Tuesday 21 May 2013

Let's Hear it for Older Women (The Winds of Heaven)

I’m still with Persephone, but today’s thoughts are about a novel rather than a short story. I’ve been reading The Winds of Heaven, by Monica Dickens, which meets my current craving for happy endings. But don’t get the idea this is fluffy, because it’s not. Dickens highlights the difficulties faced by an older woman, her role within the family, the way she is perceived by others – and the way she sees them.

Recently widowed Louise Bickford has been left homeless and almost penniless following the death of her domineering husband. With no skills, and no means of earning a living, she must now divide her summers between her three daughters, staying with each in turn, while in winter she has a cut-price room in a hotel run by an old schoolfriend. Then the friend suffers a heart attack, Louise is forced to leave, and it seems no-one wants her...

I think they all see her as a bit of an encumbrance – they certainly make her feel that way – and they have a tendency to ignore her, which is easily done because she is so self-effacing. She has absolutely no confidence, and no self-esteem. She has few friends, hates social occasions and meeting people, and rarely expresses an opinion on anything. She’s been squashed by life or, more likely, by her husband and is so anxious not to do or say the wrong the thing and not to cause any bother to anyone that she seems almost to have erased herself. She is one of the most unnoticeable people you are ever likely to meet in literature or in real life.

Monica Dickens
Louise sounds an unlikely heroine, but it’s her very ordinariness that makes her so appealing, and she doesn’t deserve to be overlooked, and should never be under-estimated.  As the story progressed and I got to know her thoughts and feelings, her likes and dislikes, her fears, the things that make happy, I warmed to her because she’s kind and caring, and has her own views, but few people take the trouble to listen to her. Those who do value her tend to be other outsiders, like her eldest grandchild Ellen, or Gordon Disher, the fat, quietly spoken, unassuming bed salesman who leads a double life as author Lester Drage, penning thrillers which are full of shocking crime, sex and violence – which are, surprisingly, exactly the kind of novels that Louise enjoys reading.

I liked the way a tentative friendship grows between Gordon and Louise, and I liked the portrayal of her relationship with her daughters, who are not really cruel or heartless, just thoughtless, and unable to see their mother as a person in her own right, or to understand how she has reached this point in her life, or how she feels about it.

Endpaper from a 1950s furnishing fabric in
a private collection.
For they are young, and have their own problems. On the face of it they seem very different from each other, but beneath the surface all three are dissatisfied with their lives. There is Miriam, tall and slim, well dressed and well organised, with her three children, and her nice house, but she’s as brittle as her marriage. Then there’s Anne, who doesn’t seem to care about anything or anyone, and especially not her house and her kindly, market gardener husband. And finally there’s Eva, a bright, bubbly actress who is in love with a married man. I found their contrasting relationships with their menfolk interesting, especially in the light of Louise’s unhappy marriage, and deepening friendship with Gordon. ‘The Winds of Heaven’ could be seen not just as a novel about the way women age and how they cope with changing roles and circumstances, but also as a novel about marriage, and the dynamics between the various couples. In that sense Dickens reminded me a bit of Jane Austen, and there’s the same attention to the small, everyday details of life, and ironic comments about social pretensions and aspirations. I’ve read reviews which compare Dickens’ work to that of her great-grandfather, but personally I think she’s closer to Austen. And, like Anne Elliott, Louise is offered a second chance at life and happiness – but only after she’s dealt with a near tragedy. 

PS: I'm adding a postcript, with Links of the Day, because older women seem to be on my mind at the moment, what with my mother's move and my recent birthday. I really enjoyed a Saturday Sally from Nan, over at Letters from a Hill Farm, which is a brief but lovely celebration of three amazing women who have tremendous zest and enthusiasm for life - writer and activist Maya Angelou, novelist Edna O'Brien, and an amazing lady who was still driving her car at the age of 101.

And today  Dove Grey Reader (aka Lynne Hatwell) has written a thought provoking piece where she takes a more serious look at the issues surrounding aging and the way we care for our elderly and deal with dementia. She touches on grief and loss, and the nature of memory,  as she explores Melvyn Bragg's 'Grace and Mary', considers the BBC TV series 'The Village', and thinks about her own experiences working with  elderly patients during her nursing career. 


  1. This is one of the Persephones I plan to read this year. I have about half a dozen unread & one of my reading goals for the year is to catch up with at least one of my favourite publishers! Thanks for the review. I think I'll read this after Heat Lightning.

    1. Lyn, I do hope you enjoy it. I always feel you can't go wrong with Persephone, but having said that I didn't like 'Still Missing', although it was sensitively written and made me think. If I ever win the Lottery (unlikely, I know!) I will buy every published Persephone, and a bookshelf to keep them on!