her book ‘Incident in the Rue Laugier’, writer Anita Brookner writes
of a middle-aged woman called Maud. “Her own calm good sense was there
to remind her that those who did not rely on their inner resources, as she
had been obliged to do, were forever condemned to weep in other women’s
drawing rooms or to complain into the ears of friends who might not be
displeased at this evidence of dissatisfaction.”
didn’t have anything specific to complain about. She was well off, had a
beautiful grown up daughter, a spacious apartment and a husband who loved
her, if anything, too much. Her unhappiness lay in a yearning for some
fire that had gone out in her youth. She longed to recapture that moment
of abandon and freedom when she eloped with an irresistible, but
ultimately irresponsible, young man. Her husband, her lover’s friend, on
the other hand had done the right thing. He married her. But her freedom was taken away and her
passion spent. After the good (but boring) husband died she committed a
kind of a spiritual suicide. She stopped eating. She stopped going out and
simply faded away into death. She was in her fifties.
women. Their children may have grown up and on the verge of leaving home.
Their careers may be leveling out, friends getting sick, parents dying,
menopause. It must be a difficult time. But like Maud, by then women may
intuitively know that others may rejoice in their unhappiness. People like
to hear about things going wrong in others’ lives. It is an unpleasant
but real aspect of human nature. But well wishers, their children perhaps,
or a sister, seeing that they are unusually quiet may sense that they are
about to give up and urge them to get involved in life again.
may find it easier to fend off the growing old blues. In any event society
vests power on the older man, who, by that age, has achieved a certain
financial and social status. Men, it is said, compartmentalize their
lives. I suppose slots of unhappiness are easier to deal with than general
wistful unhappiness - that killer of poor Maud. Many women like Maud find
it difficult to recreate the fire in their lives because they are simply
too busy minding grandchildren and husbands, working 9-5, managing homes,
old relatives and weddings. It doesn’t occur to them to think of
themselves. And I hate to say this about my own sex, but women who get
together in groups to allay loneliness can be treacherous. Women,
according to a Newsweek article, think with all of their brain all of the
time. So, in a roomful of middle-class women, that atmosphere is thick
with tension and alliances, emotion and comparison at many levels.
Although this can be an asset to organisations with serious agendas, it
can turn into a lethal double-edged sword when they’re in it just to
pass the time. Confide in
them while sipping your tea and you’re dead. Complain about your
children and they have something over you, tell them your money problems
and they feel that you’ve been put in your place. No, there is little
chance of comfort here.
male social group are the opposite. Hearty lunches are consumed, business
associates hail one another gladly, and good natured jibes are given and
received. It is a matter of male honour not to discuss wives and affairs
of the heart. The newly married are heartily congratulated. The newly
widowed are treated with deference. And that’s that.
here I suppose is where the “inner resources” come in. Women who need,
like Maud, to rely on their inner resources. My guess is that these
resources can only be drawn on if they are built from a young age. We can
imagine that women of previous generations cleaning the potty and the
saucepans for a lifetime find that at age 45-50 the children are grown up
and there is little left for her to do. Her looks, which until then may
have conferred a certain status on her, begin to fail her. She has had
very few leisure hours in which to develop her inner resources. She is
bereft without the children. To their annoyance and her despair she still
tries to live her life through them.
But the secret I suppose is never to allow the optimism, the spring
in our steps, to fade.
will mean that many women will have to learn how to take time out; say no
to demands of children, tell the husband to manage dinner, tell the boss
she can’t work over time. Then either shut the door and quietly listen
to music, or go running, alone or with a friend, read or write in a
journal. All our lives we need to find time to indulge ourselves and keep
tabs on who we are and what we want.
will no longer settle for turning 50 and being at a loose end. We will
keep our bodies fit and our minds active and up to date with the world. We
will try to develop our talents throughout our lives so that at 50 we
still have options. So that when we no longer have the children and beauty
and energy, we may have inner resources built from a lifetime of rich
experiences to fall back on. And so we carry the fire of life till we turn