Tag Archives: Older women in fiction

Rallying the Older Women Writers

Something rather wonderful happened last week. It was Thursday, Leap Year Day. As usual I had tweeted (yes on X) about The Sleeping Beauty which was the post featured before this one. Sometimes I post a second tweet, hoping it is topical and will bring readers to the articles in the archive of this blog. I looked back through my archives, found what was on the blog on the previous Leap Year Day, in 2020. It was a few weeks before the lockdowns began. We were beginning to get very worried about Covid-19. But my post had a different theme.

It was called 

Let’s have more older women writers

You can read the article here.

It was itself referring to an earlier post from 2016. In 2020 I continued the theme of discrimination against older women writers began my comments with a little provocation.

Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

I used this quotation in my tweet.

The Response

I’ve got a modest following on my blog and on twitter, so I was quite unprepared for what happened. It was unprecedented. Within 24 hours it had been liked 44 times, retweeted 16 times and I had gained 21 new twitter followers. In addition older women writers had added their comments. In that same time period, ten writers provided information about when they published their first book (all older than 57), many were on their second book and more had published several. It’s never too late, said one; I’m 65 and still going, said another; and another reported that she was 64 and on her 9th book. A publisher reported that they were about to publish a novel by an older woman and took no account of age.

I was pleased that one woman in her 50s said that she had been doubting her capacity to write but was encouraged by the Bookword post. Referring to the picture another commented that I would read whatever she’s writing. Martin Amis was correctly outed as the writer of the statement about women disintegrating after 70.

I have never had such a response to a tweet, and the readership of the 2020 Leap Year post immediately exceeded 100 on that day.

So why this response?

In 2020 the article I placed on Bookword blog did not have this response, so I have been wondering why the tweet and the blog post appealed to so many people in 2024. I’d be glad of your thoughts on this.

I’ve been tweeting for more than 10 years, and I have noticed that some of my tweets get a great deal more traction than others. These tend to be the ones that ask a question that people want to answer. I think the provocation about women over 70 was enough to get some people to check it out.

The 2020 post (Let’s have more older women writers) did not reach many people when it was first published. Some things might have changed since then. For example, four more years’ worth of women have entered the demographic of ‘older women’. Each new cohort are better educated and possibly have a feistier attitude, are more ready to stand up for themselves than their older colleagues. And those who responded to the tweet with their own experiences were all 65 years old or younger. 

Perhaps there are more older women writing and publishing and perhaps creating a market for fiction by older women. Older women have more money, more disposable income and form a growing market for books (and films and tv series) about older women. Some of the writers who responded with their published record will be including older women characters.

Women are living longer. Well, they were, up to 2020. I’m not sure whether this group is still enjoying increased longevity. Sadly, the neglect of the NHS and the cost of living and other factors in the last four years are causing the death rate to rise. Many of the women who are living longer continue to write for longer too.

It is interesting that the possibility of double discrimination – ageism combined sexism – has provoked this affirming response. What do you think?

Silly old Martin Amis, indeed.

On the related theme of older women characters in fiction, remember that this blog has 70 posts in the series Older Women in Fiction. You can find the full list here. It also includes recommendation from readers. Please feel free to add your suggestions. 

And you might be interested in a book for which I was a co-author: The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, published by Policy Press in 2016. You can read about it here.

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Lyrics for the Loved Ones by Anne Goodwin 

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 66 of them linked to reviews on this blog. This is the 66th post in the series.

Anne Goodwin was an early supporter of this series and has also joined in my quest to see if older women writers have been marginalised. And she answered my impertinent questions on the topic. I think her publication list indicates that it is the independent publishers who are leading the way in taking on older women writers.

Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Lyrics for the Loved Ones

It was a pleasure to meet Matilda Windsor again in this second novel in which she is the central character. In Matilda Windsor is Coming Home we met her after 50 years of incarceration in Ghyllside Mental Hospital in Cumbria, where she had been sent as a young pregnant and unmarried girl. That story looked at the new policy of Care in the Community, and how it would affect a person who had been institutionalised for so long.

In this new novel she is now a very old lady, living in Scarrowdale care home in West Cumbria. Matty has developed strategies to deal with her long-term care. She understands her circumstances through her own fantasies, imagining herself as a great performer, for example. She is always upbeat as a result of her mother’s voice prompting her inside her head. She gives everyone nicknames, for example, the ‘Loved Ones’ are the other residents, many of whom find her difficult. Olive Oyl is a politically aware former teacher; Oh My Darling Clementine is the nurse who was much loved by Matty but who could no longer work due to Windrush investigations; Bluebell her replacement has blue hair and so forth.

The novel is set at the time of Covid, and its characters are the staff and residents of Scarrowdale and relations of these two groups. There is a great deal of angst to go round. Not only are the questions and challenges raised by Covid for care homes staff and residents explored through the characters, but they also have other issues, as we did. There is the fear of cancer when treatment must be suspended; a mental health worker who sees the additional toll of the pandemic; searching for past histories to help understand one’s life. Some of the characters are affected by the #Black Lives Matter campaign. The toppling of Sir Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol prompts Matty to imagine that she is to blame for slavery, and she feels terrible guilt. An isolated woman tries to manage with very little support.

Responding to the crisis Matty plans to raise money for the Red Cross by reciting 100 poems, one a day up to her 100th birthday, on her You Tube channel, during lockdown. She is helped by Bluebell, who equips many of the residents with ipads with which to connect with the wider world.

The creative mind of the main character is as engaging as it was in Matilda Windsor is Coming Home. A spotlight is also thrown onto the work of the care staff, especially Bluebell, who reminds us of the many care staff who went beyond what was expected of them, and who provided exceptional personal care and opportunities to the people in their care during lockdowns.

Inequalities were exacerbated during Covid, many already existed. It was a difficult time for everyone, but some suffered more than others, as this novel vividly illuminates, with humour and humanity. It also reminds me of the importance of communicating, creativity, honesty and mutual assistance in times of trouble, and at all times. 

Thanks to Anne for providing me with an advance copy of her novel.

Lyrics for the Loved Ones by Anne Goodwin, published by Annecdotal Press in 2023. 333pp

Related Posts

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin (Bookword July 2021)

Let’s have more older women writers (Bookword February 2020)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (Bookword December 2015)

Older Women writers – in demand or not? (Bookword April 2023)

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

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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – again

Mrs Palfrey was the first in the series on the blog called Older Women in Fiction, posted ten years ago in March 2013. This review has been followed by another 63 in the series. When I read and posted about Mrs Palfrey I did it under the mistaken impression that older women were rare in fiction. While they may form a small proportion of the fiction market here in the UK, I have discovered that the reader can find many books in which the older woman is the main or a significant character in a novel. 

In addition to the 64 reviews, there are another 50 recommendations from readers for inclusion in the series. Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

We are introduced to the unlikely hero in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with this description.

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)

We already know that Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and thereby establishes her status among the residents. It allows Ludo an opportunity for some research as he is writing a novel about an old people’s home called We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. 

In Mrs Palfrey Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions. ‘As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.’ They experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems. At the Claremont they are concerned to keep up appearances. As Elizabeth Taylor deftly shows, such a life infantilises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are aging and it is inconvenient and embarrassing. Mrs Arbuthnot’s incontinence, for example, is the cause of her slipping further into dependence, moving to a shared room in a nursing home for the elderly. She tries to pass it off as a welcome move to a quieter place.

On the blogs I sampled ten years ago, the reviews frequently suggested that Elizabeth Taylor has placed ‘eccentric’ residents at the Claremont. I don’t think it is so much eccentricity that she is describing. Rather, she has a penetrating ability to pinpoint a mannerism or gesture or foible, an ability to present characters with their warts. I think she is much admired by writers as well as readers because she is so economical, her details telling us so much about a character. Neither comic nor patronising, she has an awareness of the ludicrousness of people’s behaviours and attempts to hide the truth. 

Mr Osmond is a bore because he is lonely. He is also afraid that the world is changing and writes letters of protest to the newspapers about being treated by foreign doctors. He hates the accents of the weather forecasters. He is sour and has an old-fashioned fruity, male sense of humour. He likes Mrs Palfrey and suggests marriage. The scene of his botched proposal has comic aspects because he handles it so badly. But it is also an authentic conversation resulting from his lack of perception and insight into another person.

Lady Swayne has ‘another irritating mannerism – all her most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements, she prefaced with ‘I’m afraid. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common or garden Church of England. … I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.’

These are ordinary people, observed without whimsy or exaggeration. Take this little scene where Mrs Arbuthnot, who has ears ‘sharpened by malice’, has asked Mrs Palfrey to change her library book.

It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl. She was just going out for one of her aimless walks, to break up the afternoon, and was delighted to be given an object for it.
‘Something by Lord Snow, perhaps,’ Mrs Arbuthnot said. ‘I cannot stand trash.’ 
’But if you’ve already read it …’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously.
‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’
Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily. After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour. (p23-4)

A small pleasure is the mention of books read by the characters. Mrs Arbuthnot ‘got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings.’

Elizabeth Taylor frequently explores the theme of loneliness in her fiction. She is quoted on this subject on the now disappeared blog Dove Grey Reader Scribbles in a review of The Soul of Kindness:

I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others – by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country – even by having committed murder…

Another comment on the blog reviews was how the readers had found the topic of ageing and death difficult and referred to their own grandparents or parents. But we need more books that explore this difficult area. There are other very good older characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such as Aunt Sylvie in The Marriage Group, who rewrites the labels indicating who will inherit what, despite having forgotten that some of the recipients had themselves died. She blamed them for neglecting her.

I still haven’t seen the film of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, starring Joan Plowright. There will undoubtedly be more films dealing with later life, as there’s money to be made from us older folk. It’s my experience that films rarely offer as much as the original text, and older people get played for laughs: forgetfulness, incontinence, men pursuing young women and vice versa. Have you seen Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

After reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I went on to read and review all her novels. Loneliness is a theme in all of them. Some of her characters deal better with it than others. Mrs Palfrey seems stoic to me. 

Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel published in her lifetime. It appeared in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 

Despite many champions, Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively neglected. Perhaps one reason for that can be discerned from the title of her biography by Nicola Beauman The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by the champion of neglected C20th writers, Persephone. And it may also be that because of her Home Counties life, neglect of the London literary scene, and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

I have reviewed all her novels and her short story collection on Bookword. I have been rereading them, in no order, in the last few months. My admiration for her writing keeps on growing.

Related links

You can find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series here.

You can find my original post about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont here (from March 2013)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, with an introduction by Paul Bailey, thought to be the model for Ludo.

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Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell

Old People are not pets.’ I wish I could remember where I came across this truth recently. I like a book that depicts older people, especially older women, as real humans, with the full range of emotions and experiences. Such books are to be treasured but can be hard to find.

This problem is explored in an article in the most recent edition of Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/3) by Debbie Taylor called The Time of our Lives. The article looked at myths about ageing authors, and also about the characters that older women want to read about. The article referred to the ten top novels featuring older women on Bookword and listed this blog as a resource for interested readers. There is a great deal to think about in the article. 

This is the 61st post 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.

Cat Brushing

I find it hard to review collections of short stories. The quality and interest will be variable, and what I have enjoyed may not please others. What is pleasing in this collection is that every story is about an older woman. They do not always act wisely, do not always triumph. But they are written as real people, not a different species, and not as curiosities or pets. 

The title story is told in the first person, as the unnamed old woman grooms her beautiful Siamese cat, noting the pleasure the cat receives. 

And seeing her respond like this to the smooth strokes I could see myself in bed with one of my lovers, and my own arching and offering, and wondered, when I had finished with the brushing, whether she felt as I had when it was over, not just brushed but glad, even grateful to have been brushed. In other words, was the moment only with her, or was there a reflective pleasure as well? (45-6)

It is gradually revealed that the narrator and the cat are living in Bermuda with her son and daughter-in-law. She regrets the passing of her sensual experiences, and the likelihood that her son and daughter-in-law will want to get rid of the cat because they are having a baby. Giving up pleasure is hard.

I relished the first story in the collection – Susan and Miffy. It starts with a challenge:

The lust of an old man is disgusting but the lust of an old woman is worse. Everyone knows that. Certainly, Susan knew it. (3)

Susan is in a geriatric ward, and after seeing her struggle to replace a light bulb, she lusts after Miffy a ward assistant. The very boring, beige existence of Susan in her younger days is contrasted vividly with the feelings and relationship of the two women. Susan has been an exemplary wife and mother and rarely felt any desire in her life. Now it consumes her.

And so the stories progress, with the women discovering aspects of themselves in the last stages of their lives. Sometimes they find that they have been hanging on to an idea, an ancient love affair, for too long and the object of their affections is no longer interested. One woman is charmed by a fellow passenger on a train in a chance encounter, and their subsequent lives together become exploitative. Another has devoted her life to the care of her father, and to a relationship with him which feels decidedly unhealthy. And the very satisfying story about a woman who has relished being alone all her life but finds happiness in changing her attitude ends the volume.

I liked the collection for its steady presentation of different women, with a variety of attitudes, histories and futures and facing difficult circumstances late in life, drawing on what they had learned over the years. This is a contrast to some depictions of older women as naïve or having learned nothing from their many experiences. Jane Campbell’s women have no magical powers, no wisdom for younger women.

Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell, published in 2022 by riverrun. 245pp

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

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While the Gods were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier

This novel was suggested for the Older Women in fiction series by a reader of this blog. It is narrated by an old woman who is trying to make sense of the life she has lived and the changes she has seen. On the cover it is described as ‘a beautifully unorthodox novel of the Great War’. So, is it a war novel or an account of ageing?

These descriptions are not incompatible, and the novel is broad in its themes, allowing for both perspectives: war novel and older woman in fiction. It is a weighty work, but full of humanity, and written with a prose that is at times sumptuous and at others unflinching. This novel, originally written in Dutch, is focused on one small corner of northern France on the border with Belgian in the early years of the 20th century. 

This is the 60th 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 on Bookword Blog.

While the Gods were Sleeping

Helena is in her nineties and sees herself as a lonely survivor from her generation. She requires 24-hour care from Rachida (a young Moroccan woman) and her less sympathetic stand-in. She is reviewing her life, not just to give an account of it but rather to interrogate the influences and experiences. 

Helena was born into a bourgeoise family in pre-WW1 Belgium. The first 70 pages describe her upbringing in a bourgeois household in a Belgian town where her father owns the hardware store. He mother upholds the conventions of the class, expressed in particular through the sewing circle of local women that meet in her home and by her very close supervision of her daughter. Her mother is very happy with her life and believes that all is good in the world. Her view will be violently shattered by the war.

The next section is concerned with Helena’s brother, Edgard, and reveals the double standard in their upbringing. Edgard is gay and enjoys considerable freedom. He is called up eventually and is wounded in the latter part of the war. To Helena as they sit on a terrace overlooking the sea in his convalescence, he reports on his dreams. This is among some of the most powerful writing in this book. And perhaps this example will go some way to explain why this is a war novel.

A languor hangs over the terrace, a blanket of lethargy. At the same time I feel the jealousy of my men behind me and rage wells up in me. Who is drinking our blood? Who is eating our flesh? And then there is the sadness again, that gnawing, amber-coloured regret – why do the years bring so much regret, my little gazelle? What loans must we repay, what losses must we redeem? Who has lived above his station and mortgaged our existence? Usually I wake up in tears. (281-2)

Helena retells how she went with her French mother to France in the summer of 1914, for their annual visit with that side of her family. War is declared while they are there and the border closed, and they must stay for the next few years in France. Her father remains in Belgium. She experiences the war at first hand, seeing the first impact on the community as the men are called up, the injuries and mutilations, the deaths, the death of a child, the front and finally her brother and lover who are both injured and in a hospital. 

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

The damage to human life, the damage to the landscape, the damage to communities are each explored in turn as Helena is taken up by an English officer and they visit the area near the front line. He will become her husband. What it means to be in the army, what it means to be afraid or to be wounded, these aspects of war are also revealed. She visits the area behind the lines with her lover;

The plain that I no longer recognized, or only half, because it was no longer, or not completely, the plain where we used to come on excursions by coach with my uncle and the aunts, under the parasol of August, to the villages where we drank the idleness of summer from earthenware jugs, the bitter beer.
The villages with their towers, their sun-scorched squares, their ochre spires which now seemed different villages, different towers, toy villages which had fallen out of the overfull box of a giant child while it had been lugging it across fields in boredom where old corn lay snapped over the earth, overgrown with grass tussocks and thistles. Roofs showed their skeletons, seemed to have rejected their tiles. Windows, shutters, hung loose from the window frames in walls riddled with bullet holes. … (208-9)

The prose is very pregnant, lush even, baroque. We see her childhood dominated by her mother’s stiff understanding of what girls should do. She falls out with her mother who discovers that she has spent unsupervised time with her lover. And alongside the bystanders and participants we experience the horrors of war, the damage – not just on the Front, but over the years, and to families and communities. The novel is about ageing, but ageing in times that are tragic, not ageing that is simply looking back over the past.

The narrative is deliberately disrupted and disruptive. Helena’s marriage to her British photographer husband is prefigured for she refers to him as ‘my husband’ from the outset. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was the spark that set in motion the events that led to the outbreak of hostilities and this news broke while they were on the train to France. We find this out much later, after we have met Helena and her mother at her uncle’s farm where they will live for the next four years. This is Helena’s account, after all, and we do not remember things in chronological order, but as they are connected to other memories. In addition, Mortier makes much use of lists as the examples above demonstrate. The prose and the disjointed chronology reflect the turbulence of the events of the times they describe. 

Erwin Mortier

Born in 1965, Mortier was brought up in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, before moving to Ghent. While the Gods were Sleeping is his fourth novel, all have been translated. He is much admired in Europe for his fiction, his poetry and his translations into Dutch.

While the Gods were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, first published in 2008, and then in the English translation in 2014 by Pushkin Press. 364pp Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent 

Related posts

On her blog The Book Binder’s Daughter refers to the confusing and disruptive structure of the novel and to its language and prose as ‘disintegrated’. But she found it a memorable novel about WW1. (February 2015)

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

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Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

Tirra Lirra by the River has been on the list of novels about older women for several years, recommended by Whispering Gums, an Australian blog. It was first published in 1978. I think that the strange title put me off exploring it, but what a shame that was because this is a very interesting novel, and one which many Australian school children have had as a set book in the past. And that title is a reference to The Lady of Shalott, that long ballad by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

This is the 58th 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.

Tirra Lirra by the River

The novel is narrated by Nora Porteous. She begins her story with her return to her childhood home in Brisbane. Nora is in her late 70s and describes herself as old. 

Through the long mirror in the big black hall stand I see a shape pass. It is the shape of an old woman who began to call herself old before she really was, partly to get in first and partly out of a fastidiousness about the word ‘elderly’, but who is now really old. She has allowed her shoulders to slump. I press back my shoulders and make first for the living room. (4)

Nora Porteous has returned from several decades spent in England, because she has run out of options, of places to escape to, and this house was the bequest of her sister, to her nephew, not to be sold in Nora’s lifetime. In fact, Nora also has pneumonia and spends the first weeks of her return in bed recovering. During this time, she considers and revisits her past.

This is not so much the story of her life retold, but more her attempt to understand her life, the decisions she made and the influences upon her. She finds the courage and energy to examine some of the seminal episodes and people in her life, some of which she has hidden from herself: her marriage, the fate of her friends, some adolescent dalliance with a young lad and so forth. 

The title refers to the Lady of Shallot, who wove tapestries under a curse that she should never stop. She can only see the world through a mirror, and in it she must watch people passing her tower. One day Sir Lancelot rides by. The Tirra Lirra of the title is what Lancelot sings as he approaches.

As he rode down from Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’
            Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom 
She made three paces thro’ the room 
She saw the water-flower bloom, 
She saw the helmet and the plume, 
She look’d down to Camelot. 
Out flew the web and floated wide; 
The mirror crack’d from side to side; 
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried 
The Lady of Shalott. 

Nora has been sewing tapestries as a young woman. She comes to see that her only skill is in needlework, but it is not well developed. On her return she is shown some of those early tapestries, and is impressed by them, as were the recipients who kept them.

For Nora the allure of Camelot was a longing to live in Sydney. Her Sir Lancelot is Colin Porteous, not a very convincing stand-in. But they marry and move to Sydney. Collin will not allow her to work. While she likes the city, and meets new artistic people there, when Colin moves them to live with his mother, Nora’s life shrivels to nothing.

After several years Nora eventually makes another escape when Colin seeks a divorce to marry Pearl. This time she sails to Southampton. The voyage took six weeks, and when she landed she was pregnant.

In London, she found a doctor who performed an abortion, 

But the bleeding stopped at last, and never again did I have any sexual contact, of any kind, with anyone. (94)

 She tries various jobs always planning to return to Sydney but the war intervenes, and she finds work she enjoys, making costumes. And she makes friends and lives with them in West London for many years in a shared house. The ending of that arrangement sends her back to Brisbane.

In returning to Brisbane she is able to explore incidents in her life which she has previously hidden from herself, like on a globe where she keeps the dark side away from her gaze. And she catches up with the lives of people she had known and who had been important to her in her childhood. She describes how her time in London, in Fred’s house with Hilda and Liza was full of storytelling. In Brisbane she misses her fellow storytellers.

I am often lonely for that audience, and yet, if it were possible to return and regain it, I would not go. An audience, especially so sympathetic an audience, imposes restrictions I now wish to do without. 
… I have made things, concocted things, all my life. Perhaps I shall do so again (and indeed there are times when I do prefigure some small hand-made object), but at present my concern is to find things. My globe of memory is in free spin, with no obscure side, and although at times it is swelling and spinning it offers the queer suggestion that imagination is only memory at one, or two, or twenty removes, my interest now is in repudiating, or trying to repudiate, those removes, even if it ends by my finding something only as small as a stone lying on pale grass. (160)

Nora is engaged in a frank exploration of her past, her creation, finding the obscured memories to look at them full in the face. We can only admire this effort. She will not die in a barge on the river like the Lady of Shallot.

Jessica Anderson

Photo credit: Via Wikipedia: Photograph by Robert McFarlane, Kings Cross Sydney, 1984

Jessica Anderson was born in Brisbane in 1916. She lived until 2010. She was a late starter to writing. Her first novel was published in 1963, when she had remarried and she was able to spend time devoted to writing. She lived most of her life in Australia, in Sydney. 

Many have believed that Tirra Lirra in the River was autobiographical, but Nora was born about 16 years before the author and spent many more years in the UK. The novel was published in 1978 and was very successful in Australia, winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award, among others.

You can find The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson here, on the Poetry Foundation website.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson first published in 1978. Reissued by Melville House in 2014. 181pp

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

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The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

I have not reviewed a book in the older woman in fiction series for some months. I correct this here with a thriller from Korea, specifically put my way by Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

What I liked about The Old Woman with the Knife was the serious way it undermined common ideas about how older women should behave, and how they decline physically. Older women often say that they have become invisible, meaning that they are not noticed, do not stand out from other people. The main character exploits this in order to carry out her trade: contract killing.

This is the 57th 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 Old Woman with the Knife

Hornclaw is 65 and has managed to survive as a contract killer in Korea. We meet her on the subway, when she is very deliberately not standing out from the crowd.

…she is a model senior citizen, wholesome and refined and respectable. Rather than making a show of how deserving she is of a seat, she stands by the full senior section at the end of the car and doesn’t complain. Her clothing is appropriate for a middle-class senior citizen, perfectly aligned with the standard of old age: off-brand but decent clothes, down to her hat and shoes, purchased at Dongdaermun Market or on sale at a department store. Unlike some, she doesn’t bellow songs, her face ruddy with drink, taking up space with various kinds of sporting equipment. She exists like an extra in a movie, woven seamlessly into a scene, behaving as if she had always been there, a retiree thrilled to take care of her grandchildren in her golden years, living the rest of her days with a frugality baked into her bones. People stare at their phones, headphones in their ears, shrinking from and swaying with the unending wave of humanity, quickly forgetting an old person has entered their midst. They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant, recyclable. Or they never even saw her to begin with. (13)

Many older women readers will recognise the idea of being ‘like an extra in a movie’, being passed over or not seen to begin with. Perhaps it happens to men too.

She has bought her survival as a contract killer at the cost of loneliness, close only to her dog, Deadweight. She has lost everyone she cared for along the way. She began life in a poor family, was sent to live as an unpaid servant in a distant cousin‘s household and abandoned there by her family. She had to find her own way and was helped and then more or less adopted by the mysterious Ryu. It was Ryu who rescued her, taught her the trade of murder and set up a company in which she was the chief worker. Even after many decades it is his voice that she hears guiding her to remain unremarked in a crowd.

In the opening chapter Hornclaw kills a commuter. He was behaving in an obnoxious way towards a young female passenger on the subway. There is, I admit, a small satisfaction in such a man being despatched. On leaving the cloakroom where Hornclaw cleans her poisoned knife she nearly collides with the emergency service workers who are rushing to the scene. 

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner …
Didn’t I tell you to slow down or stick to the edges but to make a big loop? What if you bump into someone and drop something? You would be announcing, here’s all the evidence, to the whole world.
She can recall Ryu’s expression when he told her that as if it were yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. (20)

But as she had grown older things have changed. In the agency for whom she works a younger male colleague seems bent on ruining her reputation and her effectiveness. A small mistake takes her to the doctor at the clinic, and she develops affection for Dr Kang and his family. This weakness is exploited by her rival and there is a violent showdown.

While I loved the feminist and anti-ageist stance of the story, I also found myself disconcerted by the lack of questioning of the morality of extra-judicial or contract killing. Perhaps I am asking too much. It’s a fantasy after all. But I find it hard to read about such things as though the victims are merely extras in a film, or disposable characters in a video game.

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. She made her literary debut in 2009 when her novelWizard Bakery won the second Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her 2015 short-story collection Geugeosi namaneun anigireul received the Today’s Writer Award and Hwang Sun-won New Writers’ Award. This is her third novel, and the first to be translated into the English language. [From the Canongate website]

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, first published in 2013, and in the English translation by Canongate in 2022. 281pp. The English version was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

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

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Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Today’s post, featuring a fictional older woman, is from northern Europe. The novel was written in Finnish and is set in Estonia. Estonia has been occupied and claimed for centuries by its neighbours, even since the end of the First World War, and with considerable bloodshed and hardship. The lives of the two women in the novel, one older another two generations younger, are shaped by these events, and they have received abuse about their loyalties and been exploited for them. The fractured history of the country has broken families and friendships and most people have left the countryside. The novel is set in the village of Läänemaa and in 1992 it is dying.

This is the 53rd in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. It was recommended by a reader of my guest posts on the Global Literature in Libraries blog in August 2019. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.

Purge

We meet Aliide Truu as an old woman, apparently abandoned in her family home in the Estonian forest at the end of the 20th Century. Estonia is an independent country, recently freed from the hated Soviet influence. Aliide is the widow of Martin, a supporter of the Communist regime. She appears to be a harmless old lady, cooking up her brews, living a very small existence, with habits of suspicion and frugality. She is fearful for she must manage her house on her own and she is still taunted by village people for her Communist connections, although the village is more or less deserted. The young go to Tallin. 

Her life is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Zara, who is trying to escape from the traffickers who control her life. She is in a bad way. She has deliberately searched for this house and for Aliide. Reluctantly, suspiciously, Aliide allows her into the house and feeds her.

The book hops about in time, through the German occupation and the Soviet years. Neither was good for the village and its inhabitants. We learn more about Aliide’s past and her childhood in the village with her sister, Ingel. The re-evaluation of Aliide begins for the reader when we find that she had always been jealous of her sister’s beauty and accomplishments, and she resented her sister’s marriage to Hans, with whom Aliide is obsessed. 

The Communists have wanted to find Hans who opposed Communist rule, but the sisters hide him in secret places on their farm. Some brutal questioning takes place, including of Ingel’s child, Linda. The men involved reappear from time to time in the later narrative, and always have a terrible effect upon Aliide. 

Through Aliide’s contrivance using her husband Martin’s position, Ingel and Linda are exiled to Siberia, ending up in Vladivostok. This is the purge of the title, Stalin’s purge of Estonia’s collaborators with the German occupation. Aliide regains possession of the cottage and the care of Hans. Hidden from Martin and the village Hans becomes Aliide ‘s prisoner for several years, but he remains cold towards her. 

In the present of the novel, that is 1992, Zara’s traffickers are searching for her, and they have a good idea that she is near Aliide Truu’s cottage. She only managed her escape, after several years of sexual slavery, by violent means. Zara can speak Estonian, for it emerges that she is Linda’s daughter, Aliide’s great niece. As Pasha and Lavrenti close in on Zara, Aliide hides her as she hid Hans. 

 Brutality creates more brutality and finally, by appearing to be the sweet old lady we met at the start of the novel, Aliide finds a way to resolve Zara’s immediate difficulties. 

This novel has been issued in the ‘cult classics’ series by the publisher. Cult is a word that sometimes signals violence, and there is plenty of that in this book, especially violence against women. Suffering and mayhem has been visited on this village and its people and Estonia itself over the decades. The future is not likely to give Aliide a better life, although Zara can move on from her time as a sexual slave.

Purge does not offer any cosy solutions, or happy endings, or any comfortable idea that women working together will improve the world. Instead, it shows how deeply wounding the troubled history of northern Europe has been on women. The price of survival, and of collusion, is very high and includes damaged relationships, trauma, suspicion and violence, even within families, with no suggestion of resolutions. Perhaps the best image of this is the blowfly, which at the start of the novel is looking for rotting flesh in Aliide’s kitchen. It is also reproduced as a cut-out on the cover.

Sofi Oksanen

Born in Finland, with a Finnish father and an Estonian mother, Sofi Oksanen is well known in her homeland for her writing, plays, journalism and novels. Purge is her only novel to have been translated into English. It was first conceived as a play, then a novel and since its publication it has also been turned into an opera and adapted as a film. 

Purge by Sofi Oksanen, first published in Finnish in 2008, and the English translation by Lola Rogers by Atlantic Books in 2010. 262pp. 

Other European titles in the series: Older Women in Fiction

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg (Sweden)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Sweden)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)

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At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

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?
‘No.’
‘Nurse Percival told Maggy we might be getting one. She came to see Matron last evening.’
‘The nurse?’
‘What?’
‘He invented steam.’
‘Who did?’
‘Watt did.’
‘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.’
‘Oh.’
‘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

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Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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