27th Februray 2016
These women were old, time had softened them, they had learnt something from loss, helplessness, loneliness; they knew that almost anything can happen to anybody. They were kinder than when they were young.
from Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (1893-1996)
It’s always thrilling to discover a new writer – by which I mean, of course, one new to you. Countless others may have loved the work for years, but you didn’t know. Finding out is like walking into a room you long to stay in, a room lined with books and dotted with comfortable chairs and cushions, where you want to stay. So it was when I picked up ‘Greenbanks’ by Dorothy Whipple in the Woodstock bookshop, adding ‘Someone at a Distance’ too, just in case I liked her work. And I do. So now three more beautifully produced. grey Persephone Books (what genius publishers they are; visit www.persephonebooks.co.uk) are waiting to be read. They are: ‘The Priory’, ‘They knew Mr Knight’ and ‘They were Sisters.’ Obviously, I have joined the Dorothy Whipple fan club.
This is being written on Friday 26th and I chose the quotation above three days ago – and I have just discovered that today is Dorothy Whipple’s birthday! How’s that for glorious synchronicity? But this blog isn’t about her (you can find out more online), but the insight in the quotation above. The novel it comes from is one of the most powerful accounts of the end of a marriage I have ever read: Avery and Ellen North have been married for a long time and are contented, until Avery destroys everything for a fling with a truly horrible Frenchwoman. The car crash is agonizing to witness – and don’t forget this was an era were divorce was far less common and so a divorced woman might be pitied at best, disapproved of at worse. (The end of the novel is a moving evocation of forgiveness – but maybe that subject must wait.)
Anyway, poor Ellen has to find herself a home and a job, so she goes to work, assisting in a hotel/home for elderly folk. Which is where we come in here. The residents, with no questions, accept Ellen. They have read about her stupid husband’s remarriage in the newspaper, ‘but Ellen couldn’t have come into gentler company. There was no avid curiosity, no malicious speculation, no self-congratulation that such a thing couldn’t happen to them, as there might have been with younger women.’ No, the old people are understanding and kind. They have had too many experiences to pass easy judgments, for, after all, ‘they knew that almost anything can happen to anybody.’
And so it can. Now although I find the quotation moving (which is why I chose it) there remains a question mark in my mind. Because in truth many elderly people become cross, disappointed, and very judgmental! We hope to learn through experience, but unfortunately many people learn to become set in their ways and their prejudices. That may sound negative but it is also, sadly, true.
No matter. The quotation is still uplifting and expresses what I myself most wish from my own old age. God grant me kindness – to give and to receive.