Margrave, my mother’s valet, who sends me post cards of Buckingham Palace, tells me she is still very spry in her wheel chair […] He says she is quite blind but has no beard which must be a reference to a photograph of myself which I sent as a Christmas gift last year. Indeed I do have a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive. Personally I find it rather gallant.
I was browsing in Galaxy Books trying to avoid any genre sci-fi when I came across this strange-looking slim book. In the frontmatter the author’s bio contained the following irresistible line: ‘While in Mexico, Carrington escaped from a mental asylum and was rescued by her aunt who arrived in a submarine.’ Who could not buy such a book?
What it’s about
Marion Leatherby is a ninety-two year old woman who has just been given a hearing trumpet by her eccentric and loyal friend Carmella. This lets her overhear her son’s plan to put her into a home for old women – which turns out to be run by a religious sect called the Brotherhood of Light. Inside the home, Marion adjusts to her new somewhat surreal settings, witnesses a shocking crime, and learns the very strange history behind a nun whose portrait hangs on the dining hall wall.
Just by giving a voice to an elderly woman, Carrington is making a feminist point – but she goes further and makes Marion a character completely accepting, and indeed celebratory, of her own physical and other frailties. Indeed, at the (surreal, fantastic) end to the story, Marion’s qualities of pacifism and acceptance are shown to be powerful strengths. Carrington seems to be showing us that the society in which we live – the one that has no space or need for elderly ladies – has something wrong with it as a consequence.
What I thought
Now that this book has influenced work of my own (more on that later) it’s hard to remember that it took me two attempts to finish it. The first time I drifted away some time during the ‘story-within-a-story’ section, when Marion reads a rather long historical letter. Soon after that section the story starts to move in quite a fantastical direction. I wasn’t ready for or interested in the change, and I gave up.
For some reason a few months ago I picked it up again, started from scratch and made it all the way through. I must admit the ending’s still dangerously close to being just a bit too new-age for me, but it’s saved by the same thing that gets you hooked all the way back on the first page: Marion Leatherby’s wonderful voice and character.
How can you not love Marion, who says things like ‘I do not wish anyone to think my mind wanders far, it wanders but never further than I want.’ Or, ‘People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats.’ Or, ‘It would really have been a very pleasant gathering if we had not been menaced by starvation at a future date.’
The book has some issues, of course. Pacing is a bit of a problem (things seem a bit rushed at the end) and sometimes the commas stringing phrases together are so clumsily placed that it seems like a primary school assignment. Ultimately, though, I came to think it added to the charm.
Indeed, I so like this book that I’ve based a character of my own on Marion. My ninety-
threefour year old walks the streets of my home town and writes about what she sees, and sometimes like Marion her sentences flow on and on, because after all that is how thoughts flow, and one’s duty is to simply receive them and write them down, perhaps in a slightly old-fashioned way of speaking, as one may be wont to do, for one never knows where one’s thoughts may lead next. And while my character will never achieve the wit or charm of Marion, she pays homage to Marion for being a wonderful original that I’m grateful to Carrington for creating.
This book is mostly read whenever I need writing inspiration.