A Lifetime Burning
Flora Dunbar is dead. But it isn’t over.
The spectre at the funeral is Flora herself, unobserved by her grieving family and the four men who loved her.
Looking back over a turbulent lifetime, Flora recalls an eccentric childhood lived in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a handsome clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brought her Theo, the son she couldn’t love; middle age, when she finally found brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin.
“There has been much love in this family – some would say too much – and not a little hate. If you asked my sister-in-law, Grace why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, then tossed him on to the sizeable scrap heap marked ‘Flora’s ex-lovers’. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.”
TACKLING MY SECOND NOVEL
One of the things that has struck me raising a 28-year-old daughter is how she seems to have little sense of women in the 20th century, what we fought for, what we achieved, what very great changes a woman of 50+ has seen. When my daughter was still at school many of her female friends just wanted to get married, have babies and live off their husbands. There was so little aspiration, as if Feminism had never happened. It's not useful to generalise, I know, but these days some young women seem unambitious, so dull compared to us!
Mature women's lives have been full, varied, exciting, often tragic. We have tales to tell because we've been around the block a few times and have collected some interesting souvenirs. This is a fount of story-telling that has been tapped by few popular writers - people like Atwood, Drabble, Shields, Weldon, authors of so-called "literary" fiction.
The female general reader has been short-changed, fobbed off for far too long with books about women under thirty. A journalist asked me why I hadn't made the 47-year-old heroine of EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY twenty-five (which would have made the book easier to sell to a publisher.) I said I hadn't been interested in a 25-year-old's take on life as I was nearly 50. (Young people fail to realise that 25-year-olds are only fascinating to other 25-year-olds.)
In my second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING, I took five women from three generations of the same family and used their interwoven stories as a vehicle for looking at what it has meant to be a woman at different times in the latter half of the 20th Century - what choices, opportunities and limitations they faced. What you could make of your life depended largely, it seemed to me, on when you were born.
I feel very conscious of that myself. Now is a good time to be in my late 50s, but in previous generations I would have been regarded as old. I would have felt old.
Actually I would have been old.
Pictured above: my maternal grandmother.
Pictured below: me, aged 18 months.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
From EAST COKER (Four Quartets)