Tag Archives: older women

Should You Ask Me by Marianne Kavanagh

Older women are frequently portrayed as either dotty or having great insight and wisdom, at least in more popular fiction. In this novel Mary Holmes is presented at the outset as one of the dotty kind, but she gradually appears as an elderly woman who is full of insight and wisdom. And she has a story to tell.

Should You Ask Me  is the 39thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me by someone on my recent French trip, about which you can read here. You can find a list of all the previous posts in the older women in fiction series with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

It is June 1944 in Wareham, a small town in Dorset. Like much of the south west of England the area is full of American troops, part of the build-up to D Day. Mary Holmes, an old woman of 86 presents herself at the police station. She has information about the identity of two bodies that have been discovered in the local quarries. And then she claims that she killed them.

William, the constable detailed to question her and take her statement, is very severely wounded and suffering from PSTD. He has his own story, concerning his love for Stella, a woman evacuee with a young baby. As Miss Holmes tells her story, William relives his past in a series of painful flashbacks.

Over the course of several days William and Annie spend hours together as he tries to prise her story out of her. He goes from doubting her fanciful and long-winded narrative to believing her detailed story concerning a shipwreck, two young men, the young Mary and an elaborate plot to avoid sharing the spoils of the shipwreck with the village. And two murders.

Eventually Mary gets William to relate his own story of lost love and military training that went horribly wrong, and to suggest that he needs treatment. It is partly a novel about guilt and confession.

Mary Holmes

We first meet Mary as she presents herself to William who is not from Wareham and does not know anything of her.

Underneath the black hat, which had a small silky bow to one side, her hair was a silvery grey. The skin of her face was so criss-crossed with tiny lines it looked like soft paper that had been crumpled and re-crumpled many times. She was wearing a black coat, with a pink scarf tucked in at the neck and cream woollen gloves, buttoned at the wrist. […] Her accent was old Dorset, a hum of long vowels. (5)

The story she has to tell about the two bodies happened 60 years before, and she has mulled over it a great deal. She will not hurry the retelling, which is frustrating for the constable and his kindly sergeant. She attends the police station every day for an hour or two to share a cup of tea with William and to relate a little more of her detailed story.

The tale she has to tell is full of violence and betrayal and guilt. 

As she shares her story she notices William’s pain, physical and mental and the care afforded him by Sergeant Mills. Eventually William tells her his own story of love, betrayal and his own close encounter with death. He too lives with guilt and is unable to forgive himself for the explosion that killed a fellow soldier, ruined his leg and probably his future.

Old woman as novelist’s device

This novel is about the slow telling of a double murder-mystery. In many ways Mary Holmes is the device that allows Marianne Kavanagh to tell the story slowly. And to take the reader back to the village as it was before the First World War, back into the late 19thcentury.

But this is not to dismiss this character as a thin one. Her creator is careful to tell us that she had a busy and successful life after the murders, running the forge and then the local garage, including servicing the cars of Lawrence of Arabia. 

I have criticised other novels about older women for assuming the only thing of importance that happened in their lives concerned romantic events in their youth. Their older selves have been fashioned and determined by the events of this time. But Mary Holmes is a more rounded character than that.

And Marianne Kavanagh has written a good story.

Should You Ask Meby Marianne Kavanagh, published in 2017 by Hodder and Stoughton.  272pp

Recent posts in this series:

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie  by Joanna Cannon

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The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

What life was there for older women, especially an older widow, in post-war England? Despite all the changes of the previous half-century and two world wars that had required women to take on more active roles outside their traditional sphere of the home, in 1951 there was no role for older women. For widows of a certain class, anyway, such as Louise.

The Winds of Heaven is the 33rdin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts and readers’ recommendations on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Louise in The Winds of Heaven

At the start of the novel Louise, who is about 60, has been widowed for a year or so. Her husband was a bully and put her down at every opportunity. He left her with nothing except debts and a sense of shame.

Louise has no reason to live anywhere in particular and no resources to make choices. She has three daughters and a school friend and they accommodate her in dreary rotation. Winters are spent on the Isle of Wight in Sybil’s out of season hotel. When the summer visitors arrive Louise begins another sequence of visits to her three daughters.

The daughters are all preoccupied with themselves and the difficulties they have created. Louise has three relationships that are respectful. Her oldest grandchild, Ellen (11), needs more indulgent adults in her life and she forms a strong bond with her grandmother. Her son-in-law Frank treats her with respect and is thoughtful about her situation. And Louise meets Gordon Disher in a Lyons teashop in the opening scene. She spills her tea on the lurid paperback he is reading: The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini. It turns out that he is the author, and that like her he leads a lonely life, in his case selling beds in an Oxford Street department store.

When her winter sojourn at her friend’s Isle of Wight hotel comes to an abrupt end Louise has no one to turn to, and nowhere to stay. The final crisis and resolution follow quickly.

Feminism in The Winds of Heaven?

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)

This is the opening paragraph of the novel, intended to be taken literally but the image of creeping about in the face of buffeting is apt for Louise. The wind is a recurring image in the novel. Louise certainly creeps about, not rugged but shrunk into her unsatisfactory life. With no resources she feels unable to find a way out of her situation.

Louise produces some very strong reactions among recent reviewers:

The Captive Reader found her pathetic and was disappointed in the novel.

A Corner of Cornwall saw the validity of this view but also found Louise likeable.

She Reads Novels was more enthusiastic.

But Booksnob found that Louise spoiled her reading of the novel, despite Monica Dickens’s humour, warmth and observations, because she wanted the author to suggest Louise could do with some courage and ingenuity and a be given a kick up the backside.

My own view is that Louise is very much of her age (I mean the 1950s) and class and furthermore has been subjected to abusive behaviour by her husband, neglect by her daughters and disdain by society as a whole. Her efforts at courage and ingenuity are usually failures. She is very sympathetically drawn. But I would not condone her level of passivity in older women today.

That Louise is pathetic, lacks agency and is far too obliging is a condemnation of the time she lived in and its attitudes to older women. It was not easy find a role as a widow in the 1950s, especially without financial means. Is it any easier today?

Everything in Louise’s life has conspired to make her rather timid and grateful for anything. Her husband treated her badly, undermining her at every opportunity.

She had borne three daughters, to her surprise, for her husband had set his heart on a son, and Louise was in the habit of giving him everything he asked for. That she failed to give him a boy with a long conceited nose like his own to look down on the world had not helped raise his opinion of his wife’s helpfulness to society. (1-2)

In her widowhood she continues to try to do right for others, but it often goes wrong. An ill-judged remark, an inappropriate gift, helpful actions that turn out to undermine the settled order of things; such moments reinforce her sense of being unwanted and outside society.

Despite revealing Louise’s terrible fate as an older woman Monica Dickens gave her a romantic and happy-ever-after ending.

Other widows in fiction have faced similar difficulties: Louise makes reference to ‘those dismal ‘residentials’, where they farm out most widows’ (209). I think immediately of Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in which Mrs Palfrey makes a good go of living in such a place. And Lady Shane in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West simply ignores her children’s decisions for her when she is widowed and choses her own rather surprising path.

Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens (1915-1992) famously said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in The States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published 10 books before The Winds of Heaven in 1955.

She is on the list of authors identified by Jane (beyondedenrock blog}: A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Her birthday was 10thMay. Thanks to Grier for recommending this novel for the series.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, first published in 1955. Republished by Persephone Books in 2010. 320pp

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Those strong older women in fiction

What do you make of the responses to my challenge to identify more strong older women in fiction? I issued the challenge when reviewing Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor and repeated it after reviewing Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. The responses are interesting, and although they tell us a little more about age and gender in fiction, the responses only confirm my suspicions – that there are not many more examples. See what you think of the list.

I should have asked a clearer question, at least have clarified what I meant by ‘older women’. Some respondents assumed I meant older than them I think. So the suggestions included the mother in Oranges are not the only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. I meant 55+ but the differences suggest how fast old/older is being redefined at the moment. John Humphreys described Mary Beard (later 50s) as old in the debate on older women presenters on TV recently. I find it hard to think of Mary Beard as old chronologically or in attitude. The debate was about TV presenters, so perhaps he was referring to appearance, where white hair = old.

And these suggestions prompt another thought about ‘older women in fiction’: that is that women in fiction appear older if they are strong characters. It plays into the stereotype of cantankerous, opinionated, awkward, or ‘ornery’ to use a North American word.

Two genres of fiction (I think they are both genres) are also interesting here: older women sleuths of the Miss Marple (Agatha Christie) variety. Beatrice Stubbs (created by Jill J Marsh) is another example. I love the idea of being retired and growing courgettes in Devon (not least because I plan to be growing courgettes in Devon very soon). And what this genre suggests is that older women can also conjure up good problem-solving skills, wisdom and other sleuthing qualities. They are level-headed and often see more clearly than others in the community.

And the other not-quite-genre-more-plot-framing-device is the old woman at the end of her life, looking back – as Hagar Shipley does in The Stone Angel, or Daisy Goodwill Flett in The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shield. (Should we read anything into the repeated use of stone?)

And then several people remembered, from Virginia Woolf’s novels, Mrs Dalloway and Mrs Ramsey.

27 older w

So here’s the list of suggestions so far. I can’t answer for all the items on this list as I have not read all of them, so would welcome any comments.

Penelope Lively        Heatwave

Penelope Lively        Moon Tiger

Alice Walker             The Colour Purple (Celie)

Alice Walker             Possessing the Secret of Joy (Tashi)

Margaret Atwood    The Blind Assasin (Iris)

David Mitchell          Ghostwritten (Chinese woman and Irish scientists)

Ian McEwan              Atonement (Bryony)

Siri Hustvedt             The Summer without Men

Dorothy Whipple     Greenbanks

Salley Vickers           Miss Garnett’s Angel

Salley Vickers           Dancing Backwards

Agatha Christie        Miss Marple series

Deborah Moggach   The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Linda Gillard             (characters in 40+ bracket)

J R Tolkein                 Lord of the Rings (Galadriel)

Jill J Marsh                Beatrice Stubbs series

Carol Sheld               Stone Diaries (Daisy Goodwin Flett)

Barbara Pym             (various)

Mary Wesley              (various)

Joanna Trollope        (various)

Elizabeth Taylor       Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Virginia Woolf          Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf         To the Lighthouse (Mrs Ramsey)

Special thanks to Triskele Books on Facebook, Reading Agency, Women Writers and Virginia Moffat on Twitter.

Thank you to everyone else who responded, or wracked their brains in response to my challenge. Please do add more, comment on the items in the list, challenge, observe anything about this challenge – find the strongly portrayed older* women in fiction.

 

* I mean 55+ but feel free to comment on this too!

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