At the Back Fence Issue #316

September 8, 2008

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Here’s To the [Old] Ladies

When I read Lynn Spencer’s review of Julia Quinn’s new book, The Lost Duke of Wyndham, I knew right away I would like it. Even without the DIK status, here was this line that got to me: “Grace Eversleigh has seen her life change dramatically from what she thought was a secure place among the local gentry to living as the much put-upon companion to the dowager Duchess of Wyndham, a woman who is overbearing, arrogant, snobbish, and not terribly understanding of her companion.”

I’m a sucker for a cranky old lady in a romance novel, or any other novel for that matter. I like cranky old ladies in almost everything including plays, novels, biographies and on talk shows. I liked the idea of the book even better when I read this line: “So convinced is the Duchess that this highwayman must belong to her family, she hatches a scheme to kidnap him.”

Just the thought of this had me grinning already. I have to say, the pay off was entirely worth it. I loved this book as much as Lynn did. The Duchess of Wyndham steals almost every scene she appear in. She takes charge of things from the start, insisting that Grace resist some highwaymen and later, demanding the kidnapping of her grandson.

Grace, our young and quietly intelligent heroine who is the paid companion of the Duchess, respects her, but doesn’t understand her very well. She appreciates the fact that the Duchess allows her to dance at parties, pays for her clothing, and is not cruel, but she hasn’t spent much time wondering about the tragedies of her employer’s life. When the old lady asks the impossible, because her heart is still breaking with the loss of her son (the lost Duke’s father), Grace complies mainly because she has to, not because she appreciates the Duchess’s sorrow, or is interested in her as a person.

Usually domineering old ladies are bit players in romance novels. Quinn seems to have a better than average interest in characters with universal appeal and she gives the Duchess a better than average role in The Lost Duke of Wyndham. And the author doesn’t condescend to the old lady either. Grace reflects in the opening paragraph of the book that under her employer’s stern and haughty exterior does not “beat a heart of gold.” The Duchess is not all bluster. Later in the book she makes an insulting reference to Grace’s “station,” and you feel yourself bristle because she has just suggested that Grace would make good bait for luring her grandson back to the castle.

What the Duchess does do is spice up the book. As a reader you know what Grace is going to do. She’s beautiful. She’s poor. She’s the heroine. And you know what the hero will do. No matter what happens he’s going to end up in love and rich.

But what will the Duchess do? How far will she go to control a man she has no power to coerce? She’s old. She has a cane. But, to give the Duchess her due, she’s also determined to have her way. And it’s all inspired by love, a terrible love for her lost son, whom, she says sadly, “could make anyone laugh, even me.”

What is it about a domineering old lady that I like in a book? Many of my favorite novels and plays have them. As I thought about this I tried to think of what they had in common.

First off, all the really great old lady characters I could think of were rich, or at least well off. It wasn’t the wealth that made them great, but the fact that money gave them independence, and allowed them to be careless of the opinions of others. A great old lady is not a married lady. The married old ladies in romance novels are almost always silly. The single dowagers are more likely to be wise, or at least headstrong and determined. Many older married ladies seem to be based on Mrs. Bennett, Elizabeth’s Bennett’s foolish mother in Pride and Prejudice. They are social climbers, pushing for the success of their daughters or milquetoast types who follow their husband’s every word. Worst of are the wise mothers who know their daughters so well, and give such wise counsel that you are ready to fall asleep whenever they speak more than a few sentences.

The second thing about a good old lady character is that she looks like an old lady. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. We live in a world where the naturally aged woman is becoming rare. Hair dye is almost universal. It’s subtracts at least ten years from most women’s looks, if not more. Exercise, makeup, skincare, and the increasing use of chemicals and surgery have all combined to make the 60-year-old woman look dramatically different than she looked 40 years ago. The reality of this hit me squarely a few years ago when my daughter, in describing someone, said that she looked like “the kind of grandma you see in cartoons.” I knew exactly what she meant, but what really made me think about this were my own grandmothers, with silver hair, hats, “old lady” black lace-up heels, housedresses, hats with veils, and little pocketbooks with handles. Compare that with your average 60-year-old jogger in Naples, Florida, who wears designer exercise clothes and sneakers and you can see what I mean.

Lastly, great old lady characters speak their minds, and generally scare everybody, even when they are unintentionally funny. My favorites of these are Lady Bracknell, of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest and Aunt Betsy Trotwood of David Copperfield fame. Both of these characters are outwardly difficult and eccentric. In Wilde’s classic play, Lady Bracknell gets the lion’s share of the great lines. Take this example of her advice to a suitor to her niece. The man is unacceptable because he was a foundling. When he asks Lady Bracknell what he should do to gain her favor she responds, “I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.”

I have seen The Importance of Being Ernest many times, If you have only seen the movie, try to see it on stage. The best production I ever saw was in London with the irrepressible Dame Edna in the role of Lady Bracknell. The joke was on me, as I had no idea that Dame Edna was comedian Barry Humphries in drag. It didn’t matter though. Dame Edna was born for the role of Lady Bracknell.

Aunt Betsy Trotwood, David Copperfield’s aunt, is present at his birth, but leaves the house in a huff – because David is a boy. To the reader who is not familiar with the story, David’s decision years later, to seek help from his aunt, seems pointless. Aunt Trotwood, who left David’s poor widowed mother with her baby, furious because he was male, learns to love her nephew, but is never entirely reconciled to his sex, and often admonishes him by stating what his sister “Betsy Trotwood” would have done.

As a young girl I always loved old ladies in books. In a sexist time when most female characters were either silly or maternal, strong old ladies were a rare exception to the rule. These women used their power. They said things that offended almost everyone (think Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in Pride and Prejudice). Most people give in to these characters, which is unwise because they don’t respect “toadies.” Better to stand up to them, as Elizabeth Bennett eventually does to Lady Catherine, and earn their respect.

Every once in a while I notice an actress or other public personality who seems get a charge out of slipping into the role of indomitable old lady. Katherine Hepburn was surely one of these people. I recently watched her old interview on the Dick Cavett Show, where she held forth for two nights on every conceivable subject. She talked about how ridiculously expensive restaurants were, how young people talked to much, and how women should choose between children and a career. Watching her I got the impression that somewhere deep down she was thinking about what a pleasure it was to be a “character” who was allowed to have opinions that annoyed some people. I even suspected that she thought she might be overdoing it – but then went on anyway because, what the heck, she was getting away with it.

Mrs. Bush, the wife of President Bush Sr,. is another person whose sharp tongue I would not want to catch, but whose wit can make me laugh. When President Bush went for a skydiving jump on his 80th birthday, he reported that Mrs. Bush told him that it was his last jump, “one way or the other.”

I guess strong old ladies don’t have to be single after all.

This may be a good thing. Years ago when I was still in my 20s, a sophisticated gay male friend told me that, had I been an actress, I would have made a great Eleanor Roosevelt. I have to admit that this comment did not amuse me much at the time. Even though he said it thinking of Jane Alexander’s performance in the Eleanor and Franklin miniseries, I wasn’t sure how to react.

Now I think of the comment and find myself smiling broadly. I can’t think of a better compliment.

Robin Uncapher