The Cynical Wives Brigade (A Woman of My Age – Nina Bawden)

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.
and

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?

21 thoughts on “The Cynical Wives Brigade (A Woman of My Age – Nina Bawden)

  • May 27, 2013 at 1:19 pm
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    Nice review Simon! Yes, I think this book is very much stuck in the time it was written and that *does* very much affect the attitudes of the characters and the events. Oddly enough, Elizabeth's self-centredness reminds me a little of Wilmet in Pym's "Glass of Blessings" which I just finished. It's a shame that Bawden's writing is wasted on characters and a plot that end up being not terribly inspiring!Q

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  • May 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm
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    Fabulous review – I now have this book as I was sent a copy by lovely Elaine from librarything. I will try to read it very soon – as I have enjoyed the couple of other Bawden novels I read, and your review has intrigued me further.

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  • May 27, 2013 at 2:04 pm
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    Having lived and spread my fledgling wings in the 60s, I have little desire to spend precious reading time with a character of Elizabeth's ilk. Our parents had made it through WWII and were too bruised and grateful to do much more than get on with the business of living, few taking time to question the values and mores of their parents, the Victorians. It was left to us to do that and so we did, marching with Dr. King or protesting the Vietnam war. Women could vote, yes, but glass ceilings abounded. These Elizabeths who drifted off into supposedly safe backwaters missed the very heart of the 60s: its excitement, energy, and intense aliveness. I'll give this Virago a miss…thanks, Simon!

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    • May 27, 2013 at 11:09 pm
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      Addendum: well, maybe I shouldn't be so dismissive. It was the idea of reading self-pitying moping and cynicism that tripped me up. I might read it after I've read all the books sitting here. (elbow to ribs, wink, wink)

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:36 am
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      I could have coped (indeed, celebrated) Elizabeth if she'd gone to said backwaters and been happy with it – because it's the choice I'd have made in her position – but she just mopes about it! If she'd have been happier doing the exciting things of the 60s, she should have just gone and done them.

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  • May 27, 2013 at 9:51 pm
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    I started reading your review Simon, but then, following your example, I decided to write my comment about the book before reading the whole post.
    First of all, I’ve never heard about “A woman of my age”, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise and I’m so grateful I can learn about all those books I’ve never known before.
    Ok, about the book…
    Elizabeth and I couldn’t be more different. I’m not married, don’t have children, hate politics but after reading: “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” I somehow thought that we have more in common than I probably want to admit. I felt some kind of solidarity with Elizabeth. Although I occasionally didn’t agree with her I desperately wanted her to be happy. I knew Richard wasn’t faithful far before he was caught in flagrante, so when she finally discovered the truth I “said” to her: “For God’s sake, run away and live your life”. And she did run away. As weird as it sounds, I was really happy. I had in my mind a perfect ending of this book: Elizabeth leaving her husband, finding a great job where she is appreciated, marrying Adam, staying friends with the Hobbs and all those sugary things. Ok, it’s too sweet, but I really wanted this book to finish like that. It would be so uplifting.
    So when I actually finished “A woman of my age” I was angry. I’m still angry. What on earth was that???? I thought it was going so well. Hmm…. apparently not.
    Still, I enjoyed the book. Enjoyed the writing, I underlined so many sentences I loved, like this one:
    “You look out of your window and then the wind blows and the next time you look it’s all different. It made me feel funny. As if I suddenly knew I couldn’t be sure of anything any more”.
    It's just brilliant! I could read it over and over again.
    (But I still can’t get over the ending.)

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:36 am
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      You sound like you got so much more from this than I did, Agnieszka, and I'm thrilled!

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  • May 28, 2013 at 5:49 am
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    This sounds like the sort of book that scared me off of Virago completely for far too many years, afraid that all they had to offer were frustrated housewives who I was meant to sympathize with when all I really wanted to do was smack some sense into them!

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:37 am
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      Very good point! If I'd read this first (or another VMC I loathed more – Tea and Tranquillisers) then I'd have never gone back! Luckily the first VMC I read was the Provincial Lady, so I never looked back…

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  • May 28, 2013 at 12:46 pm
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    One to avoid for me, having read both reviews! I think it may reflect that curious moment, the mid 60's, when my own mother was in her late 30's, and part of womanhood was experiencing sexual revolution, yet a whole other experience awaited this class of female, and I say 'awaited' in the sense that they felt no empowerment to change. I have read and loved 'The Peppermint Pig' but this is currently the sum total of my Bawden!
    Fee

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:38 am
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      Excellent summation, Fee! I'll turn to Peppermint Pig next time instead ;)

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  • May 29, 2013 at 12:47 am
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    Doesn't sound like my kind of book, but in answer to your question about 1960s attitudes (as someone who grew up in the 60s, I'm always being asked about these things by my much-younger co-workers who watch "Mad Men"), yes, neither remark would have raised an eyebrow in the 60s – it was a different world for women then, with people holding much different opinions and attitudes then (in the US anyway) than they do now. What you see as the parents' indifference toward children is also very much of its time. Children did not hold the central position in family life that they seem to now. There were no "helicopter" parents hovering over us; whether that is a good or bad thing will probably be debated for years!

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:39 am
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      How curious about those remarks not being noticed! I can understand that people didn't realise about the perils of getting drunk during pregnancy, but it seems odd to me that being hit was ever considered acceptable by a woman. Glad times have changed – or at least acceptable opinions have changed.

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  • May 29, 2013 at 8:05 pm
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    Simon, great review!

    I enjoyed this much more than you did, but not enough to reread it.As I told Kaggy, meant to read along, because I'm a fan of Bawden, but somehow I never DO read along. (I read my Muriel Spark only after you were done with it.)

    But I WILL read some Bawden later this year in honor of your readalong. Probably something I haven't read.

    It's wonderful that you sponsor these readalongs.

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:40 am
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      Thanks Kat! I'll certainly give Bawden another go – I have a policy of not ruling out well-regarded authors until I've read three duds – but I shan't re-read this.

      I love a readalong! They're great fun :)

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  • May 30, 2013 at 6:29 pm
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    Great review Simon (I’ve read it now). Thank you for doing this readalong. I really like events like this. It’s great to learn about new books and authors. I haven’t heard of Bawden before. I’d like to think it’s because I’m a foreigner not because I’m ignorant, but it’s probably both ;)

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  • June 18, 2013 at 8:13 pm
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    Simon I finished A Woman of my Age, last night – I think I enjoyed it more than maybe you did. I did find there were a few things that jarred slightly – the first few pages I had Elizabeth in her mid fifties then had to re-adjust my thinking. The ending was very unexpected – but as I say in my review it did make a peculiar sense to me too.

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