Tag Archives: widows

Birds of Passage by Bernice Rubens

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.

Rape

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.

Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens

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 MemberBirds 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.

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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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