The Sixties Heroine: “A mature and adult female of her species at last”

I was finishing Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, a five-volume saga which takes a British family from the 1920s through to the 1950s. I had followed these characters across a couple of thousand pages and several decades, and we were almost done, when on page 464 of volume five, All Change, I came across this line, describing a woman who in volume one had been a young wife and mother: “And I’m sixty-two, she thought, too old for anything interesting to happen.” Well, not long ago, I was sixty-two myself, but I’ve had a couple of birthdays since then, and I can’t help it, I bridled. All Change indeed! It wasn’t that I expected that particular character necessarily to take center stage for a dramatic love affair or a new career, but still, I thought, would either of those actually have been out of the question?
But it’s pretty rare to pick up a novel and find a woman my age—someone solidly in her sixties, or even her late fifties—as a real mover or shaker in the plot. Miss Marple, I miss you. Olive Kitteridge, I’ll follow you anywhere. I don’t think I’m looking for assurance that women my age (or a little younger or a little older) are entitled to expect any particular plot turns—happy romances versus unhappy, fulfilling sexual encounters versus bedroom farces, happy families (all alike or not) versus unhappy, professional triumphs versus implosions and disasters—I’m just looking for the feeling that their lives still encompass the twists and turns of fortune, outrageous or not. And I’m objecting to the idea that for the most part, the 60-ish female in a novel is a kind of place­holder, a species of domestic furniture. There are exceptions, of course; nineteenth-century novels offer some memorably nasty and often quite powerful ladies, but for the most part, they are probably a little younger than you think. Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, for example, has a marriageable daughter and therefore is probably in her 40s or early 50s, though in most filmed adaptations, she has been played as older, and by brilliant—and older—actresses (Edna May Oliver was 57 in 1940, Judi Dench was 71 in 2005). Mrs. Proudie in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire is in her 40s in the early novels, again looking to marry off daughters (though has probably reached her 60s in the final volume).
But what kind of reader makes these calculations? I categorically do not read novels for advice on how to live my life; and I mean that as both a true statement of how I read, and also as a statement of aggressive hostility aimed at those who look to fiction for mirrors or morals. I hate the word “relatable” with reference to literature.
You want life advice, read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, or Beautifully Organized, or How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, or Smart Women, Foolish Choices, or How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). There’s a reason people write those books, sell those books, buy those books, read those books. But fiction is fiction is fiction; the character doesn’t lose weight because if you follow her diet, you can too, she loses weight because I made it up (or rather, down). The marriage succeeds or fails, the child goes bad or goes good, the house burns down or the bank forecloses, the dog finds its way home or the damn dog dies because I say so. Excuse me, because the novelist says so.
But now, having said all that, I want to talk about the occasional joys of looking in the mirror. In particular, I want to talk about what fun it is, as a reader in my sixties, to encounter a woman in her sixties in a novel, and in particular, encounter her as someone who will matter in the plot, as someone to whom things will happen, as someone who will make things happen.
I don’t mean that I’ve completely lost interest in the love and work travails of teenagers. I like a nice production of Romeo and Juliet as much as the next person, despite an occasional sneaking sympathy for the parental Montagues and Capulets (“Yes, bad boys are a thrill, we all go through that stage, but remember, Juliet dear, last month he was with Rosaline and next month it will be someone else, and for heaven’s sake, use condoms, the pox is no joke!”). But yes, a few years ago (or could it be more like a decade), I noticed in myself a waning interest in the more self-important romantic and professional misadventures of the very young, at least as fictional fodder. I mean, the world is full of wonders, but I also admit to a certain sense of been there more than once and done that a couple of times, so what else is new?
To speak personally, as I was trying to accommodate to my own sixties, I happened to read in relatively quick (and somewhat random) succession, three novels from three different centuries, each with an unmarried woman of around my own age at the center, driving the plot, and reader, I will not deny it: I related. I looked at the decisions they made and the possibilities that were open to them and the ways that their creators treated them as somehow connected to my own future possibilities. I was, shall we say, engaged.



Margaret Oliphant’s 1883 novel, Hester,[1] is named after its ingenue—Hester is 14 when she comes on the scene, and her growing-up dramas and incipient love affairs are certainly important in the novel, but the heroine of the book, clearly established from the beginning, is her aunt, Catherine Vernon, the head of the family enterprise of Vernon’s Bank, who is sixty-five at the beginning of the novel: “you can call that an old woman if you please.”
Catherine Vernon is an amazing character, redoubtably respectable and profoundly cynical patroness of her small town and ruler of all she surveys. But before describing Catherine at 65, Oliphant goes over her essential backstory, from long ago, in the first chapter of the book, telling us she “was not by any means an ordinary girl.” As a member of the banking family, brought to its height of prosperity by her grandfather, she had been expected to marry her cousin John, the head of the bank in their generation. But something had cooled between them, and John married a woman from “a county family” instead. Indeed, the two young women are placed head to head in chapter two, which gives the real setup of the story in terms of high banking drama (not a spoiler alert, since this all happens in the second chapter and before the plot of the book properly begins); John, as head of the family bank, is a dishonest incompetent, who makes a complete mess of the bank and then runs away to escape financial ruin, abandoning not only his business and his customers, but also his wife. The head clerk, Mr. Rule, knows that disaster is imminent and goes to John’s home to find him. His wife, “Mrs. John,” the one from the county family, with her muslin dress cut low on her shoulders, and her pretty little ringlets, has no idea what is going on. Mr. Rule, in desperation, then goes to Catherine, John’s cousin, who has always been excluded from bank affairs by John: “How can a girl understand banking business?” However, as soon as the clerk gives her the outline of the crisis, Catherine understands exactly where things stand and throws herself into the breach: she will be there in the morning when the bank opens, she promises, and she will deploy her own fortune to save the bank:


“You, Miss Vernon!” the clerk said, with a cry of relief and joy.
“Certainly; who else, when the credit of the bank is at stake? I have been living very quietly, you know. I spend next to nothing; my mother’s money has accumulated till it is quite a little fortune, I believe. What had I best do? Send to Mr. Sellon and ask him to help us on that security? I don’t think he will refuse.”
“If you do that we are saved,” said Rule, half crying. “That is the thing to do. What a head for business you have!”


So that is Catherine Vernon’s backstory; she saved the family business and then took it over, turning out to be “the heir of her great-grandfather’s genius for business”; she increased her own fortune, she made Mr. Rule rich and successful, and now, at the age of 65, she is a very prominent citizen, powerful and philanthropic, doubly eponymous in what was already the town of Vernon:


Her name was put to everything. Catherine Street, Catherine Square, Catherine places without number . . . when it occurred to the High Church rector to dedicate the new church to St. Catherine of Alexandria, the common people, with one accord, transferred the invocation to their living patroness.


Margaret Oliphant was 5 years shy of 60 herself when she published Hester (she would die at 69 in 1897). Still, in her 50s, she had clearly given a great deal of thought to how the mid-sixties might sit on Catherine:


Sometimes it may mean the extreme of age, decrepitude and exhaustion: but sometimes also it means a softer and more composed middle age—a lovely autumnal season in which all the faculties retain their force without any of their harshness, and toleration and Christian charity replace all sharpness of criticism or sternness of opinion.


Oliphant goes on to explain that this “lovely autumnal season” is often experienced by “peaceful souls” who have not had to struggle, and Catherine, in particular, who has never married, has been spared all the anxieties of motherhood. Instead she has spent her life doing “the work of a successful man of business increased, yet softened by all the countless nothings that make business for a woman.” Catherine, we are told, “was an old maid, to be sure, but an old maid who never was alone.” She had young friends, she was an “amateur grandmother,” to many—in short, she starts the novel at the age of 65 as “a woman with plenty of money, with a handsome, cheerful house, and a happy disposition.”
She has successfully steered the family bank for decades, selected two young members of the extended Vernon family to take over the business, installed one of them in her own house and the other in the fine house once occupied by the disgraced John and the hapless Mrs. John. She has handed over the bank to these two young men, Harry Vernon and Edward Vernon, and retired at the age of sixty. And she has put time and energy into a pet project, remodeling a large house, the Heronry, into a set of apartments with many comforts and conveniences, and then offering these residences to various Vernon relations and connec­tions, all of them living on her charity, so that the Heronry has come to be called the Vernonry. Finally, Catherine offers the last and best of the residences to that same Mrs. John, now a widow, because “John Vernon, the unfortunate or the culpable, who had all but ruined the bank, and left it to its ruin, had died abroad.” It is the arrival of Mrs. John, and her fourteen-year-old daughter, Hester, at the Vernonry, in chapter three, which truly launches the plot of the novel.
The two female protagonists—the 14-year-old Hester and the 65-year-old Catherine—meet when Catherine Vernon goes to welcome the newly arrived mother and daughter. She is their benefactress, but Oliphant remarks that her impulses are not necessarily sensitive: “In her solitude she had become a great observer of men—and women: and was disposed to find much amusement in this observation.” She feels a certain contempt for the woman who has accepted her charity and an unkind curiosity to see whether she is suffering at being back in her old neighborhood in such changed circumstances. Hester, meeting her Cousin Catherine for the first time, refuses to let her into the house: “They were antagonists already, as much as if they had been on terms of equality.”
I do not mean to walk you through the complex mix of family plot, bildungsroman, social comedy, and financial intrigue which makes up most of Hester, though I do want to comment on the brilliant and barbed society of the Vernonry. The array of poor relations live in a seething state of constant mutual hostilities, endlessly jealous of one another’s amenities—who is entitled to the sunny bench in the garden, whose windows have a better view, who gets to claim the summerhouse. But they are united in their fierce hostility toward Catherine Vernon, on whose charity they live; they criticize her manners, her motivations, her behavior, her decisions. And Catherine, while underwriting their lives, has no illusions about their sentiments; she knows that they hate her.
Oliphant herself had struggled to support her family after her husband died of tuberculosis, leaving her with three young children. She became a financially successful—and astonishingly productive—author, but her own motherhood was indeed full of anxieties, disappointments, and tragedy: three other children had died in infancy, and she outlived the other three; she supported an alcoholic brother and another who went bankrupt.[2] In Catherine Vernon, she created someone who shouldered all her family responsibilities but seemed to have escaped heartache —at least until Hester came to town.
The antagonism between Hester and Catherine persists as Hester grows up in the Vernonry. They are aware of one another, interested in one another—but they do not like one another. Hester wants to escape the dependency of the Vernonry; she is desperate to support herself by teaching languages, but her Aunt Catherine insists that she stay and care for her weak and foolish mother. Hester resents her own dependence on Catherine, resents the way that Catherine treats her mother, perhaps resents most of all her suspicion that Catherine is amused by all of this, but she is also drawn to the older woman. She becomes a spirited and beautiful young woman of nineteen, and a certain amount of romantic intrigue develops, though it never seems to be particularly interesting to Oliphant; the chapters about the bank are by far the most vivid and passionate in the novel. And while I don’t want to give away too much (because this is an amazing novel and everyone should read it), it’s the financial plot which eventually takes over the narrative, and Catherine, at the age of 70, must again face a threat to her beloved Vernon Bank, this time with Hester as her most unlikely lieutenant.
When the crisis comes, Catherine is clearly the strongest person in the room. The young people can’t keep up with her; they are “wan and wretched” after an all-night vigil, sorting through the financial papers. “She was not tired—her colour was as fresh and her eyes as bright as ever, her mind full of impatient energy; but the powers of the others had flagged.” She sends them home, telling them “You can be of no use . . . dropping asleep as you are: go and rest; at your age few can do without sleep.” And since Catherine Vernon, though unquestionably heroic, is not a particularly kind person, Oliphant comments:


It was not without a half contempt that she saw the overpowering of their young faculties by that which to her was nothing. There are so many things in which youth has the best of it, that age has a right to its dolorous triumph when that comes.


And as they face the crisis, it is Catherine who takes the lead: “‘Do you think I want,’ she cried, ‘to end my days in peace? I am ready to die fighting, on the contrary, rather than sacrifice the place my father lived and died in and his father before him. Don’t speak of peace to me.’” She declares herself quite ready to face poverty in her old age, commenting, “‘I am not afraid of the workhouse,’” and pointing out that she certainly has a right to a place in a Vernon charitable institution. You’ll have to read the book to find out how the bank gets into trouble again, and whether she manages to save it, and does or doesn’t end up in the workhouse.
But whatever happens to the bank, and wherever Catherine ends up, as a financial heroine, she will probably confound some of your expectations of Victorian fiction and the roles open to women. Is there a marriage plot in this 1883 novel, named for its pretty 19-year-old protagonist? Well, the various love affairs in the book are resolved with an eye to the ridiculous, or left bluntly unresolved at the end of the novel, as if it’s a trivial question, after all, which of two young men a young woman might marry. The spiritual union which shapes the plot, the two characters who initially dislike one another, learn to appreciate one another, and build to an affection that Oliphant regards without irony, are Hester and her Aunt Catherine.


Catherine took hold of her dress when she was going away.
“One thing,” she said. “I think you and I have hated each other because we were meant to love each other, child.”
“I think I have always done both,” said Hester.
The faint sound that broke through the stillness was not like Catherine’s laugh. She patted the girl’s arm softly with her hand. Their amity was too new to bear caresses.
“Now go and do your work, for your honour and mine,” she said.


So even though I promise you I do not read novels for life coaching, there it was, speaking loud and clear from the late nineteenth century: go and do your work. Message in the bottle: there’s plenty of opportunity in your 60s to be the power behind the plot, especially if you’re in the right job.



I was thinking of Catherine and of the perils of a life without work when I read The Winds of Heaven, a 1955 novel by Monica Dickens.[3] Louise Bickford, the heroine, has the double burden of self-consciousness and invisibility:


Louise was always much concerned with how people were thinking of her and summing her up; not knowing that a small, middle-aged lady with stubby features and hair no longer brown and not yet grey usually goes unnoticed.


Louise is fifty-eight, widowed a year before the novel begins, after thirty-five years of marriage to the horrible Dudley (he called her Tubby). Her dead husband’s selfish, baleful, contemptuous presence hovers over the early sections of the novel; she is happy to be rid of him, but shocked to learn that he has speculated away all their money, and died leaving her only debts. So Louise has nowhere to go and nothing to live on; it is apparently more unthinkable in the 1950s than it was in the 1880s that a genteel female should compromise her gentility by getting some kind of job (Catherine ran the bank; Hester was desperate to give language lessons and thereby support herself and her mother). Instead, Louise is set up for a kind of rotating dependency, she will spend the winter months at a hotel run by a friend from childhood, on the Isle of Wight, who will accommodate her in the off-season, and in the spring and summer, she will be passed among her three daughters. Think, Queen Lear—but as domestic comedy.
And there you have the plan for the novel; at the beginning, Louise is staying with her daughter Miriam, who lives with her husband—a barrister—and their three children in Monk’s Ditchling, a ritzy “village” outside London. Louise doesn’t like the place:


[She] disliked the self-conscious perpetuation of beams and thatch that housed the sophisticated shops and clubs and stiffly-tweeded businessmen. When she had once referred to it, however, as a glorified suburb, Miriam and Arthur had jumped down her throat with as much horror as if she had accused them of living in the slums.


The great thing about The Winds of Heaven is how splendidly awful all of Louise’s living situations are. It’s frankly fun (at least in my 60s) to read a novel in which all three of the adult children are kind of repellent, each in her own way. There’s Miriam with her social pretensions and her “exhaustingly gay” friends coming for cocktails; there’s Eva, desperate to make her way as an actress, hoping to “attract notice in an odd play, which would mystify or nauseate many people.” And the youngest daughter is Anne, who has married “beneath her” and lives with her market-gardener husband, feeling herself too good to put any effort into the home or the business, frankly slovenly, clearly bored. “Her voice was loud and often querulous, except when she talked to the dogs. She chain-smoked away a quarter of Frank’s hard-earned money. She was disastrously lazy.”
Louise sees her daughters clearly, but she loves them. She wants to stay connected, but they drive her crazy. And, of course, she is acutely aware that she is a burden, that she is constantly in their houses, in their lives, in their way. When she is living with Eva, the actress, she is at least in London, and can leave the apartment and go into the city. But she has nowhere to go and nothing to do.


Like many other lonely women in London, Louise was having to learn the art of killing time cheaply, without pausing in a vacuum to admit defeat. She knew all about taking a long time to dress in the mornings, and spinning out the ritual of retiring at night. She knew about dawdling in teashops over the kind of light meal that other people were bolting and running from as soon as possible. She knew about the half-price morning shows at West End cinemas, where women ate their lunch out of crackling paper bags, and about stopping wherever a crowd was gathered, to see a wedding, or a political agitator, or a comic man with a desperate face dancing in the street, with his hat on the ground for pennies.


Reading about Louise in London, I thought of the Barbara Pym heroines of the 1950s, especially Mildred in Excellent Women (1952), busy with her errands and her church work, her domestic responsibilities and her oddly anachronistic job of helping distressed gentlewomen. All Pym characters tend to have a certain cultural grounding—“our greater English poets” to fall back on, but poor Louise’s education is clearly very limited. Mildred’s “excellence” resides in her busyness, in her usefulness—but Mildred has a small independent income, and a job, and can support herself in her own apartment. Louise is perhaps a modern version of a distressed gentlewoman, clumsy when it comes to darning, inept at washing dishes; she comes closest to happiness when she can be useful, as when Eva’s husband injures his hand and she pitches in to help with the farm. In the other two homes, and in the hotel on the Isle of Wight, Louise truly has nothing to do. This is so clear to everyone who sees her that a fellow hotel guest, the officious Miss Dott, recruits her as a knitter, telling her, “You know what they say about idle hands.” It’s an attempt to make her into the “granny” that she isn’t, and it isn’t much of a success, though it passes the time:


Louise was glad of the knitting, although it often tormented her. She sat in the lounge in the afternoons, hoping that someone would come in soon and light the fire, clicking away at the intricate mass of greying white wool—“Pink or blue would have been more dainty,” Miss Dott had said—and holding it up now and again to see if it was beginning to look like what it was meant to be. Often, when Miss Dott came home, she had to unpick all the work that Louise had done to pick up the dropped stitches.


Watching Louise move haplessly from one living situation to the next is extremely diverting; it’s also a kind of primer on the different lives she might have lived and the different people she might be—the hanger-on in bohemia, the always inadequate social climbing suburban dowager, the overwhelmed farmwife, all these unappealing domesticities.
Monica Dickens published the book when she was 40, therefore significantly closer to the age of Miriam and her sisters than to their mother, but she has little sympathy for the younger women in the story, and she’s very gentle with Louise. Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, actually made her own name as a writer by writing about women and work; she published an account of her experience as a debutante who decided to go into domestic service and work as a cook, One Pair of Hands, in 1939, and she then followed that up with One Pair of Feet, in 1942, about training to be a nurse in the Second World War, and then in 1951, My Turn to Make the Tea, about working as a newspaper reporter. That is, she knew a great deal about the kinds of employment open to women and had rather constituted herself an expert on the subject of a woman of genteel birth crossing class lines to take a job.[4]
When Louise raises the possibility of employment in The Winds of Heaven, her daughter Miriam shoots it down, first the idea that she might work in a children’s shoestore, then the idea of domestic service:


She would not hear of Louise having a job. What would people say? . . . Really, mother was a little touched sometimes . . . Barristers who were rising to the top of their profession did not have mothers-in-law behind the haberdashery counter. . . . A housemaid! That’s not even funny. What do you think this family is?


But The Winds of Heaven is more than a novel of family tensions; it’s also a romance, and Louise’s suitor doesn’t want her working either. In the first chapter, in a teashop in London, she shares a table with Gordon Disher, who is reading The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini. Mr. Disher, described initially as “a fat, elderly man in clothes slightly frayed at points of friction,” turns out to be a salesman—he sells beds in a large department store—but on the side he writes thrillers, and this is his own work, along with Kisses and Corpses, and quite a few others. He and Louise go on meeting through the book, and she likes everything about him, from his “cosy room” with its “restful, sagging furniture,” to his kind attention to Ellen, her favorite grandchild. The reader can easily see that she is happier and more comfortable in his company than she is in any of her living situations, and finally, just after they have agreed to call each other by their first names (and this is almost 250 pages in), Louise asks Gordon to help her solve the problem of her life by getting her a job in his store. He is terribly upset by the suggestion:


“You’re too much alone. . . . I don’t think you’re happy. You shouldn’t be thinking about a job. It’s—it’s pathetic. I won’t let you be pathetic and I won’t get you an interview. That’s not what I want for you.” . . . For a crazy moment, Louise thought that he was asking her to marry him. Then she saw a picture of herself in her mind, looking her age, and realized the absurdity of the thought.


So her daughter thinks she’s too old to work, and she thinks she’s too old for love. She says something trivial, she laughs, and poor Gordon Disher is deeply hurt—so much so that he violates his own strict diet rules (he has diabetes) and ends up in the hospital . . . and well, if you want to know about the rather dramatic succession of events from that proposal to the end of the book, you’ll have to read it.



Margaret Drabble nails her generational—and feminist—colors to the mast in the very first paragraph of her 2006 novel, The Sea Lady,[5] published when she herself was 67. The main character, Ailsa Kelman, is presenting a literary prize, for a general science book, facing a live audience and a TV audience in a silver sequined gown that shows off her shoulders and her bosom, “boldly dressed, for a woman in her sixties, but she came of a bold generation, and she seemed confident that the shadowy shoals of her cohort were gathered around her in massed support as she flaunted herself upon the podium.” Ailsa is the “sea lady” of the title, a public intellectual, a feminist, a scholar, at the top of her game, eagerly keeping score, and enjoying the spotlight—in her sixties.
She is, we are told in the opening award ceremony scene, “in her element here,” because she loves public occasions, she thrives on “the summer season of prizes and of honours”; next stop will be a trip to a university in the northern town of Ornemouth to get an honorary degree. And this shapes the plot of the novel, since an important figure from Ailsa’s past, her old friend and former husband, the marine biologist Humphrey Clark, will be meeting her there, to receive an honorary degree of his own; the book is subtitled “a late romance,” and it is a romance happening late enough in lives that have been successful enough to warrant honorary degrees. The book is full of small observed details about being the honored guest, the senior speaker, the person of privilege in settings that conjure the intersections of academic life and public life, full of wry observations about the ways that men and women handle these roles. Humphrey Clark is on the train, his travel carefully arranged by his personal assistant, Mrs. Hornby. Ailsa, however, is on an airplane, and she has no such solicitous personal assistant:


She likes her privacy and her freedom too much. At times, when her engagements become complicated and her double bookings confusing, she will go into an overdrive feminist mode and blame the male culture of servant dependency that makes women like herself such martyrs to the very concept of independence. She has at times spoken forcefully and angrily and even persuasively about this, for Ailsa can find an ideological excuse for anything.


Drabble is keenly interested in all the details (and debris) of later-in-life professional celebrity and career. If you find yourself wondering about Ailsa’s exact trajectory, you can read the bio in the honorary degree ceremony program folder:


Ailsa Kelman, scholar and feminist, is celebrated for her pioneering studies of gender and for her gift for lucid and dramatic exposition . . . renowned around the world for her courageous explorations of women’s achievements, ambitions and limitations. Her classic works include her ground-breaking study of the artist Eloise van Dieman and her analysis of the Bohemian space occupied by the artist’s model (both male and female) in fact and fiction, but she is known to a much wider public for her television presentations of the paradoxes and missed messages of everyday domestic life and sexual deviance.


Drabble is clearly enjoying herself, and so is her character; she also tells us, “Ailsa Kelman lacks method, but what she lacks in method she makes up for in energy and originality and output and panache.” You can get a similar honorary-degree-program look at Humphrey’s career as a marine biologist, which has been distinguished, but which he regards as having been, in some sense, a failure. Ailsa, who is a high-stakes academic public performer (and perhaps, like many academic performers, has a little of the charlatan about her) is able to enjoy both perfor­mance and its perks; Humphrey, a good and honorable fellow, is not really having much fun at all.
Every small choice and decision that Ailsa makes conveys her character, and her satisfaction in playing that character. “She likes aeroplanes. They are modern and charged with adrenalin, stress and promises.” She has stopped worrying about her weight. “She was getting old, and she might as well get fat too. Solidity was admirable, weight was desirable. . . . Now she ate what she liked when she liked and it seemed to make no difference.” In this and other ways, her privilege—her achievement—is that she can regulate her life to fit her preferences and her comforts and her substantial ego. The narrator comments, “No wonder she thinks that by an effort of the will she can arrest time. What will happen to her when time catches up with her?”
Later in the book, as a kind of bookend to the opening awards ceremony, the novel features a wonderful set piece called “The Hall of the Muses,” in which Ailsa, several decades earlier in her career, gives the McIveagh Lecture at the Caledonian Academy in Scotland, the first woman ever to deliver this (fictitious) named lecture, and Humphrey watches her on television. “The lecture is mesmeric, the slides sensational.” As in the opening scene, she is dressed to kill, in a long cream gown cut low in front and even lower in back, a heroine who is romancing the public: “When she turns her back upon the audience to point at her slides, as she does frequently, she is nude to the waist, and the cleavage of her buttocks is suggestively indicated.”
Margaret Drabble, born in 1939, has taken some trouble, across the now six decades of her career as a novelist, to pay attention to the complexities of feminism and of the different paths and choices that the second half of the twentieth century made available to women.[6] Consider Candida Wilton, the heroine of The Seven Sisters, Drabble’s 2002 novel, which also centers on a woman in her sixties. Candida is a woman without any significant career, let alone a star, and she lives a somewhat wispy and marginal life in London, divorced from her husband, estranged from her children. She acknowledges that she has never liked sex (“For some of us, it means nothing but a sense of unending failure and everlasting exclusion”), while Ailsa is so sexually memorable that her ex-husband can only review their spectacular encounters.
The Sea Lady offers a fascinating look at someone who has curated her own persona and knows it and plans to play it for all that it is worth. It also dives back into childhood—Ailsa’s childhood and Humphrey’s, because they were children together in that seaside town—and evokes the landscape and the historical moment of their postwar childhoods with a kind of lyric brilliance, rich in highly specific detail. It makes a particularly bold narrative choice in introducing a figure called the Public Orator, who is directing some of the action.[7] But none of that is what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the joys of reading in exactly the way I most pride myself on not reading, on the repeated frissons which come from reading a book which reflects you and cheering on a character as if you were cheering on, well, your own reflection.
I don’t mean to say that I confused myself with the main character—I am neither the success nor (I hope) the monster that Drabble has created. I’m not a member of her feminist generation, either, though I fully acknowledge my debt, and it’s a generation which certainly overlapped with my own growing up and education. But the book is filled with the detail of experiences which come in the later decades in certain kinds of lives—academic lives, literary lives, lives lived partly in the public view—and the main character is allowed to note, relish, and savor every possible detail.
Reading these novels as I entered on my own sixties, I appreciated the spectacular, but also the quietly unexpected. I was grateful for all the plots and possibilities—that Louise might sit down at a teashop table with a fellow whose clothes were “frayed at the points of friction,” and come away with a new best friend and even a lover, that Catherine was ready to come out of retirement and take control, that Ailsa was stepping once again to one more podium. So let me take my final message from her, as she obtains her honorary degree, almost as though it is part of the citation: “She was a mature and adult female of her species at last, and she was rejoicing in her maturity.”


[1] Margaret Oliphant, Hester (Oxford, 2009, originally published in 1883).
[2] Oliphant was a contemporary of Dickens and Eliot, although she was criticized for her tremendous output (over 100 books) and not always taken seriously. She was, however, said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist.
[3] Monica Dickens, The Winds of Heaven (London, 2010, originally published in 1955).
[4] In fact, in a 2010 Guardian review of the Persephone Press reissue of the novel, Isobel Montgomery suggested the author was best known for this: “If Monica Dickens means nothing more to you than horsey books and no-nonsense memoirs of nursing and service, then this eloquent novel about the genteel poverty of a widow shunted between her three egotistical daughters is a fine corrective.”
[5] Margaret Drabble, The Sea Lady (New York, 2006).
[6] In 2015, The Guardian celebrated Drabble’s novel, The Millstone, as “the crucial 1960s feminist novel,”—and a quick search of the academic literature will yield many articles with titles like, “Margaret Drabble’s Feminist Fiction,” or “Fate and Feminism in the Novels of Margaret Drabble.”
[7] Drabble’s novel was reviewed in the The Guardian when it came out in 2006 by another very prominent author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who would herself have been in her late 70s at that point (I’m sorry, I can’t help it; when you’re writing on this topic, age-checking everyone becomes a compulsion). Le Guin celebrated the novel as one of Drabble’s best, citing among other elements, “acute and amusing observation of society, gender, manners, fashions; strongly individual characters, whose character is probably their destiny.” And then she asked, wryly, “Lord, am I talking about Jane Austen?”