For some women turning 50 can herald a stylish rebirth, finds Jane Shillingby Jane Shilling / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
These are peak times, apparently, for middle-aged women. As a cohort, we enjoyed both free university education and jobs (with pensions attached) in which we might choose to remain for years—even decades. While still in our twenties or thirties even those of us with modest incomes could afford to buy a flat, gradually trading up to the family homes to which our children now return as young adults, reclaiming their childhood bedrooms so that they can save for the remote possibility of one day being able to afford a place of their own.
All that saving means that we parents have disposable income, a fact of which the fashion, cosmetics and entertainment industries are acutely aware. Clothes manufacturers from high street to haute couture vie to include middle-aged and older women in their advertisements. The faces of Helen Mirren (70), Joan Didion (81) and Iris Apfel (94) gaze from the pages of glossy magazines. Each season, some young model is hailed as the new Kate Moss before being reabsorbed into the mass of beautiful young women, while the old Kate Moss, now 42, appears on the cover of Vogue with undiminished regularity.
As on the catwalk, so in the corridors of power: Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey may not yet signify the equal representation of women in business and public life, but they are harbingers of its progress.
With a voice in the public domain far greater than those of our mothers, and real estate that our children can only dream of, we ought to be the happiest middle-aged generation in history. But to read the literature is to find a curious disjunction between the confident media image and the anxious, foreboding narratives of female middle age.
Both self-help books and memoirs seem haunted by dismay: a feeling of lost identity, of powerlessness, invisibility, intractable physical symptoms and intimations of mortality all the more baleful because their cause is biological, rather than economic or political, and thus less easily addressed by meliorist aspiration.
Self-help books tend to approach the menopause in one of two ways. They may take the tone of grim jocularity with which Anglo-Saxon women often treat such defining dramas of female experience as pregnancy and parenthood, dwelling with rueful humour on indignity and humiliation. Or they may essay a more uplifting approach, celebrating the wisdom and mage-like energy of the later years.
Both these approaches are treated with some distaste by memoirists, who are less concerned with offering strategies for surviving the menopause, and more interested in recording the strangeness of their individual experience. Yet here, too, some familiar patterns emerge—a fall as the herald of middle age, for example.
In her new memoir, The Middlepause, Marina Benjamin records “the blunt thud of skull hitting wood” as she fell when getting out of bed, and her feeling that “it had to be old age calling me.” Benjamin’s menopause arrived not in gradual increments but overnight, when she underwent a hysterectomy in her late forties. Not surprisingly, she found it “a subtraction,” but also, paradoxically, “a difficult and troublesome presence as opposed to the austere absence I had expected it to be… [with] an incredible power to unhinge.”
Her chapters are named after the parts of the body which become unreliable post-menopause: Hormones, Skin, Muscle, Heart, Guts, Teeth and so on. But of course the physical and the psychic are connected: the changing body becomes a metaphor for the transitory nature of life, and the necessary poignancy that overshadows you once youth’s sense of infinite possibility has fled.
Middle age is a liminal period, and the view from its threshold can seem mainly of loss. The question is how, and with what, to replace what has gone. Considering hormone replacement, Benjamin adds yet another stone to the cairn of reproach with which the misogynistic and medically dubious reputation of HRT’s 1960s pioneer, Dr Robert A Wilson, is already encumbered. Wilson, she notes, accepted research grants from pharmaceutical companies heavily invested in female medicine, while denouncing women who chose to age naturally as “castrates.” Nevertheless, suffering from post-hysterectomy fatigue, insomnia, night sweats and aphasia, Benjamin decided to follow her GP’s advice to take bio-identical oestrogen: “The results were immediate, and astounding. At the risk of sounding like Robert A Wilson… I noticed that my skin glowed and my hair shone.”
Mourning her father—whose hard dying at the age of 87 she attributes partly to a refusal to engage with the process of growing old—Benjamin anatomises her relationships with her mother, her daughter and her friends. Her book’s dedicatee, the journalist and academic Kirsty Milne, died of lung cancer in 2013, aged 49. Reflecting on the circle of friends who sustained Milne during her illness, and continued to support each other after her death, Benjamin concludes that: “The bigger lesson here is that one should not age alone… You need a cohort of peers to go through the ageing process with you.”
Books too can offer friendship and consolation. Benjamin finds Colette’s novel The Break of Day an invaluable guide, with its resonant reflections on fleshly appetites, solitude, gardening, and the relinquishing (or not) of love. Almost 90 years after its publication, the singular power of The Break of Day continues to reside in its narrator’s apparently invincible sense of self. Towards her conclusion, Benjamin claims a similar sense of security, arrived at by “working through grief, mining my myriad losses in order to reach a deeper bedrock of identity.”
She begins and ends her book with the image of the garden in her London square: an enchanted garden, it seems, for when she first saw it in July 2002, she records that a wild profusion of “cherry blossom and blackthorn” was unseasonably in bloom. Fourteen years later the garden was brutally cut back by council workmen, but survived to flourish again, though in a different form. “Austerely beautiful, trimmed down and elegantly restrained,” its “sharper contours, its pared-down form… and new lightness of being” offer, Benjamin suggests, a suitable model for the second half of life.
“Memoirists are less concerned with offering strategies for surviving the menopause, and more interested in its strangeness”
There is a neatness about this conclusion, and indeed about the whole of Benjamin’s assiduously researched account of the unruly chaos of middle age, that is both reassuring and oddly unsatisfying. Like other non-fiction chroniclers of the menopause, Benjamin combines personal experience with more objective scientific and historical accounts of ageing. But the result, though elegantly written, gives the impression of emotion interrupted or withheld.
Her investigation of the fate of Robert A Wilson’s wife (and HRT guinea-pig) Thelma, a discussion of the historical origins of the term “middle age,” an account of Edith Wharton’s 1927 novel of middle age, Twilight Sleep, are all relevant to Benjamin’s theme but seem, nevertheless, to represent a form of refuge from candour.
There are undoubtedly good reasons for this. Even the most objective of authors—the ones in whom Graham Greene’s “splinter of ice in the heart” is best refrigerated—feel a certain compunction in writing about the living; and Benjamin is at her fluent best when writing about the dead. Her sensitive account of her father’s dying leads to a resonant speculation on the art of ageing, in which the theories of Jung represent something of an impediment to her own groping towards a personal resolution. And her account of losing a contemporary and friend in Kirsty Milne has a raw intimacy that elsewhere seems suppressed. In my proof copy of her book, the nickname for Milne’s supportive group of friends, “the Cavalry” is several times misprinted as “the Calvary”—a plangent slip in an otherwise carefully defended narrative.
Benjamin’s changing relationships with the living—with work colleagues, her husband, daughter and mother, and above all with herself—are addressed with a reticence that admirably respects their right to emotional privacy, but at some cost to her own story. In areas where her reader might reasonably expect her to be reckless—her attitude to the physical aspects of ageing, for example—she remains guarded, or takes refuge in jokes or clichés. “In the gym more than anywhere else… you know you’ve lost the right to remain young, that your body is no longer a temple, but a jalopy.” As she decides to embrace HRT, she records a private rebellion: “Somewhere in the back of my mind I am toying with the idea of picking a date in the not too distant future, my very own D-day, and when it arrives I’ll simply explode all my residual affiliations to youth… I will quit HRT, go grey, forego platform shoes, stop waxing my legs and subscribe to Bupa. Then I will dedicate myself to the consolation of being deposed… With each determined step I take away from the world of consequence, I will inhabit myself more fully.”
Does she do it? We never learn. There is the hazy impression that Benjamin has decided to survive the menopause on a combination of good literature, a supportive family life and a fondness for cooking and gardening. It is cheering to have confirmation that what Colette lyrically recorded almost nine decades ago as the best strategies for a successful middle age have retained their consoling power. Still, the time feels ripe for some earthier, less tentative account of midlife. No doubt in a couple of years Caitlin Moran will oblige.