Do you know this feeling of slowly being enveloped by coldness? Like at the end of a sunny day: with the faint memory of the sun on our skin, we are caught unawares by the first wind. That’s more or less how your novel The Winds of Heaven (1955) feels like: as an accumulation of something muted and invisible (the cold, the wind, or a series of tiny defeats and humiliations), which, slowly but surely, becomes frightening and intolerable.
Set in England in the early fifties, the novel centres around Louise Bickford, a 57-year-old woman with no gifts and a self-effacing nature. With no career, no financial independence, and stuck in an abusive marriage, Louise is used to being taken for granted by her three daughters. When we meet her, she has just recently become a widow. After the death of her husband Dudley, she is left destitute: she suddenly learns that her husband had lost all their money, and she has inherited nothing but debts.
Once her house and possessions are sold to repay the debts, Louise is forced to live in genteel poverty, at the mercy of her daughters’ whims: she has lost not only her possessions, but also her identity; she has no money, no home, no husband, nothing. With no room of her own, and like a piece of unwanted furniture, Louise is shuttled, during Summer, between her three daughters, on whose charity she must depend; during Winter, she stays at an old schoolfriend’s seaside hotel on the south coast, at extremely reduced rates. “It was all arranged at an embarrassing family conclave, when no one could say what they were thinking, and each tried to outdo the other in unselfishness.”
There seems to be no alternative for Louise: not only she has no education and no skill, her family is also horrified at the idea that she might try to earn a living by herself. That’s not, they think, what a woman of her class should do. “She felt like the shoe in Hunt the Slipper, which is passed from hand to hand, with everyone wanting to get rid of it as soon as possible.” Rotating between her three daughters’ houses, Louise never feels at home, nor can make herself useful. She was “always conscious of her heavy debt to them, which she could never repay or evade.”
Her daughters are as ill-prepared for this reversal of mother-daughter roles as Louise herself is. Her eldest daughter, Miriam, is an uptight lawyer’s wife, intent on moving ahead in their social circles. Louise’s second daughter, Eva, a Bohemian who works as an actress in London, is more interested in advancing her career and pursuing a relationship with a married man. Finally, Louise’s youngest daughter, Anne, has married a farmer, but, lazy by nature, she neglects housekeeping and spends her days on the couch, reading novels.
Louise’s only solace is her relationship with her granddaughter Ellen, and her friendship with a chance acquaintance, Gordon Dish. Ellen, Miriam’s eldest child, is an imaginative but withdrawn girl, who doesn’t quite fit in at home and is rejected by her siblings and by her parents. “Ellen was often seen about by herself, walking without purpose, as if she had amnesia.”
Gordon Dish, on the other hand, is an old solitary man who works at a department store and writes pulp fiction under a pseudonym. They befriend each other in a tearoom one day, and we slowly follow them as their friendship evolves. “Louise found herself telling him what it felt like to live under an obligation, and to lead an aimless life in which you were no use to anybody. She had never said these things to anyone before. She had only said them to herself when she woke in the middle of the night with her defences down.” Ellen, Louise, and Gordon, as three lonely outcasts, are kindred spirits.
As Louise moves from one home to the next, the episodic nature of the novel provides us with a constant alternation between the perspectives of each of the daughters and their families. For the most time, your tone is never too sentimental nor dramatic, but melancholic and wry: you manage to sound funny, endearing, sharp and bitter in the brief space of a few sentences. And you have an eye for stripping naked the artificiality of social conventions. “The Cobbs and the Chadwicks were friends, which is to say that they went often to each other’s houses, combined for parties at the club, and knew very few fundamental things about each other. If either couple had died or gone away, the other would scarcely have missed them.”
As in Mariana (1940), whose title was borrowed from Tennyson’s poem, The Winds of Heaven (1955) also makes references to another literary giant: this time, it’s Shakespeare who provides the reader with a key to the story you are trying to tell (“That he might not beteem the winds of heaven/ Visit her face too roughly.” Shakespeare, in Hamlet). The winds of heaven blow throughout all pivotal moments in the novel, as Louise’s “bitter personal enemy, turning to meet her no matter which way she turned, beating against her small figure in the open stretches, and calling in reserve cohorts to attack her afresh at every corner.”
I have to confess, though, that I was deeply disappointed with the ending this time: its dramatic tone clashes with that of the rest of the book. The ending feels rushed, disjointed, superficially handled. And some of the minor characters – Louise’s and Sybil’s husbands, for instance – are presented as stereotypes rather than many-layered people. Other portraits, especially of female characters, are more finely drawn. Like the few sentences on Anne’s mother-in-law, for instance: “She was a woman of few ideas, and those she had were rooted in her as deeply as dandelions. You could argue at her for hours on end, and she would listen to you with bovine eyes and then say: ‘You have your way of thinking, and I have mine’.” Or Louise’s relationship with her parents: “Over the years, Louise gradually saw them less and less; but when they died, she was lonely for them. They had been the last link with herself as a happy person. There seemed to be no one left who cared.”
The strength of the novel, for me, lies in the way it handles the complexity of love: Louise is fully aware that, though loved by each of her daughters in a different way, she is also an imposition none of them is willing to take gladly. Defenceless, Louise finds herself in the middle of paradox: she is both loved and, because of the burden of this love, unwanted. Wrapped up in their own lives, her daughters are having a hard time to reconcile themselves to their new role as providers and caregivers. They don’t want to take care of their mother, but they don’t want her to be independent either.
It feels like Louise is trapped in a cage whose walls are slowly closing in. Wherever she lands, she experiences the same loneliness and neglect – and her chances of escape are running out. Inside the cage, the wind is blowing hard. “The wind was blowing in her face”. Blowing and blowing, with no way out: every time Louise tries to deflect, the wind hits her in the face, rough and hard.
“The Wind”, Félix Vallotton, 1910
“She crossed the road and walked up the High Street, past the bus stop and on past the next one, walking, walking, with her misery clinging to her like a shadow. The wind was blowing in her face. There was always a wind blowing, it seemed, at the critical moments of her life” – Monica Dickens, The Winds of Heaven
“‘I do love you’, she said, her face confirming it. The first time she had said that, it had been difficult, and a little frightening. Now she had to keep on saying it, as if it was a grappling iron to hold on to the happiness she had.” – Monica Dickens, The Winds of Heaven
“‘When you were a child’, Louise said at last, ‘I always thought you’d be the happiest one’. ‘So did I.’ Eva raised her head, and twisted her mouth into a smile. ‘It got away from me.'” – Monica Dickens, The Winds of Heaven
“She had never been so close to her daughter, even when Anne was a baby and completely dependent. This was no longer a mother and daughter relationship. It was the closeness of any two women caught in the eternal crisis that is all their own, man’s part in it forgotten, the world entirely female.” – Monica Dickens, The Winds of Heaven
“That’s all very well for you, Louise thought. You’ve never had to take things from people, except as your right, as a daughter or a wife. Wait till you’re a widow and Ellen offers to buy you a dress, and you want to say yes, but would love to be able to say no.” Monica Dickens, The Winds of Heaven
About the book
- Persephone Books, 328 p. Goodreads
- First published 1955
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book in May for Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors