Mrs. Miniver suddenly understood why she was enjoying the forties so much better than she had enjoyed the thirties: it was the difference between August and October, between the heaviness of late summer and the sparkle of early autumn, between the ending of an old phase and the beginning of a fresh one.
I very much enjoyed reading Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a collection of charming columns she wrote in the 1930s for the London Times. Mrs. Miniver is a fictional character based on Struther. In 1939 the columns were published as a novel (you can read the entire book at this website.)
As a housewife/cook/bicycling blogger, I think it would be lovely to be Mrs. Miniver. In the very first chapter, when she is musing about being in her forties, she comes home to a fire in the fireplace and tea laid out on the table by the servant: “…there were honey sandwiches, brandy-snaps, and small ratafia biscuits; and there would, she knew, be crumpets.”
Perhaps it is easier to examine the vicissitudes of life wisely if one has servants. She loves her three children but is not trapped by them (her oldest son is at Eton), one of her greatest problems is getting used to a new car, she endearingly buys an expensive green lizard engagement diary instead of a new hat, and she does not need romance: she describes marriage as two crescents bound at the points, with a leaf-shaped space in the middle “for privacy or understanding, essential in a happy marriage.”
The forties… All gone! Mrs. Miniver had better circumstances. The fifties have been better for me. The forties were a time of heartbreak, of working for an unstable boss, and coping with an early menopause. For almost a year I actually missed menstruating. Tampons. The stain of blood on a white skirt on the bus. (A whispered “Miss! Your period.”) Then there were hot flashes. There was blushing. I refused to support the pharmaceutical companies by taking hormones (which was brilliant, since they were shown to cause cancer).
Finally, in my fifties, I began to feel the “sparkle of early autumn” Mrs. Miniver writes about. There is a confidence in one’s fifties, a cessation of trying too hard to please, and a willingness to try new things.
Of course you miss your younger body.
But you can, if you want, let go of:
- dyeing your hair blond
- baking eggplant parmesan in a small kitchen where every surface is covered with ingredients and you must move into the dining room to put it all together–probably in tears!
- saying “Have a nice day!” to the guy who plays his drums late at night
- pretending you will bicycle 100 miles with your husband/boyfriend/girlfriend (35 is my limit)
- saying you’ll read James Joyce’s Ulysses
- wanting a large leather hobo bag that costs $1,495 (throw out your TV! That’s where you saw it.)
You will, on the other hand, need more makeup and a better wardrobe.
Is aging the last frontier for women in literature? Certainly many honest, bold writers have written about sexuality in middle- and old age. Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, a novel about a woman’s coping with midlife, is one of my favorite books. Her novel Love Again is about love at the wrong time of life: a 65-year-old theater manager and writer, who hasn’t had sex in 20 years or missed it, falls in love with a flirtatious American actor in his twenties. Erica Jong is the author of the memoir, Fear of Fifty. Virginia Woolf writes about the 50ish Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. Elizabeth von Arnim’s Mr. Skeffington is a coming-of-middle-age story about a beautiful woman turning 50. Enid Bagnold’s The Loved and Envied tells the story of a group of friends who are dealing with aging. May Sarton published diaries on aging.
And of course there are many more.
Which writers do you recommend on aging? And what are your thoughts on different decades of life?
BOOKS & MATRONS. I was recently treated with respect at Barnes and Noble. Why? Because I wore MATRON CLOTHES.
Some of you may remember that I bought “matron clothes” for my mother’s funeral in August. I rushed into a department store, took a jumble of suitable tops into the dressing room, and bought the first five that fit. In my feminine top over stretchy jeans, I was promptly served my latte at B&N in about 30 seconds. When I bought a book, the clerk did not a smile–that would have been going too far–but there was courtesy.
The moral? Dress up!
Matron clothes – what a thought! I wear what is comfortable and people don’t give up their seats on buses etc but who knows? Mr. Skeffington was the best ageing story I’ve read in a while. If you want to get onto *real* ageing and its indignities there’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, but that is desperately sad.
I have to reread _Summer before Dark_ and re-try Elizabeth Armin. I agree that each decade brings a new difference, though as a woman it can be an awareness that men regard you as superfluous, no longer feel attraction as you’ve passed some rubicon in looks. (For me it’s my face which has lost its smoothness.) We read about Mrs Miniver — the columns and the film — when we read Alison Light’s _Forever England_,and at that time I got myself a biography of the author who invented the character. A much more radical and interesting woman than you’d think, a good poet too. The details you cite this time (the boy at Eton, the daily routine, her servants) though strike me as very upper class and I’m bemused at how what passed for popular in the 1940s and even 50s was an image of the upper classes who were a minority of the population. Is this what working class women read? or did reading working class women read something else? who were the buyers of these newspapers? nowadays women would not like to aspire, they would prefer an image of their own milieu.
Karen, I wonder if anyone would give up a seat on a bus for me? (I doubt it.) That IS what they’re supposed to do, isn’t it? But there’s always room on the bus here–thank God! I’ll have to reread Mrs. Palfrey. (And isn’t there a movie?)
Ellen, yes. Ten years of fairly intense bicycling has weathered my face: the windy prairie isn’t kind. It IS odd that working women like these tales of women with servants, but so it is. Almost every Persephone novel I can think of is about a woman with servants. I guess we feel we can dream. I think women have liked “chick lit” (is that still around?) so much because it’s both funny and an accurate description of working women, with some quite unrealistic romance thrown in. Lessing and Erica Jong are better for me these days.
You might enjoy Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym about aging bureaucrats puts out to pasture. Wry and sympathetic. It does seem that quite a lot of between-the-wars English novels center around women with servants. They are not quite upper class in the aristocratic sense, but they certainly have comfortable lives — with a lot of fussing about what teapot to use and who is to call on whom. Mrs. Dalloway is a wondrous book, but she never seems to worry about money or where it is coming from.
I love Barbara Pym, Nancy! I should reread Quartet in Autumn.
Yes, I’ve never understood the English class system, but do remember reading a very funny book (a Persephone) about a woman who has to do her own housework because of the war. Really, I always do my own housework.:)