Marian Leatherby is the most fantastical of the 15 older women in fiction I have explored in the blog so far. The Hearing Trumpet is bonkers, completely and utterly bonkers! And that means both the main character and the plot. It reads like a story that just grew and never saw an editor’s eye. Its shape is meandering with sudden divergences, and the characters take on surreal and fantasy roles as the story lurches into a global catastrophe, by way of a byzantine history of an eighteenth century woman.
You might know Leonora Carrington better as a surrealist artist. There was a recent exhibition of her paintings at the Tate, Liverpool. She lived a remarkably long life, from 1917 until 2010, and there are some great stories about her as she moved from the world of debutantes to the demi-monde of Paris and eventually to Mexico. She married Max Ernst in France and when he was imprisoned by the invading Germans she spent time in an asylum in Madrid. She was treated with Cardiazol. ‘It was very much like having being dead,’ she said later. (See the excellent introduction by Ali Smith). Apparently she was rescued by her childhood nanny who arrived in a submarine. (I should point out that Madrid is not accessible by submarine, but it is an excellent story and in keeping with Leonora Carrington’s bizarre life.)
Her surrealism spilled into her writing. The Hearing Trumpet was written at speed, probably in the 1950s. It was not published in Britain until 1976 (although it was published in a French translation Le Cornet Acoustique in 1974). Her Wikipedia entry lists 9 books including Down Below, a novel about her descent into madness. She also wrote short stories.
The story of The Hearing Trumpet
The Hearing Trumpet begins with painful piece about the hardships of a 92 year old woman in Mexico at the hands of her son. Marian is sent to a home for senile ladies where a most repressive and bogus psychological regime called The Well of Light Brotherhood is in force. Here, in a kind of Russian doll method of story-telling, she comes across an extraordinary account of Abbess Dona Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva. There are more Russian doll stories – letters and other documents – about the Abbess and her strange activities.
Inspired by the accounts of the Abbess and by Marian and her friend Carmella, the inmates of the retirement home stage a revolt. But then climate change changes everything and the women, and a few good men, have to make their own peace with the world and its fantastical creatures, especially goats, bees and wolves.
What are we to make of this? Certainly Carrington is debunking religions and all those awful find-yourself philosophies that became so popular in the ‘60s. She adds a healthy dab of surrealism and a large bit of magical realism. And off we go.
The older women
As far as older women are concerned, The Hearing Trumpet shows them with plenty of spirit, imagination and resourcefulness. Above all, they can communicate with each other and the world if the world cares to take the trouble (hence the title). Here is Marian’s introduction to herself, the second paragraph of the book) – a nice combination of assertion and humour.
Here I must say that all my senses are by no means impaired by age. My sight is still excellent although I use spectacles for reading, when I read, which I practically never do. True, rheumatics have bent my skeleton somewhat. This does not prevent me taking a walk in clement weather and sweeping my room once a week, on Thursday, a form of exercise which is both useful and edifying. Here I may add that I consider that I am still capable of being pleasant and amusing when the occasion seems fit. The fact that I have no teeth and never could wear dentures does not in any way discomfort me. I don’t have to bite anybody and there are all sorts of soft edible foods easy to procure and digestible to the stomach. Mashed vegetables, chocolate, bread dipped in warm water make the base of my simple diet. I never eat meat as I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway.
I am now ninety-two and for some fifteen years I have lived with my son and his family. (1-2)
The first chapter follows Marian as she returns to her meagre accommodation in her son’s house in Mexico. She is dependent upon him, but is scarcely tolerated within the household. Her grandson describes her in these shocking words: ‘Grandmother can hardly be classified as a human being. She is a drooling sack of decomposing flesh.’ The family plot to remove her from their house.
Another older woman in this novel is Carmella, who, having the means, does as she likes with panache. She tells Marian that she gained her fortune by digging up a uranium mine by mistake. Marian suggests that Carmella must have bought the helicopter she always wanted.
“As a matter of fact,” said Carmella with dignity, “I have merely bought a limousine. Come and look at it.” Drawn up in front of the main entrance was a huge modern automobile painted a shade of lilac I knew to be a Carmella’s favourite colour. At the wheel sat a Chinese chauffeur in a black uniform powdered with pink roses. He saluted us respectfully. (123-4)
Carmella is a loyal and supportive friend to Marian and gave her the hearing trumpet that enables Marian to participate in conversations and overhear her family’s and Dr Gambit’s machinations.
The inmates of the home are also interesting older characters, not all good, not all able to see through the humbug of The Well of Light Brotherhood philosophy. Soon after her arrival, Dr Gambit explains to Marian how she is to proceed, speaking with many capital letters, as he does.
“There are certain things that you must neither expect nor try to understand at the present,” replied the doctor mysteriously. “Live your daily tasks with attention and Effort. Do not try to interpret Higher Planes and their mysteries before you can extricate yourself from Automatic Habit. Vice and Habit mean the same thing. As long as we are victims of Habit we are slaves to Vice. I advise you to begin by giving up cauliflower. I notice that you have an inordinate appetite for this vegetable, your reigning passion in fact, Greed.” (46)
Once we left the focus on these older women and meandered into the 30 pages of the story of the Abbess I was less enchanted with this novel.
One of the successes of the early section of the book is how Leonora Carrington makes Marian intelligible to us, but a problem to others. Communication may require some help, (such as the trumpet) but is essential for everyone.
I must mention the illustrations, included in the Penguin Classic version, which are every bit as quirky as the story. I reproduced above the one of Marian eavesdropping on her family.
So enjoy the skelter that is The Hearing Trumpet.
Older women in fiction
This is the 15th post in the series on older women in fiction. You can find all previous posts by clicking on the category, or by visiting the Older Women in Fiction list here. The list contains all recommendations and links to the 14 books previously explored. Thanks to the blog reader who recommended The Hearing Trumpet
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1977) Penguin Classics 159pp
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