I'm not really sure why I went into nursing...
A re-read of One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens a while back and I couldn't quite fathom how the book could have enthused me so much when I was sixteen that I carried on with the ambition and applied to train at Great Ormond Street. I travelled up to London on my own for the interview when I was still sixteen, just after my O Levels, even though I knew I couldn't start until I was almost nineteen. I was overjoyed when the letter arrived offering me a place and I remember being the slight envy of my classmates at having my place and career sorted before the Sixth Form had even started, whilst many of them still had no idea of what they wanted to do. But Monica hardly painted that career in a flattering light.
Reading A.S.Byatt's 1970 afterword to Monica Dickens 1955 novel The Winds of Heaven, which includes a critical appraisal of several of the novels, I found myself nodding in agreement with her appraisal of Monica Dickens as an author...
'Monica Dickens... takes an archetypally 'ordinary' hero or heroine, leads them through mostly credible agonies to more or less credible conventional happy endings, making bearable the slow ordinary tragedies, gradual decline of energy and hope, and mitigating them by providing solutions at least partially tolerable.'
And there can be no more ordinary and maltreated heroine than Louise Bickford.
In her late fifties Louise, mother of three adult daughters, finds herself left unexpectedly impoverished and homeless following the death of her husband Dudley. With no home of her own Louise is passed from one daughter to another and thence to a friend's hotel on the Isle of Wight, at a reduced rate for the winter months . Mother must be looked after but with little consideration to her feelings or her comfort and I doubt it is possible to meet a more relentlessly downtrodden, bullied and oppressed woman than Louise, who seems to tolerate the most extraordinary levels of rudeness and insult from her family. I'm not sure there are many kind words for her from anyone other than her granddaughter Ellen. And having been made the child 'victim' in the family, for reasons that will become apparent, it is clear that Ellen urgently needs that loving relationship with her grandmother.
Sidelined in their lives, yet desperate to be helpful and a part of them, it occurs more than once to Louise and on just about every page to the reader that...
'Louise was merely killing time, and she felt that her life was slipping by unused...'
Someone once said to me that as a parent you are only ever as happy as your least happy child (and we find it is very true) but for Louise it is hard to know, between Miriam, Anne and Eve, who wins the Least Happy badge.
The allegory of the wind blowing will feature throughout the book...
'When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.'
..and it will be both ill winds and ultimately benevolent and unexpected gusts that come in Louise's direction as she faces the demons and finds some sort of life for herself.
If I am honest the plot can seem occasionally clunky and contrived and the emotions slightly overwrought (but we are talking about Charles Dickens great grand-daughter here) but as I thought over Louise's fate in the days after I had turned the final page I found myself forgiving all flaws for the lasting impression that The Winds of Heaven has left in my mind.
Published in 1955 this was life for many-a post-war woman. Perhaps a life and education interrupted by war, no career, a depressing marriage, a lack of financial independence, and Louise in particular, a woman whose life has been predicated on childbearing and motherhood and who has been largely taken for granted by selfish daughters and a deceitful husband. With no identity of her own and minimal self-esteem Louise flounders in her response to this uncertain peripatetic lifestyle. There will be flashes of spirit and moments of deep understanding so I felt that all in all a little exaggeration and over-egging of the pudding didn't go amiss, and all absolutely worth it for the final moment in the book (DON'T LOOK) which reaches a somewhat breathless but reasonably satisfying conclusion in the Happy Badge department.
A.S.Byatt suggests, in this vein, that 'a degree of sentiment and woodenness is quite acceptable,' because those tiny humiliations (and they litter every page ...poor Louise, I kept thinking) and moments of uselessness (ditto) actually pave the way to 'real momentary vision of human destitution and futility.'
Yes they do. This is a novel about ageing and about the increasing panic and anxieties that can accumulate as life becomes unexpectedly more difficult, especially if financial constraints start to bite. We tend to think of this as a thing of the past but those anxieties are still evident in the lives of many thousands of women, even today. If you are part of the 1950's cohort who have seen their state pension goalposts moved twice without due warning or notification, then you will be aware of the many WASPI women who are currently in worrying, unexpected and unplanned-for financial straits in their sixties as a result. The Winds of Heaven seems to have been through frequent publishing incarnations...yet still has relevance in 2017 for all that it demonstrates about women's lives, loves and losses, and in the case of young Ellen perhaps the troubled life that may lay ahead for her.
Having read and really enjoyed Thursday's Child (a good nurse/doctor read) and Mariana I have more Monica Dickens on my shelves and Kindle (with thanks to Bloomsbury who have made so many of them available again) so I will be having a good rummage through, but meanwhile do you have any others to recommend...
A.S.Byatt suggests Flowers on the Grass as one book she particularly likes, Kate and Emma as 'largely successful' and Heart of London, a novel about a district midwife, as 'a brilliant idea' but which 'can be sentimental.'
And if you have read Winds of Heaven please do share your thoughts..
And any suggestions for authors on a par with Monica Dickens... might D.E.Stevenson be one I wonder...