Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Winds of Heaven

I may have read Monica Dickens' The Winds of Heaven when I was a child.  I had the oddest sense of deja vu as I perused this entertaining novel curled up under the blankets--with the heat off as it is in the '50s by day--enjoying an afternoon's dalliance and escape into the undemanding world of middlebrow novels.   Some of the characters and geographical details seemed inexplicably familiar.  Didn't I know the lonely fat salesman of beds who writes formulaic thrillers, the imaginative but solitary girl who is rejected by her parents, and the friendly, garrulous, carousing middle-aged woman who runs the hotel? 

But I didn't remember the main character, Louise Bickford, so I couldn't have read it, could I?  Maybe I mixed it up with D. E. Stevenson's Mrs. Tim Takes a Job or with one of Monica Dickens's other novels?

If you don't know Monica Dickens's work, it's time to get acquainted.  Dickens, a great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, is the author of a humorous masterpiece, One Pair of Hands, published in 1937 and never out-of-print. I laughed over this witty autobiography of her jobs as a cook-general, which she embarked on after getting kicked out of drama school. She also wrote several good novels, my favorite of which is The Heart of London.  She founded a branch of The Samaritans in the United States after many years of volunteering for this depression hot-line and drop-in center in England.

It is no surprise that Dickens the Samaritan can write a sensitive novel about social issues without shrieking about it.  No one cares much about older women, and that is Dickens's point in this quick, slight novel about aging without money. Her portrait of Louise Bickford, an unlikely 57-year-old heroine whom no one cares about, is sympathetic and realistic. 

Loitering in a tearoom while waiting for her daughter to pick her up, Louise muses about the sophisticated Londoners and how she appears to them.

"Louise was always much concerned with how people were thinking of her and summing her up; not knowing that a small, middle-aged woman with stubby features and hair no longer brown and not yet grey usually goes unnoticed."
But someone does notice her.  Gordon, the fat man, begins to talk to her in the tearoom, and he gradually over the course of some months becomes her dearest friend.  She is thrilled to meet a writer of mysteries--which her daughter very much disapproves.

Louise is a widow with no money. No one cares much about her since her husband died.  She lives part of the year with each of her three daughters, moving from one daughter's home to the next, spending the winter in a friend's hotel.  Her officious daughter, Miriam, is a busy, traditional lawyer's wife who wants her children to move in the horsey set.  Eva is a self-absorbed actress in London.  Ann lives on a farm and does little except sit on the couch and read novels.  She snaps at her mother constantly. None of them wants responsibility for Louise.

How exactly does one get free of family?  This is not the age when older women get jobs at McDonald's.  Louise's daughters are horrified when she talks about getting a job at a department store.  It is a class thing. They don't want anyone to know they don't want their mother.  Poor Louise's only real freedom from family, though it is not quite that, occurs during the winters at her friend's hotel, and that is certainly a mixed blessing.  She is an inconvenience, hustled away to live in a tiny, cold back room when the hotel fills up or her friend wants to woo new guests, and she does not make friends in the lounge.

Perhaps the most fascinating event is when Louise's son-in-law moves her into a dilapidated caravan on the farm.  Louise is thrilled, but the winter proves exhausting, cold, and bleak.  She does not become independent, as I had thought she might.

The novel is simple but well-written, the scenes in Louise's different homes vividly sketched , and the characters believable. This is not a great novel, but I enjoyed it.  I have to admit I was disappointed with the ending.  Freedom comes to Louise...well, I'll let you guess.

This is not in the class of, say, Barbara Pym's bleak Quartet in Autumn.  Dickens turns it into a traditional women's novel before the end--but, before that, she makes her point.


rhonda said...

just got the Winds of Heaven in the mai.I enjoy Monica Dickens so i am really looking foward to this one.

rhonda said...

meant in the mail

Frisbee said...

Rhonda, I like Monica Dickens, too. Winds of Heaven is a fun read.

Vintage Reading said...

Your review has made me want to read this. I need to try again with Monica Dickens. Quite enjoyed Mariana but it wasn't the I Capture the Castle I expected! I think Persephone have just re-issed this Dickens title.

Vintage Reading said...

Another thought - I like what you said about escaping into the undemanding world of middlebrow novels. Sometimes they fit the bill exactly, but other times they are just too undemanding and I have to pick up an Austen!

Frisbee said...

I went through a phase a couple of summers ago where I read a lot of middlebrow novels. I enjoy Monica Dickens immensely but didn't finish The Listeners.

You have to be in the mood for these books. The Winds of Heaven is good but not great!