When Karen mentioned that she’d bought some Nina Bawden books, I commented that I had a few on my shelves, but had never got around to reading her – and, hey presto, a joint readalong of A Woman of My Age (1967) was born. Karen’s already posted her review here, but I have to admit that I have yet to read it – because I wanted to give you my thoughts before I discovered hers.
I didn’t know what to expect from Nina Bawden – I’ve never even read her famous children’s books – so I started the novel with more or less a blank canvas. Elizabeth is the heroine (if the term fits… which it doesn’t, really) and is in Morocco with her husband of eighteen years, Richard. The heat is stultifying and their companions a trifle wearying – the obese, overly-friendly Mrs Hobbs and her quiet husband, and the unexpected friend from home, Flora. Unexpected to Elizabeth, anyway…
As their journey across the country continues, the web between these characters gets more and more complex, as secrets are revealed and alliances kindled – but the mainstay of the narrative is Elizabeth’s musings on her past life, as her marriage to Richard is slowly documented, and considered in minute detail. For Elizabeth is nothing if not introspective – she’s even introspective about being introspective, which does lead to one amusing line at least:
She peered appraisingly at herself in the mirror, pulling faces as if she were alone, and I was embarrassed by her candour. (Though I have as much interest in my appearance as most women, I feel it is somehow degrading to admit it. Before we came away, I bought a special cream supposed to restore elasticity to the skin, but I destroyed the wrapper on the jar and the accompanying, incriminating literature, as furtively as I had, when young, removed the cover of a book on sex.)
Before I go further, I should put forward the weak statement that I quite enjoyed A Woman of My Age, because I’m going to harp on about the things I didn’t much like. So, while I do that, please bear in mind that Bawden’s writing is always good, her humour (when it comes) is sharp and well-judged, and her characters are generally believable. There is even some pathos in the account of Elizabeth’s ageing relatives, but I shan’t comment much on that – because they are pretty incidental.
Elizabeth’s age, referred to in the title, is 37. She has been married for nearly half her life, and is obviously rather dissatisfied. We know this, because she often tells us. Sometimes (in this mention of her early married life) it is almost laughably stereotypical:
We were bored with our husbands. They were sober young men, marking school books, studying, advancing into an adult world of action and responsibility.
This is, I shall admit now, my main problem with the novel – and that which inspired my title to this post. Elizabeth is a card-carrying, fully-paid-up member of the Cynical Wives Brigade. You may remember how little I liked Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year – you can read my thoughts here – and a lot of A Woman of My Age is cut from the same cloth. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a wife, and because I wasn’t around in the 1960s, but I find this gosh-is-my-privileged-life-wonderful-enough unutterably tedious, not to mention the casual adultery that all these characters indulge in. Adultery seems, at best, a stimulus for another tedious, introspective conversation or contemplation. Children, as with Drabble’s novel, are included simply to show the passage of time, and none of the adult characters seem to have any particularly parental instincts.
Was this a 1960s thing? Well, Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is one of my favourite novels, but I can’t deny that it is very introspective – but Jane isn’t a wife, so she manages to escape the Cynical Wives Brigade. I haven’t read many novels from this decade, but already I get the idea (supported by this novel) that it’s full of this type of navel-gazing, morally-lax types. For someone born in the 1980s, incidentally, there were a couple of moments which are very of-their-time, and rather shocking to me. (Were these views still acceptable in the 1960s?? Both are from Elizabeth’s point of view, and neither seem ironic.)
As a result, I drank more than was sensible in my condition: like a lot of women, I always felt more unwell during the first three months of pregnancy than afterwards, and alcohol went to my head very quickly.
I was surprised at the violence of his remorse – after all, he had only hit me
I suppose I can’t blame Bawden for that, if those were still prevalent opinions and actions in the time. But what I can blame her for is making an interesting scenario and potentially interesting characters get so dragged down by the dreariness of reading about Elizabeth’s self-pity and moping. To do her justice, another character in the novel does accuse her of exactly these faults. I cheered when I read this:
If they are a sample of your usual conversation I’m not surprised that he doesn’t listen to you. You’re no more worth listening to than any bored, spoiled young woman, whining because the routine of married life has gone stale on you. It really is very provoking, to a woman of my generation. When I was thirty, we didn’t have the vote, we had to fight for a place in the world. Now you’ve got it, most of you don’t bother to use it. I daresay it’s dull, being tied to a house and young children, but it was a life you chose, after all, you were so eager to rush into it that you didn’t even take your degree.
I’m always curious when authors incorporate criticisms of their novel or characters into the narrative itself. Is it a moment of self-awareness, to distance themselves from the voice of the narrator? Is it the belief that recognising one’s faults is the same as correcting them? Or is simply a moment of regret, for the direction a novel should have taken?
(I should make clear – a lot of the things Elizabeth complains about are probably genuine issues. But complaining does not a novel make.)
And I haven’t even mentioned the big twist at the end. I don’t really know what to say about it.
I’m still glad that I read Nina Bawden, and I’ll have a look at the other one’s on my shelves to see if they’re any less frustrating. Right now I’m off to see what Karen thought… come join me?