Tag Archives: The Dark Flood Rises

The Book of Old Ladies by Ruth O Saxton

This book fits right in with this blog’s series on older women in fiction. I am pleased to have had my attention brought to it. And I am pleased that Ruth Saxton has drawn attention to thirty-one works of fiction that challenge the stereotypes so common in literature, and in the beliefs of society at large about the lives of older women. Many of the novels and short stories have been featured on the blog: either in the list of suggestions or reviewed in the 50 posts published so far in the series on older women in fiction.

This is the 51st in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books with links to the reviews here.

So what is The Book of Old Ladies about?

The subtitle reveals some of Ruth Saxton’s purpose in writing this book: celebration. In this case the celebration of ‘strong characters and vital plots’ of older women, works of fiction that make older women their focus. 

She describes how her reading life in the US began with some good young female protagonists (Jo March, Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre), but when she got to college there were no women writers on the literature syllabus. Even when women were allowed onto reading lists in academia, older women, she observed were ‘simply beside the point’. While women writers and women as protagonists have achieved a better status in recent decades yet there is still, she claims, a paucity of fiction about older women. This was important because

As I aged, my focus turned from the girl and the mother to the grandmother, or the woman my age, and I began to look for plots that might help me map a possible future beyond the familiar fairy tale where the old woman is stereotyped either as the wicked witch of the fairy godmother. … I kept running into the same old stories in which the older women are simply beside the point. (2-3) 

Early searches brought elderly female detectives to her attention, such as Miss Marple and Mrs Pollifax. She observed how they were able to detect because they were invisible. We might add that as outsiders they are able to see what the characters and perhaps the readers cannot. The Miss Marples of this world are no guide to aging and old age.

I wanted to read the novels in which fictional older women prepare for the journey of aging, inhabit the territory and become increasingly their truest selves. (4)

For Ruth Saxton this means finding examples of older women who do not behave as if their life is behind them, who challenge the notion that marriage and motherhood are the pinnacle of a woman’s life, that old age is all downhill. We need more women in fiction who are more than the wicked witch or fairy godmother; both stereotypes refer to how the older woman stands in relation to others. We need more old women who are characters in their own right.

Organising the examples

Her analysis divides the chosen texts into five categories:

  1. Romancing the past (the continuing story of marriage and romance for women, which will drive out creativity and artistic success);
  2. Sex after sixty;
  3. Alternate realities ( the older women consider their current situations without much attention to their pasts);
  4. Never too late; and 
  5. Defying expectation.

The discussion of thirty texts under these headings is an interesting approach, and with only a few pages to discuss each one inevitably makes the originals appear thin. But organisation into themes brings more depth.

She includes a novel that I also admire greatly: Margaret Drabble’s recent novel The Dark Flood Rises, and concludes with a personal note about how the book was influenced by a car accident. You can find my review of The Dark Flood Rises here.

Some reflection on vocabulary and the cover

Finding a suitable phrase to describe women over 60 can be problematic. When we were writing The New Age of Ageing we had long discussions about the language used about older people in English culture and how we should refer to older members of our communities. Every phrase brings with it a great deal of baggage. To call women ‘old’ is difficult, and over the years I (and fellow writers) have used the softer ‘older’. Even the word ‘women’ is experienced by some as less polite than ‘ladies’. And the combination of those two sets of words can be difficult. Try them (out loud)!

Old woman
Old lady
Older woman
Older lady

And the subtitle uses that coy expression ‘of a certain age’. We are afraid of age. Our society does not treat old people well. We find all kinds of ways of avoiding what is seen as a stigma or even a fault – being old

The cover is also intended, I suspect, to allay fears of too fierce an approach. It is pink, with silhouettes and the main title in elaborate, curly lettering  – a kind of Jane Austen appeal?

I am not sure enough of the nuances of American culture to know whether these observations apply across the Atlantic. 

Despite these reservations I am grateful to Ruth Saxton for drawing my attention to many texts previously unknown to me, and for offering some new perspectives on familiar books. Even on the occasions where I have taken a different slant on a text, I am still thrilled to find a writer who shares my ideas that books about older women are undervalued. 

I would make the same point about women in society in general – older women are undervalued. 

The Book of Old Ladies: celebrating women of a certain age in fiction by Ruth O Saxton, published in 2020 by She Writes Press. 295pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

My full list of about 100 novels featuring older women can be found here.

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Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

At a time dominated by the cult of youth, does the age of a writer matter? It always seems that publishers are looking for the next bright young thing. I have seen it suggested that this is to ensure that they will get a return on an author likely to write several books.

Things are changing. We live in an ageing society, in which more people are living longer. It is likely that there will be more older writers in the future. In our book, The New Age of Ageing, we considered the effects of our ageing population, not just on the individual, but also on families, our communities, policy. In this post I explore on the effects on publishing.

Ageism in society

Writing about age means identifying and confronting assumptions about age. There are plenty of discriminatory practices in our society. We can start with how older people are usually seen: conservative; physically weak and declining; not interested in sex and not sexy; defined by death (all those bucket lists).

My posts reviewing fiction about older women has revealed a more nuanced set of characters, with some feisty older women (see Moon Tiger, and The Dark Flood Rises) and some respectful views of older people with Alzheimer’s (Elizabeth is Missing) as well as caricatures of the eccentric and declining.

But what about older writers? We can count on Martin Amis to say what many people think about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Let’s look at late starters and writers who write into old age.

Late starters

Late, in the publishing world, means after 40. The most famous late starter was Mary Wesley, whose first book for adults Jumping the Queue was published when she was 70 years old. She went on to publish nine more novels and a memoir.

Dinah Jefferies, author of the best seller The Tea Planter’s Wife, published her first novel was when she was over 60. People had informed her that she wouldn’t find a publisher because of her age. Three of her novels have now been published. She told Saga Magazine in February 2016,

I read time and again that you have to be under 60 to be able to succeed at writing. All it made me think was, “I’ll show you. I’m not having that”. (Saga Magazine February 2016)

Keeping on

The list of writers who kept on writing, or who are still writing, is long and distinguished. Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Weslely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. And there are more.

I recently reviewed a novel by Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The author was 84 when she published this her 17th novel.

Margaret Drabble published The Dark Flood Rises when she was 77. It is her 19th novel.

Penelope Lively wrote Moon Tiger when she was 54. She’s still publishing at the age of 83.

It’s not age, stoopid, it’s sex!

So it is not so much age that is a bar to getting published, especially if you have a distinguished career behind you. Gender is much more of a bar to getting books published, promoted and sold. Year on year the VIDA statistics reveal the failure of literary publications to review books by women, or to employ female reviewers. The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was begun to help draw attention to excellent books by women.

Thank you to my co-author Eileen for suggesting the topic of this post some time ago, while we were writing The New Age of Ageing.

Related posts

Women and Fiction, for more on this theme. (September 2015)

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

There are reviews of 25 books in older women in fiction series on this blog.

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The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

I grew up with Margaret Drabble’s novels, keeping step as she pushed the boundaries with A Summer Bird Cage and The Millstone, looking at the lives of intelligent young women in the 60s. The Dark Flood Rises is her 20th novel and still she is asking questions that concern me, and people of my age. This novel is about growing older and facing death in the 21st Century.

The title is taken from DH Lawrence’s The Ship of Death.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

Has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

302-dark-flood-cover

This is the 24th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can see the complete list of reviews and readers recommendations on the page About the Older Women in Fiction Series at the top of the blog.

‘What I do worry about is living’

Margaret Drabble wrote about death and approaching death in an article in the Guardian in October just before the publication of this novel. She referred to ‘the delusion of an afterlife’, no longer shared by many, if it ever was. But we still ‘struggle with the meaning of death’, she suggests. And she has this to add about increased longevity, faced by many of us.

Through our mortal ingenuity, we are reaching a biological phase when we are beginning to fear old age and longevity more than we fear death. We can no longer look forward to the possibility of a sudden, unexpected, merciful release, or falling asleep in bed reading a book (as my mother did), or ceasing on the midnight with no pain. Nor can we make plans to celebrate our departure as a grand culmination of our life’s endeavours, with gracious and grateful and possibly public farewell. That’s because we know that officious folk are going to strive to keep us alive for as long as they possibly can, until we can no longer enjoy anything. Just to prove that hey can. [Guardian 29th October 2016]

I disagree with much of this, believing we should celebrate increased longevity and take advantage of it in others as well as in ourselves. Indeed I have co-written about this and published a book on it this year. (The New Age of Ageing).

But increased longevity does mean paying more attention to that period we call old age. ‘What I do worry about is living,’ says Margaret Drabble. I agree with her. This is new territory, and as the author has said, (in the Paris Review in 1978) it is the function of fiction to explore it, and she has made an accessible approach with The Dark Flood Rises.

A summary

Fran and older people connected to her, and some younger ones, look at death. Fran is in her 70s but fit, caring for her bedbound ex-husband by preparing and delivering meals for him. Her son Christopher lost his partner suddenly in the Canaries. He returns there and is befriended by two gay men, Bennett Carpenter renown but sinking slowly into genteel disability, and Ivor increasingly acting as Bennett’s carer rather than his partner. They are trapped by European economics, and the failure to invest when they had capital. Fran’s daughter Poppet is concerned about the death of the earth. Two of Fran’s older female friends face and then undergo death.

Fran

It is Fran’s story with which the novel opens and to which we return at frequent intervals. She is doing ageing very well: she has a no-nonsense approach to it, keeps healthy and active, even undertaking paid work advising on meeting the housing needs of the elderly. This is a good device for some discrete observations about how these needs are widely neglected. Fran is determined not to become a burden on others, in fact to remain useful. She is, we can see, doing all the right things. This does not make her happy (see below for the opening paragraph).

Margaret Drabble is not afraid to enumerate the physical aspects of the ageing body. Or to refer to those things that are no longer problematic. There is a kind of tongue in cheek pleasure in the writing about these, for example the dream Fran has about Tampax. She has driven to a hotel the day before and in the morning she puts her reaction to the dream in order.

… she wonders whether it had sprung from the redness of the meal of the night before, or from her motorway thoughts about Macbeth, or from some new and about-to-be-apprehended aspect of time and the ageing experience.

For ageing is, says Fran to herself gamely as she presses the lift button to go down to her breakfast, a fascinating journey into the unknown. Or that’s one rather good way of looking at it. The thin flow was the blood of life, not of death, reminding her that she is still the same woman, she who once had been the bleeding girl. (20)

The writing

The novel is not divided into chapters, but into short segments. And it is written in the present tense. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, from Fran’s point of view.

She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in the world will prove to be ‘You bloody old fool’ or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, ‘you fucking idiot’. As the speeding car hits the tree, or the unserviced boiler explodes, or the smoke and flames fill the hallway, or the grip on the high guttering gives way, those will be her last words. She isn’t to know for sure that it will be so, but she suspects it. In her latter years, she’s become deeply interested in the phrase ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’. Or no woman come to that. ‘Call no woman happy until she is dead.’ (1)

The present tense narration brings a curious slow but immediate impact. It reminds us that these people live alongside us, are us. Time moves onwards, but we can linger in this time of life. The prose has a slightly superior tone, which may be intended to represent the mindset of this group of older people.

The novel does not stay with Fran, but roams among the other characters as they pass their days in the shadow of death’s approach. We see the preoccupations of Fran’s women friends, her ex-husband Claude, Bennett and Ivor trapped in the Canaries and attend a hospital bed and a funeral or two.

43 Wreath & Hide

There are many erudite references in The Dark Flood Rises. One I especially enjoyed was to Elizabeth Taylor, and her novel A Wreath of Roses. Margaret Drabble is very well read and her well-educated cast of characters have various interests which enable her to refer to many other writers and what they said about ageing and dying.

There is a great deal of humour, and pathos, in the doings of these characters. There is selflessness and selfishness, affluence and poverty, friendship and admiration. Some of these people have been very eminent in their professional lives in earlier times. Bennett Carpenter is a notable historian of Spain. Claude was a highly regarded surgeon. Some of the older people are immersing themselves in rather narrow interests. For example, Jo develops a researcher’s interest in novels about marriage to the DWS (deceased wife’s sister). Claude wants to listen to endless Maria Callas, while cuddling his carer. Many of these old people are lonely, have lost partners and are fearful of intruding upon their children’s lives.

And I want to mention that the story references population movements too, especially across the Mediterranean and especially the treacherous, desperate voyages that see the end of so many lives as people escape violence.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble, published by Canongate in 2016. 326 pp

Related posts

Margaret Drabble’s article in the Guardian, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I worry about living’ October 2016.

My review of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses.

The previous post in the older woman in fiction series was A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman.

 

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