Everyone was shut in upon themselves

Dear Norah,

I just came back from a trip by bike, during which There Were No Windows (1944) was my loyal reading companion. While Spring bloomed all around me, your book drove a sharp contrast to this outdoorsy vacation. The story of Claire Temple, an elderly woman facing loneliness and the onset of dementia, takes place on a strictly confined setting: most of the action happens inside her mansion in Kensington, and is partly revealed to us from the captivity of her deteriorating mind.

Norah Hoult

Once a glamorous woman, a revered literary hostess and woman of letters, Claire is now alone, suffering from short-term memory loss, and subjected to the whims of her Irish cook, Kathleen. Her lovers are long dead, her few remaining friends deserted her, and visits are scarce (and mostly done rather by interest or duty than by affection). Besides the cook, who despises her mistress, the small circle who surrounds Claire is comprised by a weekly laundry woman, a dull companion, a weekly secretary, and a cat.

Claire’s downfall is set against the background of the London Blitz, during the Second World War. Darkness is both inside and outside: the blackout the city is experiencing parallels the protagonist’s inner darkness and the dimming of her mind; as the citizens find themselves locked at home or hiding in shelters, so is Claire locked in upon herself; and everyone’s lives, one way or another, are overtaken by desperate situations beyond their control. This depiction of confinement (both from without and within) makes for a rather claustrophobic read. Like Claire’s mind, the outside world is also under siege.

The protagonist herself is presented to us both from without and within, through the combination of her own thoughts and the perspectives of those who live with her.  The way the book is divided – into three sections – reflects this combination of multiple perspectives. The first part – ‘Inside the House’ – is narrated from Claire’s perspective, as she realizes she is losing her grip on reality. By adopting a narration through stream of consciousness, you cleverly make us readers feel as lost about the story as Claire is about her present life.

Later, in the second part – ‘Outside the house’ – the narration changes style and focus, turning to the perspective of the characters who surround the protagonist, through the use of realistic description and third person narration. The outside world breaks into the world within: through the burdens imposed by the war, or through the visits paid by people most interested in money, donations, or a free meal.

Finally, in the third part – ‘The Dark Night of the Imagination’ – the darkness closes in, and we painfully experience Claire’s growing paranoia and complete downfall, as her mind drifts into a ‘No Man’s Land territory’ – the grey zone between ‘the past and the present’; between reality and nightmare; between the old way of life and the new society that will emerge after the war.

I particularly like the fact that the novel explores the experience of ageing – and the terror ‘to be left alone in the dark’, to be ‘shut in upon oneself’ – from a female point of view. Her situation and the lack of compassion of the people who surround her end up by arousing a violent anger in Claire. But anger, when expressed by women, is viewed as socially less acceptable than by a man, and has often been dismissed as female instability, irrationality and hysteria, which blurs the search for a legitimate cause for this anger. Claire – an old woman, a lady, a woman of letters – is not allowed to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’, as in Dylan Thomas’s poem, and is dismissed as an aberration, and finally sedated into a ‘womanly’ death – a death easier for the ones who live with her.

Another highlight of your book for me is its representation of the impact of ageing, loneliness and memory loss on identity and self-image. Since she was a girl, Claire – as us all – depended on others to reflect back her sense of identity. Through her life, she dutifully played the part of the romantic rebel, the daring lover, the charming hostess, and later the tragic Victorian widow. Now, as she finds herself alone, the lines she memorized and repeats over and over have become meaningless without an audience: ‘… at the end there was no-one to impress’. There are no windows, no mirrors, no one. ‘When had all the parties to which was asked stopped?’ She couldn’t remember, so it must have been gradual, as gradual as the turn of the tide.’ Worse yet: the few people who do remain by her side do not share her perception of her self-image, the identity she forcefully tries over and over to impose on them. In this new world, which is changing both outside and within, the lines she memorized and repeats do not have the same effect they once had.

The more she seeks validation by the people around her, less and less she finds it. Her books – the only ‘proof’ of her identity as ‘a woman of letters’ are out of print; she’s been banned from any form of social life – few people visit her, no one invites her anymore; in her household, the power relations between employer and employee have been reversed; the London she had known is forever gone; from the witty hostess that she was, she was transformed against her will into a burden; since her position in the world depended on her connections with the men around her, and since those are all dead, Claire has become an outcast, ‘living in and to herself’. As her doctor sees it, ‘like most women, Claire Temple has learned to judge and value herself in terms of her ability to attract men, and with the coming of old age, finds herself unwanted and ignored’. In response for the lack of any social validation, Claire becomes increasingly bitter, paranoid and violent towards those very people who deny her a bit of compassion and recognition.

Since one builds his sense of identity through the relations he establishes with others, the way Claire is referred to and treated by the people who live with her also contributes for her final downfall. Darkness comes also from the outside, when stereotypes are imposed upon Claire’s already confused self-image. We follow each character’s perspective on the protagonist, and each perspective both opens and shuts a window on Claire. More often than not, we find out that the window was in fact a mirror, reflecting all the characters but Claire. There were no windows, ‘everyone was shut in upon themselves’: each character is too self-absorbed to be able to understand Claire and reach her with the compassion she needs.

Their readiness to judge Claire and their need to normalize an otherwise uncomfortable situation lead them to impose upon the protagonist identities she strongly neglects, which only worsens her condition. The darkened, closed or even blown-out windows could also stand for this lack of courage and compassion. Contrary to the novel’s epigraph, every character here acts as a ‘windowless monad’. Not only Claire, and not only during the Blitz, all of them are in a way shut in upon themselves, left alone in a darkness they don’t even acknowledge.

Kathleen, the cook, thinks of her mistress through the stereotype that associates deviant female sexuality and madness: ‘the wickedness in her’, combined with Claire’s age, makes the mistress repugnant to Kathleen’s eyes, since to those eyes an old woman should no longer be concerned about her femininity or sexuality. Edith Barlow, Claire’s writer friend and an example of woman suffering from introjected misogyny, thinks of her friend through the stereotype that associates femininity and weakness: Claire’s writing is dismissed as a ‘ frail feminine talent ’, and her dementia as a result of her femininity, while Edith claims for herself a ‘masculine mind’, invulnerable to the loss of dignity caused by femininity. The self-satisfaction Edith finds in seeing her friend’s decay puts her apparently dispassionate and ‘rational’ perspective into question. Miss Jones, Claire’s companion, represents the mores of lower-middle classes, and thinks of the protagonist through the stereotype that associates old age and childness: Claire is to be treated not as a person, but as a difficult child; one to be pitied, but not worthy of empathy; one whose words are innocuous. Stereotypical labels, combined with the darkness she is left into, wrap themselves around Claire like a cocoon.

I also like the fact that you pour dry and black humour into this tragic plot. Moreover, you make clear to us that Claire is not a particularly likeable character: she is a self-centered snob, and indulges in the class prejudice and anti-semitism of her generation. Self-centeredness, self-delusion and now dementia have protected her from the harsh reality. The war for her, if she at all remembers that there is a war going on, means only a shortage of maids, food, wine and men. Yet, despite all of this, you managed to induce compassion for Claire’s struggles for coherence and her search for identity in the midst of her downfall.

This is enhanced by Claire’s occasional moments of utter clarity when she realizes her condition and her loneliness. ‘Mostly in my life I have been treated as a monkey because I was entertaining. But now the cage is round me …’ You invite us to share Claire’s tragedy from the inside. By doing so, you grant her what the other characters were not capable of or brave enough to: from the onset you prevent us from dismissing Claire’s will to be treated as a person, a subject of her own identity, and her right not to be simply labelled and set aside. We are required to wait a little longer, and listen to Claire’s narratives of herself. And this is no small achievement, my dear.

Yours truly,

J.

norah hoult
Endpaper: ‘Treetops’, a screen printed cotton and rayon furnishing fabric designed by Marianne Mahler in 1939 and produced by Edinburgh Weavers.

“She was all alone now in the darkness, now that to please Mr Mills she had left her torch turned off. There were no windows. Everyone was shut in upon themselves.”

– Norah Hoult, There were no windows

Vilhelm Hammershoi. "Courtyard Interior at Strandgade 30".1905.
Vilhelm Hammershoi. “Courtyard Interior at Strandgade 30”.1905.

About the book

  • Persephone Books
  • 2005
  • First published in 1944
  • 352 p.
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 5 stars
  • This book was read for Reading Ireland Month 2016.
  • The story was based on the life of Violet Hunt, a successful author in her time, also known for her literary salons, which were attended by  Rebecca West, DH Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and, her long term lover, Ford Maddox Ford. As Claire in Hoult’s novel, it was rumored that, when she was young, Violet was proposed to by Oscar Wilde. Her books are currently out of print, and she is remembered, if at all, as a footnote in the lives of the male writers who knew her.
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