingly handicapped by forgetfulness; nor are they querulous and demanding; nor do they have magical powers of insight bestowed by advancing years. Their lives are not so different from my friends in their 70s, or indeed my own.

Adele reflects the continuity of life that is a feature of this novel: 

Life – ideas, thinking, experience, was still there to be mastered … She had not finished her turn, would not sink down. She wanted more.

Charlotte Wood

This award-winning writer lives in Sidney and is in her 50s. In 2013 she was appointed as the inaugural Writer in Residence at the University of Sidney in the Charles Perkins Centre, a research facility that brings science and art together, for example, to look at the complexity of old age. The Weekend is her sixth novel and is very successful, being awarded prizes and picked as Book of the Year by many publications.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, published in 2019 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 258pp

Related posts

The Boookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

Simon Lavery prompted me to get a copy of this novel with his review on his blog: Tredynas Days, last December. You can see his review here.

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Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin

It’s 1989. Matilda Osborne is in Ghyllside Hospital in Cumbria. She has been there for about 50 years. She is being moved to Tuke House, half-way accommodation established to help the residents transfer to semi-independent living as part of the new policy – Care in the Community. Matty, as they call her, is 70 years old. The staff are not sure that she will manage the transition.

This is the 54th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. The author, Anne Goodwin, has also contributed to my posts about older women writers. You can find the links at the end of the post and you can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home

The reader follows Matty’s story from three perspectives. The first is of her half-brother Henry, 57 at the time of the story. He was 7 when Tilly (as he knew her) was sent away by her step-father. Both Tilly and Henry were devastated by the separation. Tilly’s mother, a widow, had married Mr Windsor and Henry was their son. But she died in childbirth, so Tilly had raised Henry. He has spent the years since she left searching for her. 

His job with the council is at risk as he does not see the point of using computers and refuses to be retrained. As he is approaching retirement he is transferred to humiliating positions where this is not an issue, which include organising a party for the local old people and dressing up as a Christmas elf, in a hilarious episode. He has not realised how close he is to his sister when he is enrolled into the local campaign to prevent the inhabitants of Ghyllside being rehoused on his doorstep.

A second perspective from which we see Matty is a social worker’s. Janice is newly qualified and her job at Ghyllside is her first. She is optimistic about the new policy and schemes to get Matty onto the first programme for relocation. She has been charmed by Matty. Waiting in the hall for an interview Janice meets the old lady for the first time.

Janice watched her pluck a jelly baby from the packet, bite off its head, and add its body to the tail of a procession snaking the bench.
Engrossed in the etiquette of a parallel universe, she seemed unaware of Janice, too self-absorbed to shimmy along for her to sit or deposit her bag. Yet the woman raised her gaze. “Did you run away from the circus?”
“Pardon me?” Janice would have been less shocked if the walls had addressed her. And, had she credited the patient with a voice stronger than a whisper, and the will to use it, she’d never imagined her speaking like royalty. (16)

Matty’s own perspective is also gradually revealed. She has spent half a century in institutions. She treats everyone as if they were her guest or her servant at her grand house. Her key nurse is her maid, for example. Any difficulties are explained away by the necessities of war. While Matty appears to be a dotty old woman, we can see that she has developed coping mechanisms. She is frequently overcome by thoughts of ‘the Prince’, who it emerges is her step-father. I imagined the prince of darkness. She has many very attractive qualities: a way of speaking her mind, generosity, hospitality, courtesy and resilience.

There are more than 60 short chapters in this novel, so the stories of Matty, her brother and Janice, bowl along with some amusing episodes and some which are more shocking. The past is a dark continent, and as we understand Matty’s story, we can see the difficulties for Janice and the new policy.

Humour in this novel comes from observing the professionals, the social workers and care staff for example. Or from watching Henry pursuing an adulterous relationship once a week with a hairdresser and she is getting fed up with him. Or seeing Matty cope with her life.

“Thank you, dear, that was delicious.”
Au contraire, the food is barely palatable but that is no fault of the maid, or the cook, given the challenges of producing an appetising menu in wartime. Indeed, it would be perverse to eat cordon bleu when the men suffer so dreadfully at the front. Besides, flattering the staff pays dividends. If theyare happy, so are the guests.
“Could you manage some jam roly-poly and custard?” (96)

As readers we are asked to consider the challenges of rolling out the policy of care in the community, including reactions to it. NIMBYism is a feature. We can also see how in the past attitudes to unwelcome behaviour, especially pregnancy of unmarried women, involved removal from the community. At the end of the 20thcentury racism and homophobia work their evil. 

And through these events we can see some of the damage done by long-term institutionalisation. They take your name. They take your past They take your history. They take control of your accommodation and movement. They treat you like a child yet you are not safe from sexual predation. Exploitation of women has a very long history, of course.

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin, published in 2021 by Inspired Quill. 405pp

Related posts

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? December 2015

Let’s have more older women writers  February 2020

Why we need more Older Characters in Fiction by Anne Goodwin. Her recent blog post on Inspired Quill Blog

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

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The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Is there a new genre of fiction? Or is it just a new take on an old theme in which a spirited older woman outwits jobsworths and solves mysteries that have escaped the usual investigations. Often the older women live in care homes or retirement accommodation. And they do their sleuthing in the company of others.

The Thursday Murder Club is a good addition to this genre if it exists. It is written with very little condescension (only occasionally referring to old people as pensioners). The older characters are not technophobes, full of nostalgia or the butt of the author’s jokes. The two key women in this novel are alert, healthy, imaginative, resourceful and above all experienced.

This is the 52nd 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 with links to the reviews here.

The Thursday Murder Club

Richard Osman enjoys the characters he has created and he indulges his creativity in a very convoluted plot, which requires a fair amount of ingenuity and many deaths to resolve. He relishes the activities in the Coopers Chase retirement community, all their clubs, (car parking management, stamp collecting, book group etc) healthy activities (swimming pool, bowls, Pilates, gym), rivalries and friendships. One of the clubs has been formed by Elizabeth and Penny. Penny is a retired Inspector from the local Kent Constabulary but now lost to dementia, and Elizabeth and the two men in the club, a retired psychiatrist and trade unionist, recruit Joyce to join them.

Elizabeth has had some kind of highly skilled career in an unspecified and secret organisation. She is whip smart, a lateral thinker and she possesses many connections from her former life, which become very useful when the club and the police (and the plot) hit a difficulty, you know, identifying the age of bones they find, or looking at CCTV to find someone. Joyce, who is a fairly new resident, introduces us to Elizabeth.

Well, let’s start with Elizabeth, shall we? And see where that gets us?
I knew who she was of course, everybody here knows Elizabeth. She has one of the three bed flats in Larkin Court. It’s the one on the corner with the decking? Also, I was once on a quiz team with Stephen, who, for a number of reasons, is Elizabeth’s third husband. (3)

Joyce keeps a diary, which forms part of the novel. She was a nurse and as a widow is rather lonely and would like male company.  She is happy to join the club, finding it all rather exciting. Her function is to ask all the questions that need to be answered on behalf of the reader. Her pursuit of Bernard, another resident of Coopers Chase is not pathetic as some writers would be tempted to frame it. In fact there are few unpleasant or pathetic characters in this novel. Those that are tend to die.

Elizabeth interrupts their investigation into an old case of Penny’s when the man who built Coopers Chase is murdered after a public argument with his partner, who own the company that manages it. No-one seems to be sorry for Tony Curran. Suspicion falls on Ian Ventham, his partner until he dies in the car park while a protest is going on about his plans to dig up the graveyard. Other people become involved: a nun, a past-it boxer, a priest, a flower seller, a widower, a vet and the police. And so it goes on. There are several more suspicious deaths to be solved before the Thursday Murder Club can feel their job is done.

I read this book when I was stuck inside with a broken ankle during Lockdown3. It was ideal reading material for my situation. As he says, it’s his first and, so far, his best book. Thanks to  Jane for the loan of her copy.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, published in 2020 by Penguin/Viking. 244pp

Other books in this genre of transgressing older women

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg 

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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In Dependence by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

#BlackLivesMatter has encouraged me to promote novels by women of colour on my blog and on twitter with more vigour. Wanting to highlight such books I looked through the 600 or so posts on Bookword and found fewer than I expected. There have been more in recent months. When I reviewed Girls, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo in June I included her list of recommendations on the Penguin site in March 2020

In Dependence appeared on that list. I was attracted to it because I had hugely enjoyed Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika and included it in Bookword’s older women in fiction series. The main character in that novel is an older woman from Nigeria, a professor of English Literature in San Francisco. She is a very attractive character, as flamboyant as the title, as she faces up to the social and physical consequences of a fall. You can read about that novel here

In Dependence

The story of In Dependence follows two friends who meet in 1963 at Oxford University. Nigeria has recently become independent. The politics of the time is allowing young people to control their destinies more, at least in Europe, and to feel more independent. In 1963 Tayo arrives in Oxford from Nigeria. He is handsome, intelligent but not naive or superior. He meets other African students, including Christine with whom he becomes enamoured. But they quarrel when he meets Vanessa, a white woman with ambitions to become a journalist in Africa. Tayo and Vanessa become lovers.

I was reminded of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A Game of Hide and Seek, which also follows two people who were once in love and meet each other over the years, finding their lives cannot be entirely disentangled. Such long-term relationships cannot be easy for they involve changes in two people as well as the involvement of others.

The story unfolds over the years up until the end of the 20th century when Tayo receives an honorary degree from Oxford. In the meantime, Christine has committed suicide, Vanessa and Tayo split up when he got another (Nigerian) woman pregnant. He married her. Vanessa adopted a son in Senegal from a good friend who was killed, and later married an older man, a mutual Oxford acquaintance.

Tayo and Vanessa are apart but continue to think of each other. The book explores themes of extended and mixed families in the diaspora, how love does and doesn’t endure, changing Nigerian politics, dependence on children and partners and longstanding friendships. The implications of the title become clear, we are interdependent.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

The author was born in 1968 and was raised in Nigeria. At one point in her life she taught English Literature in San Francisco State University. She has written two novels and several short stories as well as many articles. 

Also by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) from older women in fiction series in 2018.

In Dependence Sarah Ladipo Manyika, published in 2008 by Legend Press and more recently reissued by Cassava Republic Press. 271pp

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Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The generosity of book bloggers never ceases to move me. Since last August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries looking at older women in fiction around the world I have had recommendations from many people. I really enjoy receiving these suggestions for the list and the series. Pam Giarrizzo went beyond recommending the book that is the subject of this post: she actually sent me a copy from California. Being so connected in the world shut down by Covid-19 was a great boost. There were further connections for me, as I will reveal. Thank you Pam.

This will be the 47th in the series championing fiction about older women in order to make them more visible. This book takes us to Guyana and was first published in 1986. It won the GLC Black Literature Competition in 1985. It is the first in this series from the Caribbean.

Frangipani House

Frangipani House is in Guyana, a large low house which had become a home for old women and where it sits ‘sleek and comfortable’ on the town’s edge. It is run by Olga Trask, known as Matron. 

A comely, honey-brown predator of a woman, short and crisp, with blue-grey eyes and a full head of coarse black hair. […] On admission the women placed everything in her care. (2) 

The story follows Mama King who is 69 and has been unwell for some time with malaria, quinsy and pleurisy. Her two daughters, Token and Cyclette, live in New York and decide to pay for her care at Frangipani House.

The residents are all women and none of them are happy, although some have lost the will to object to Matron’s regime. They adopt a number of strategies to deal with their situations: they sing, or die, or have a stroke, or fade away, or go mad. 

When Mama King’s pleading letters to her daughters go unanswered, she decides to run away. At first she is not found by Matron, but after a few weeks she ends up in hospital and Matron must answer to Mama King’s daughters for what has happened. And they must decide what should be done with her next.

Except it is Mama King’s decision in the end, which is as it should be, for the old woman has some strong opinions based on her experiences.

Through this short novel we see how different groups in Guyana regarded old people in the 1980s. There is the particular complication of the Guyanese diaspora, many family members can not be present to offer practical help and support. An important visit is made by Mama King’s grandson, Markey, who she cared for when he was small, and who is now in the US navy. In Guyana Mama King has a good friend in Grinchi who she has known from childhood. This friend has no children but a track record of helping those abandoned by their families. Issues of male violence, poor fathering, poor parenting and poverty all emerge in this satisfying novel. 

Beryl Gilroy

Beryl Gilroy (1924-2001) grew up in British Guiana, coming to Britain in 1951. She suffered discrimination but eventually became a primary headteacher in Camden at Beckford School (1969-1982), the first black headteacher in London.  She then went on to study and teach at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London. She wrote several more novels and including one based on her experiences as a teacher in London: Black Teacher (1976). Later, she became an ethno-psychotherapist.

In the tradition of Black women who write to come to terms with their trauma, or alternatively to understand the nature of their elemental oppression, I wrote to redefine myself and put the record straight. [From Leaves in the Wind]

She had to endure being ignored as both a woman and a black woman in her teaching and her writing careers.

And I find myself drawn to her educational biography as I too was a headteacher (of a secondary school) in north London, although twenty years after she took up her role. And I too moved on to the Institute of Education, and where her son Paul’s book, There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack (1989), was a key text in thinking about cultural aspects of education.

In terms of the visibility of older women, her novel reminds us of the need for dignity and consideration in the care of older citizens. It also lays to rest the myth of widespread care in the community of older people in other cultures. But she also draws attention to some of the additional difficulties for families who have migrated. And she reminds us of some pretty admirable older women in Guyana, in her portraya  of Muriel King and Miss Grinchi.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy, published in 1986 by Heinemann in the Caribbean Writer’s Series. 255pp. It is still available.

Here are some posts in the Older Women in Fiction series from outside the European tradition:

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashou

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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