Continuing my love affair with Persephone Books with The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens—a book so charming and tender and just a smidge heartbreaking, a book so disarming, a book I never wanted to end because that would mean saying goodbye to Louise Bickford—a heroine in the truest sense of the word—and not being witness to her hoped-for triumphs. Needless to say, I loved this book. I enjoyed every minute of it, even all the uncomfortable, too-true ones, and I was rooting for Mrs. Bickford the entire time.
Please, I begged the author, please let her be happy.
Because she’s set up for a lot of misfortune—too unjustly, for most of the novel, and even before it, she’s at the mercy of other people’s whims. After the death of her egotistical, insensitive husband, Dickens’ Louise is ecstatic at the face of so much freedom, not unlike her namesake Louise Mallard of Chopin’s “The Dream of an Hour.” But the troubles start soon enough. Our Louise’s heartbreak is more protracted: learning of the debt amassed by her husband [and I can’t help but feel he did it on purpose], she lives in genteel poverty, shuttled between her three daughters, none of whom expressly want her.
With her daughters, she was “always conscious of her heavy debt to them, which she could never repay or evade.” In this reversal of mother-daughter roles [times three], Louise is not so much a burden to her daughters as she is an inconvenience. Uncomfortably, I understood the daughters—Miriam, Eva, and Anna—even as I rooted for their mother. I sympathized with how bothersome they felt about taking care of Louise—because, I hasten to add, Dickens refuses to box them into the category of Cruel, Selfish Daughters.
I suppose that’s another laudable feat of the authors: the three are so easy to build as archetypes—Miriam, the inviolable [if uptight] wife and mother; Eva, the charmed theater actress; Anna, the youngest, the deliberate wastrel. But Dickens elevates them, even if we know Louise is at the center of the story. She makes them human, with her constant sweep of the family’s perspectives. Everyone is distinct, and everyone has real lives behind them—which all the more makes it understandable why it’s simply unwelcome to add another task, even if it is their mother.
But no matter how much I’d get the three, I was always for Louise. Even if I was drawn to the daughters’ own lives, and their reasons and excuses, I was always for Louise. How could I not be?
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.
What solution there is to her situation will always uncomfortable to her. She’s always at someone’s mercy. No husband, no home, no money, no freedom, and no family she’s certain loves her. In A.S. Byatt’s essay used as an Afterword, she rightly describes Louise as a woman “with no particular gifts or skills, shunted from one to the other of her more or less unwitting daughter on perpetually uneasy visits, with no prospect of her life getting anything but worse.”
The Winds of Heaven is a novel about ageing that works because its emotions are muted and right, because it is not a tear-jerker. Louise’s problems only become cumulatively frightening . . . Tiny humiliations, moments of uselessness add up to a real momentary vision of human destitution and futility, more convincing, not less, because we know that her daughters have got to take her in if they must, and we know now what that means in terms of perpetual anxiety to her.
No, it’s not all gloom and doom. It’s not a depressing story, not really—but it did have me wringing my hands and constantly worrying about Louise’s fate. Perpetual anxiety—in the reader, and in Louise. Because, oh, Louise tries. She loves her daughters, their families—she would like to involve herself in their lives, if only to fix things, but her advances are always rejected, or are always met with disastrous results. But my heart ached. At the oddest of times. Louise washing the dishes while Miriam and her husband entertain the guests, Louise having a tête-à-tête with Eva’s boyfriend’s wife, Louise saying a prayer for the piglets that died in Anne’s farm.
There are rays of sunshine, though, and plenty. Louise’s character, her well-meaning nature, her refusal to be a martyr even if the fates have conspired against her. Louise finding solace in her granddaughter Ellen—as much a family outcast as she is—and Gordon Disher—salesman, diabetic, pseudonymous author of pulp fiction, an odd yet affective Knight in Shining Armor ever encountered, a now-favorite character of mine as well. He’s the one, unexpected beacon of kindness, so welcome to Louise, so welcome to us. His very presence is a sharp contrast to Louise’s family.
“I want to thank you, too, for all you’ve done. You have been good to her.” He waited for them to speak. But the sisters bent their heads and would not look at each other.
There’s more to say, yes. There is so much more to say about this touching, generous book. I’ll have to end here, though—writing this post has had me grinning foolishly into space, admiring the thick, dove-gray book on my newly built shelves—and with: Happy days to you, Louise. It’s not too late to start to live.
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It’s the last day of Persephone Reading Weekend, hosted by dynamic duo of Claire and Verity. Thank you, both of you, and thank you to everyone who’s participated. It’s been really lovely, it’s difficult to express how I enjoyed being part of this. [God help me when I go hunting for more Persephones to fill my shelves.] Tata!