September always makes me feel as if I’m turning a page. Ending one chapter and beginning another. The end of summer. The beginning of fall, even if not officially, even if the weather is sometimes still sweltering. September heralds the end of vacation and the start of school; it always makes me want to shop for new school clothes. Or, in recent years, for new clothes not for school. And it always makes me think of books. As a student, and then a teacher, September meant new notebooks with fresh, white, lined pages. New textbooks, all crisp and crackling when you opened them. Now I think of those things only nostalgically. No more school books for me. I’m more focused on the big pile of novels and memoirs that I’m going to gather before I light the fire, pour a cup of tea, and read my way right through them.
Okay… maybe not exactly right through them. But eventually. And the fire won’t be lit until we return from Croatia at the end of October, but you get my point. September is about moving on. Turning the page. Literally and figuratively.
Turning the page seems to be one of the themes of a new book I’m reading this week, Reading in Bed by Sue Gee. I am seriously loving this book, my friends.
“There they go, two clever women of sixty, making their way through the wet towards the car.” Reading in Bed had me at that first sentence. I crawled right into the car with them in that scene. Drove to the station to drop off one of the women, Dido, who was returning by train to York. They’d been to a literary festival. (I mean, characters who go to literary festivals! I ask you, what’s not to love?) And then I made the journey with Georgia who was driving back to London, “and an empty house.” Shades of Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym in that empty house, and in Gee’s spare dialogue, in the characters who say little and observe much. Georgia and Dido are two women who seem to do a lot of observing, of nature, of their surroundings rural or urban, of their families, of strangers even.
The main characters Dido and Georgia are old friends, since their Oxford days we are told. As one reviewer said, that Oxford mention tells us so much, about their education, their relative wealth (comfortably middle class,) and even about their politics. Georgia and Dido met their respective husbands at Oxford, married young, and all four became friends. We read of family dinners over many years, of family vacations in France or the Lake District. All of them together, the two couples, their children, and later the spouses and grandchildren. But recently things have changed.
Recently Georgia’s husband has died, and she has turned a page. With Henry gone, Georgia has ended a chapter in her life. She battles emptiness and loneliness, and “after more than a year,” is unclear what the next chapter in her life will be. Her daughter Chloe, unattached and unhappy about it at age thirty-one is similarly at sea. And capable, sensible Dido who still has her husband is about to encounter personal and family upheaval on numerous fronts. The plot of Reading in Bed moves back and forth among Dido, Georgia, and Georgia’s daughter Chloe. Occasionally it makes a foray into “deepest Sussex,” where Maud, Henry’s second cousin and only relative, lives alone with her dog on the remnants of her family farm, and struggles to cope with the problems of aging and advancing dementia.
I don’t want to make Gee’s novel sound heavy, torpid, or depressing because it’s not in the least, despite its serious themes. Gee’s imagery and her descriptions of setting are wonderfully evocative. Georgia’s moments of grappling with grief are very moving, all the more so for their being so restrained. I loved being able to peer into the lives of the well-educated, relatively well-heeled, well-read, BBC listening, theatre-going population of modern Britain, to see how they live and how they think as they face growing old. Gee’s book reminds me of a favourite Margaret Drabble novel, The Radiant Way. I read it years ago and think it should be required reading for all women facing middle-age.
I found myself drawn in by all Gee’s characters. But I must say that I fell in love with Maud. Strong, capable, irascible Maud, “who sounds as if she should have a seat in the House of Lords,” who “in her prime… farmed a hundred head of cattle. A hundred sheep. Centuries of landowning in her blood made this a natural occupation.” Now Maud is feeding the chickens in her nightdress and rubber boots, fending for herself yet forgetting to eat, living in squalor, and slipping into dementia, with no one to help her except Georgia. So what is Georgia to do? I can’t tell you what she does do; I’m not there yet in the book. And I probably wouldn’t anyway, since you might want to read it yourself. In fact, please do read it yourself, and then tell me what you think.
Gee says in an article in The Daily Mail that when she started writing Reading in Bed, the book was supposed to focus on Chloe. But the death of Gee’s husband changed all that. Like Georgia, Gee’s life changed. And, as she found when she returned to her writing after her husband’s death, the focus of her work changed too. Gee says the book became “about how life subverts even the best laid plans.” I love that Georgia and Dido, not Chloe, are the main characters in the book. And I love Gee’s writing. Her style suits me down to the ground. Lean, restrained, eloquent. I also found it interesting how she stumbled upon the opening scene for the book, the scene which so captured me.
‘One night I went out to dinner with two very old friends,’ [Gee] explains. ‘And, as I watched them walking away in the pouring rain, a line came into my head: “There they go, two clever women of 60, making their way through the wet towards the car.” I came home, wrote the line down, and thought to myself, “Maybe I can do something with this.”’
I’d never heard of the writer Sue Gee until a week or so ago when I was catching up on back episodes of the Slightly Foxed Podcast. I listened to an episode called Stet, all about editing, and Sue Gee was a guest. As result I discovered Gee’s books and, in particular, this book.
I’ve also added to my pile another book recommended in the podcast. Stet: An Editor’s Life is Diana Athill’s memoir of her long career in publishing. I know that many of you are Diana Athill fans. I remember the post I wrote last year about my fantasy literary tea party, how a couple of you vied to bring Athill as your fantasy guest. I’ve read only one book by Athill, her charming memoir A Florence Diary, kindly sent to me by Materfamilias last year before our Italy trip. I’m looking forward to reading Stet. I’ve ordered it to take on our fall camping trip next week.
I’ve written about the Slightly Foxed Podcasts before on the blog. How heartening I find the whole idea of Slightly Foxed, of talking and writing about books that are not necessarily the latest thing, but are still worthy of discussion and rereading. The podcasts, in particular, are just the antidote I need in a world that seems to be getting weirder day by day. More frantic, more social media obsessed, less civilized. And less concerned with intelligent conversation, or good books, or quality anything. I used to think that there were still pockets of the Barbara Pym-ish world I love, pockets of calm, thoughtful words and deliberately kind actions. Then, for a time, I despaired that those pockets had all disappeared. But thanks to Slightly Foxed I now know they’re still there… I was just looking the wrong way. Too much Facebook can do that to you, my friends. Ha.
Check out the Slightly Foxed website for a look at their magazine, and links to the podcast, the selection of books they publish, and so much more. If you subscribe to their beautiful quarterly magazine you get digital access to all the back issues. Oh my… you might never come up for air.
But let’s get back to the idea of September, and fall, and turning a page. In some ways, of course, I’m talking about turning pages literally. Fall seems to be the time to settle down in the evening with a great book.
But perhaps the more important interpretation of that phrase is the idea that Georgia, in Reading in Bed, has turned a page in her life. How difficult it is to cope with the loss of a spouse, how hard to be all at sea, unsettled, in your life at a time when you expect to be, well, settled. When you expect, or at least hope, to be able to enjoy your hard won retirement, for a few years anyway. I know I’ll be thinking of Georgia long after I’ve finished the book.
And this week I’m also thinking of my brother Terry. The anniversary of his death is on Sunday. The closing of the book of his life was a hard time for us all. I spent a long time on the phone with my sister-in-law the other day, seeing how she is, how she’s coping with the challenges of moving on. And what the next chapter of her life will be. Coping with loss is never an easy or a smooth process. But, of course, you know that. I know you know that.
Now, I have to go. I have a half-finished book calling me, and I must obey.
I have to finish Reading in Bed, and I’ll probably be reading in bed until late tonight. Then I’ll feel bereft for a bit, as one always does when one finishes a good book. Then I’ll focus on what’s next in my pile.
In Gee’s book, Dido and Georgia talk about the importance of reading, and not just reading in bed. They talk about how books have enriched their lives. I remember my mum and I talking about that one day on the phone a year or so ago. “What DO people do who don’t read?” we mused. I mean, seriously… what DO they do?
What books are you turning the pages of this week, my friends? Any suggestions for us?
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