Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Aging in Literature

There should be a campaign to bring Enid Bagnold’s novel, THE LOVED AND ENVIED, back into print. First published in 1951, it focuses on a group of friends who confront the difficulties of aging through work, art, outings to the theater, improbable marriages, and mutual support.

Ruby, who has retained her beauty into her fifties, is loved, criticized, and envied by her friends. At the debut of her friend Rudi’s play, she mourns the news that a 70-year-old friend has married his fiftysomething housekeeper. It leads her to consider male aging in general.

“Alberti’s news, the light on his lonely condition, had so shaken her that when she caught sight of Edouard in the stalls and saw him bend his head to talk to his crumpled companion she felt for him too a tender and speculative compassion. All her men friends were getting older. The whole band, like a wagonette of picnickers, was driving towards the edge of the world. It was not so much the extreme edge, however, that gave her apprehension, as the pity she felt for hearts inwardly taken aback by the arrival of age. Contrary to what was supposed, it was easier for women.”

Is the arrival of age easier for women? Not all characters in the novel agree. Bagnold describes their rage against the absence or loss of beauty and attributes some of Ruby’s generosity to her lucky appearance. Rose, Eduard’s mistress, mourns the loss of her hair: “Her turbans were to Rose what false teeth might be to another woman.” Cora, a gifted painter, tells Ruby bluntly: “It puts me in a rage to think you aren’t grateful to God! If I could have one day of beauty, if the dear God in his kindness would let me change for one day the impedimenta I’ve had to put up with for fifty conscious years!” A character who attempted suicide because of her deformed face ironically profits from running an exclusive beauty salon.

Yes, the men suffer. They seek female companionship in old age as they become lonely and regret lost opportunities to connect. On the other hand, some of the women grow more independent.

A fascinating, witty novel about upper-class friendship, aging, and gender.

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