I am not easily shocked. I am not often shocked. But this novel shocked me. It also served to remind me how far attitudes have changed in the 42 years since its publication, specifically attitudes to rape and exploitation of women.
I picked this book to include in the series on Older Women in Fiction on this blog. This is the 62nd in the series 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.
Birds of Passage
Two widows live next door to each other. For decades they have planned to go on a cruise together when their husbands have died. In due time, they are both widowed, both passed 60, and both have waited the required and decent amount of time, and so they embark on a Mediterranean cruise for three weeks. Neither of them experienced marriage as a happy state, seeing it more of a duty and a series of gender-specific tasks, notably the men cut the hedge and determine what grows in the garden. Neither of them has had much excitement or happiness in their lives, but they have done what was expected of them.
Also on the cruise is another widow, Mrs Dove, who wins her ticket in a competition, and she takes her daughter with her. The daughter is suffering from a crisis of sexuality (my description, certainly not Bernice Ruben’s) for having been abandoned by her husband, Alice Dove has taken up with predatory Nellie, and is portrayed as a dungaree-wearing man-hater. Mrs Dove has been so well groomed by her late husband that she is quite at a loss in social situations. She too has had her life shaped by the expectations of her husband and her social group in Ilfracombe. At the end of the novel she escapes these expectations, and her daughter reflects that she is a woman …
… who married [Mr Dove] because he was of the opinion that he was good for her, who stayed with him till he died because it was his version of her duty, who even mourned him, heeding his instructions from the grave which taught her where her obligations lay. And who had heeded him since, together with the neighbours who were of the opinion that her husband was a good man, that it would be ungracious of his memory to think of marrying again, that she should not plant vegetables in a garden he had devoted to flowers, though her heart yearned for them, and that she didn’t need a colour television, because black and white had been good enough for the good Mr Dove, and should certainly be good enough for her. (200-201)
On the cruise Mrs Dove agrees to marry Wally, a lonely, overweight and intrusive character, a bit of a fantasist. Both feel that the other passengers are expecting them to become engaged, and both find the same escape from their predicament.
So far so good. Here is the troubling bit. The main narrative concerns the two neighbouring widows, Ellen and Alice. (A small niggle was that both this older woman and Mrs Dove’s daughter have the same name. No use is made of this confusing detail by the novelist. So I can’t figure out why she would do it.)
At the start of the cruise, both women are raped by the same predatory waiter. Ellen is badly traumatised by the rough treatment of the man, and when she threatens to expose him he reveals that he had already provided himself with insurance against this, for he has secretly taken a photograph of her in the nude, apparently willingly posing for him. She is so shamed that she is unable to reveal the abuse to the purser. It continues, night after night.
Her friend, Alice, on the other hand, finds herself awoken into sexual ecstasy by the rape. And she waits impatiently every dawn for her assailant to repeat his attentions to her. Neither women can reveal what is happening to them, for they are ashamed.
Let’s pause here and consider what we have read:
- Lesbians wear dungarees, have their hair short and hate men. They are rescued by rediscovering their feminine side.
- Some women enjoy rape, are turned on by the violent abuse.
- Another woman is so afraid of being exposed in a naked photograph that she will endure three weeks of abuse.
- Neither woman thought to get the chains reattached to their doors to prevent the waiter entering their cabins.
- Ellen did go as far as to buy a Swiss army knife in Venice to protect herself but was unable to use it.
- The woman who did complain, that was Alice Dove who fought back successfully and dragged the waiter to the purser’s office, she was not believed. The waiter turned the story around. Apparently, women were in the habit of claiming rape when their advances to the waiter were rejected the purser noted. I could not help but bring the serial rapist, a Met policeman, to mind at this point in the story. Join the dots, I want to shout.
- And this story has been described as ‘a true comedy of manners’ by the Guardian reviewer of the time, quoted on the front cover.
I find it hard to understand how the situation of gaslit widows, and serial rape can be described as a comedy of manners. I can only think that in the 42 years since this novel was published, attitudes to women, and older women in particular, have moved on. Thanks to #MeToo and the work of countless women to expose the levels of acceptance of sexual abuse against women.
Rape cannot, today, be the subject of comedy, let alone a comedy of manners. The treatment of a woman exploring her own sexuality is also a serious matter.
And yet there are some positive things in this novel. Bernice Rubens makes mockery of bourgeois ideas about what is acceptable to other people which decide people’s behaviour. And at least Alice Dove responds decisively to the rapist. Older women are revealed to be complex creatures, not simply lonely and frustrated. But I remained shocked that 42 years ago we thought serial rape of older women a fit subject for comedy.
Born in Wales in 1923, Bernice lived a long life, publishing 27 novels between 1960 and her death in 2004. She was the first woman to win the Booker Prize, in 1970, its second year, with The Elected Member. Birds of Passagewas her 12th novel. Her autobiography When I grow up was published shortly after her death in 2005.
Birds of Passage by Bernice Rubens published in 1981. I used the paperback edition from Abacus. 215pp
The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.