Last month, Karen of Kaggsysbookishramblings and Simon of Stuck in a book had a read-a-long of Nina Bawden’s A Woman of my Age. I wanted to join in, and then a fellow librarything member sent me a copy of the book, but I have only just got around to reading it.
Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War was one of my all-time favourite children’s books and I really enjoyed the couple of Bawden’s adult books I read last year. I find Bawden’s writing very engaging, her characters strong and believable their lives are fully explored and often portrayed with sharp humour – after reading The Devil by the Sea and A Grain of Truth I wanted to read all of Bawden’s novels for adults. I enjoyed ‘A woman of my age’ very much – although not quite as much as those two books I just mentioned, for me there were a few little odd things which jarred slightly.
“When I look in the mirror – not to see if the grey roots are beginning to show before the next tinting, but in the same way I used to look at myself when I was seventeen, at what, whom and why – I remain, as I did then, cloudy, fading, sadly out of focus. I do not know myself, only my own situation: I am Elizabeth Jourdelay, married to Richard, the mother of his two sons. I am, I am middle aged. This is an embarrassment that has come upon me suddenly, taking me by surprise so that I don’t really believe it. Looking in the mirror I see the wrinkles, but perhaps tomorrow they will be gone and my skin will be smooth again. Though wrinkles are not important. The important thing is that I am in the middle of my life and I feel as I did when I was adolescent, that I do not know where to go from here.
What of the time between? What have I done – become – during twenty long battling years? Is there no answer, no key?”
In ‘A Woman of my Age’ we meet Elizabeth – a woman of about 37 – who having been married for around eighteen years is no longer very interested in her husband and considers herself middle aged. Travelling in Morocco with her husband Richard, allows Elizabeth time to look back over her life, how is it she has ended up where she is? Brought up by two aunts who had worked for the suffrage movement and taught her to engage in politics, Elizabeth left university without taking her degree in order to marry Richard. Richard is a handsome, charming man, quite persuasive and prone to bursts of temper he is happiest with Elizabeth undertaking the traditional wife and mother role. There were times in her younger years when Elizabeth was frustrated by her life, yearning for a chance to work – however humbly – within the political arena – yet she finds herself sacrificing her ambitions for her family. Elizabeth’s view of herself and her relationship will surprise – maybe shock many modern readers, shrugging off her husband hitting her during a particularly bad row.
In the searing heat of the Moroccan desert – Elizabeth and Richard meet two other couples. Flora is an old friend – particularly of Richard’s – Elizabeth hasn’t seen her for a number of years. Flora a woman of around 40 is travelling with her young lover Adam. The other couple are the Hobbs – a couple in their 60’s, Mrs Hobbs is good hearted friendly woman, very large and rather unwell, she and her husband are devoted to one another. Initially the Hobbs’ are a couple that Elizabeth and Richard smile at behind their backs, finding them slightly ridiculous – but Elizabeth quickly becomes genuinely fond of them. Sexually uninterested in her husband, resisting his advances when she can, Elizabeth is amazed to find herself an object of attraction to both Adam and Mr Hobbs – she is further surprised by her own reaction to them. As the group continue their journey across the desert –the sexual tensions that have built up have life changing consequences for almost everyone.
There is quite a twist in the ending of this novel- not something I saw coming, and certainly it wasn’t the ending that I would have chosen. I don’t want to give away too much – in case anyone else is thinking of reading it soon – but I suspect it is an ending which dismays many readers. However – while it is not the ending I would have chosen – it did make a sort of peculiar sense for me. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth indulges in a good deal of introspective navel gazing – she’s a little bit whiney I suppose. Her life is dull – she is disappointed by how it has turned out – but she never really does much about it –the reader sees how there were times when she nearly had – but just never quite managed it. Even in Morocco there is a moment when the reader thinks Elizabeth is going to strike out on her own – but here again she goes back to what is easy – it is as if Elizabeth is simply unable to go the whole hog – she’s good at talking about it – ruminating on her lot – but she just slips back into the old routine. Elizabeth emerges as a woman repeating the mistakes of her youth in middle age – destined to live out the same life again. Nina Bawden allows her readers to really know her characters – and while we all may interpret their motivations slightly differently – we have these complex not always likeable people set out before us – and in just 200 pages or so, we have their whole lives laid bare.