Stuck in the middle with middle-aged me
MEMOIR: MOLLY McCLOSKEYreviews The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle AgeBy Jane Shilling Chatto Windus, 235pp. £16.99
A RECENT Economistcover story was titled “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)”. Being 46, I was shocked to see myself described as someone who is growing old but relieved to learn that my life was just beginning. The gist of the article was that recent studies of happiness have found that life is not, after all, a slow decline from youthful cheer to rueful old age but a U-bend: in the vast majority of countries surveyed, people are reportedly at their most unhappy in their 40s and early 50s, and the unhappiest of the unhappy are, on average, 46.
From then on, according to the Economist, we worry less and are less inclined to feel angry or sad: the old, being closer to death, “grow better at living for the present . . . Older people know what matters most”.
Virginia Woolf said as much about 80 years ago, writing in her diary: “I don’t think of the future, or the past, I feast on the moment. This is the secret of happiness; but only reached now in middle age.”
It may seem odd to quote Woolf on the subject, but a rational apprehension of the basis of happiness and a capacity to live that knowledge are quite distinct, and Jane Shilling turns to Woolf frequently in her new memoir about navigating the terrain of female middle age.
Shilling is a former columnist for the London Timesand now writes about books for the Telegraphand Daily Mail. She read English at Oxford, raised a son on her own and never married; the last of these facts is the source of her greatest sadness. The Stranger in the Mirror is her second work of non-fiction. (Her first was The Fox in the Cupboard, about fox hunting.)
Shilling was 47 when she began the book and 50 upon its completion, and it constitutes both an attempted corrective to the grim stereotypes she found prevailing about middle-aged women and a record of her desire to extract meaning from a phase of life she finds marked by obscure trepidation, acute nostalgia and regret about the squandering of early promise. (Shilling takes care to distinguish middle age from the “inexorable checkpoint” of menopause, though menopause shadows the narrative.)
In the old days everyone but film stars was allowed to grow dumpy gracefully. No more. Television, the internet and the fashion industry have all made growing old that much more fraught, especially, though not exclusively, for women.
In the 1970s, Shilling writes, “the idea had not yet taken hold that to be a woman implies automatic participation in a permanent, worldwide beauty pageant in which ordinary schoolgirls and menopausal women measure themselves against film stars and supermodels.”
Given Shilling’s critique of such developments, the book’s dust jacket seems cynical and poorly judged: both front and back are naked photos of the author – her body, at 50, fit and cellulite-free. What’s the message there?
BEAUTY IS ONLY one of the issues Shilling explores in this sharp and fluidly written (if often dejected) memoir, which calls on a number of literary figures – Colette, Henry James, George Eliot, Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir – for guidance and consolation. There is the question of love in middle age, and of desire.
Deciding that intimacy is worth the risk, Shilling writes: “I thought now that I might be in less danger from the disruption of my composure than from a certain cold contraction of the heart: a narrow prudence, a cautious indisposition to love, an absence of daring, an inability to be delighted.”
There is also the issue of clothes. Having always regarded fancy dress as “narrative, rather than advertisement”, Shilling is rightly appalled by those makeover shows in which “run-down, middle-aged women” are stuffed into “control pants and cleavage-revealing jackets in garish synthetics” by presenters oozing a “queasy mixture of insults and caresses”. She wonders how, outside of this kitsch come-hither on the one hand and fashion advice for the over-40s on the other – Don’t wear this . . . Don’t wear that – she might continue a healthy love affair with clothes.
There is the issue of one’s professional shelf life. While Shilling was writing this book the newspaper where she had been working had a shake-up, and her contract was terminated, leaving her unemployed, with a mortgage and a teenage son.
Motherhood is also a theme, and Shilling writes movingly of her son and their shifting dynamics as he makes his way through youth, drawing parallels between middle age and adolescence, that other awkward phase. But there is a difference between the dramas of adolescence and those of middle age.
“The former, however wrenching, conceal somewhere within themselves a tiny grain of excitement; a minute satisfaction at being the star of whatever scene is unfolding. Even while suffering, one is captivated, because eager to know how this bit of the story will turn out.”
And yet am I alone in feeling that middle age, as we fetishise its dramas, too, is the new adolescence? I thought at several points, even points detailing fears and woes I shared, that a dose of perspective was called for; lots of human beings die before they even learn to walk, and, wrenching though it may be to hit 50, the principle emotion we should feel on having done so is lucky.
IN THE ABSENCE of easy consolations, what to do? Apply ourselves to the proper business of middle age: “Wrest from this intractable catalogue of large and small diminishments a life that remains rich with hope and interest while at the same time not denying that you’re on the downward curve of the arc that leads from the stark simplicity of birth to the answering simplicity of death.”
If that sounds like drudgery, it is refreshing to read a memoir that doesn’t follow a storyline of degradation and redemptive resolution.
Life is muddier than that, and if we can look squarely in the mirror and see not a stranger but ourselves, if we can refuse the bullying humiliations (in whatever figurative forms) of Extreme Makeover, we may find that the middle age we’re in the midst of is interesting in its own right: “Troublesome, painful and difficult . . . but with the beauty, depth and poignancy that clings to endings, late works, Indian summers.”
Molly McCloskey’s new book, Circles Around the Sun, a memoir about her brother’s schizophrenia, will be published by Penguin Ireland in June