My rating: 7/10.
Monica Dickens is one of my pet authors; her books, despite their undoubted flaws, reside prominently on the bedroom bookshelves reserved for our favourite re-reads. And when one is so comfortable with a certain author, isn’t it sometimes hard to step back and realize that not everyone shares either their familiarity or enthusiasm?
I was quite surprised at my own passionate feelings of defensiveness regarding Monica Dickens recently when I read this review of The Winds of Heaven by blogger Rachel of Book Snob. I was half way through reading my own copy of the novel, and Rachel’s comments made me step back a bit and look at the story with new eyes. I’d read it several times previously over the years, and I didn’t really change my views on it with this reading, but it was truly interesting to read with a more critical eye, as if experiencing the novel as a “first” Monica Dickens, and to try to identify what exactly pushed Rachel’s buttons all wrong. Great discussion followed that post; worth reading, so please visit if you haven’t already.
So – taking a deep breath, stepping back, and trying to maintain some sort of distance so I’ll be able to give my own picture of the book in question.
First off, I must say that The Winds of Heaven isn’t, in my opinion, one of this author’s stronger books. Though well up to standard as far as the writing goes, there are others much, much better handled, both in plot and execution. The recent re-issue of this title by Persephone Books leaves me jut a bit bemused; there are others in this writer’s canon which are so much more worthy of that great honour. If this is your first exposure to Monica Dickens, it might well also be your last, and that would be an immense shame, as she has some rather good stories to tell.
I can only assume that Persephone chose this book because of its attention to women’s roles in the mid 20th century. Set in England in the post war years (The Winds of Heaven is set in 1951 and 1952, and was published in 1955), the characters are broadly representative of their time.
When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.
To Louise Bickford, on this late April day, the wind that jostled through the London streets seemed a bitter personal enemy, turning to meet her no matter which way she turned, beating against her small figure in the open stretches, and calling in reserve cohorts to attack her afresh at every corner.
She had intended to walk to the Park and look at the spring flowers, but she was soon so tired of fighting the wind’s fiendish determination to pluck her clothes and hair awry that she turned into a teashop to resettle her hair and recover her breath, until it was time to meet Miriam and the children at Marble Arch.
Miriam was Louise’s eldest daughter. She had borne three daughters, to her surprise, for her husband had set his heart on a son, and Louise was in the habit of giving him everything he asked for. That she failed to give him a boy, with a long conceited nose like his own to look down on the world, had not helped to raise his opinion of his wife’s usefulness to society…
Louis, widowed for just over a year, is on the cusp of sixty. Her late husband, the supercilious Dudley, has died unexpectedly after a short illness, leaving his financial affairs in a state of great turmoil. Instead of a sedate widowhood financed by a respectable income, Louise is startled to hear that she is, in fact, penniless. Her one resource is a small income from her parents’ estate, barely enough to keep her clothed and fed. Her home and possessions must be sold to repay Dudley’s many debts; Louise has become a bemused and helpless vagabond, thrown out into a world she has been increasingly insulated from during the long years of her difficult marriage.
Louise’s three daughters have stepped in to take on their mother in turn, a situation which all are unprepared for.
Miriam, married to an upwardly mobile barrister, is strongly focussed on the requirements of keeping up a suitable home, entertaining and being entertained by her husband’s business associates, and ensuring her three children are moving ahead in their school and social circles. The most financially prosperous of Louise’s children, it has fallen to Miriam to take on a major part of the responsibility of her mother’s care. Both Louise and Miriam are having a difficult time reconciling themselves to their new relationship. Louise would love to be a fond grandmother figure to Miriam’s three children, but this never quite works out as hoped for. Her closest relationship within the household is to Miriam’s eldest child, Ellen, a dreamy and ineffectual misfit in a household of high achievers. Louise and Ellen are kindred spirits, and Louise’s gentle defense of Ellen serves mostly to irritate, as Miriam sees this as unwarranted interference and an insidious criticism of her mothering skills.
Louise’s second daughter, Eva, an aspiring actress with a hectic personal life, maintains a small flat in London, and good-naturedly tucks her mother into her tiny spare room when it is her turn to host her mother, but her bohemian lifestyle is so at odds with Louise’s conventional nature that the two are never really comfortable together. Eva’s personal affairs are also made more difficult by the presence of her mother in her flat, especially now that she has fallen deeply in love with a married man, and faces her mother’s unspoken but very obvious horror at the situation her daughter has placed herself in.
Louise’s youngest daughter, Anne, has married a struggling market gardener and smallholder. Louise and her practical and kind-natured son-in-law get along well, and Frank has no objection to hosting his wife’s mother. Louise is even becoming rather handy with minor chores about the farm, and she and Frank work well together, with Louise showing increasing competence in practical things under Frank’s relaxed tutelage. Anne herself is the sore point here. Lazy by nature and downright slovenly about the house, Anne finds herself irritated by her mother’s attempts at housecleaning and cooking; those very small efforts at “helping out” seem to Anne to be a personal condemnation of her chosen lifestyle.
So Louise shuttles from daughter to daughter, with a brief respite as a winter resident – at extremely reduced rates – at an old school friend’s seaside hotel. She increasingly desperately muses over what she should be doing to try to find some sort of solution to her poverty and homelessness. Never expecting to have to support herself, and ineffectual and self-effacing by nature, any initiative she once might have had has been quenched by the late Dudley’s continual verbal criticism. Though Louise has never been physically injured, she is as much a victim of abuse as any battered wife; the way out of her dilemma is lost to her, though well meaning friends try to pep her up and encourage her to find some occupation which might bring in enough income to enable her to maintain some semblance of an independent life.
Then, in a random meeting in a restaurant, Louise becomes friendly with a most unlikely character, department store bed salesman-slash-author of sex-and-murder pulp fiction, Gordon Disher. Gordon is hugely overweight, a severe diabetic who must be extremely careful of what he eats. He’s the never-married middle-aged son of a now-deceased, over-controlling mother, and he is a deeply likeable character, being soft-spoken, kind and deeply compassionate. Louise inspires affection and the longing to protect in Gordon, and their growing relationship winds through the book, increasing in importance until the startling – but not surprising, given the increasingly melodramatic tone of this minor saga – conclusion.
The Winds of Heaven is “typical” Monica Dickens in that the characters are presented with all flaws fully intact. This is an author who sees every wrinkle, bump and character flaw, and doesn’t hesitate to share them with us. She is adept at showing us that those flaws don’t necessarily completely define her characters, and she generally shows us the positive aspects of each personality as well. She creates her characters, sets them on the stage to play out their various stories, and lets her readers make of everything as they will. I like “not liking” various of her players, and I like the grace that their creator gives by dropping hints of their deeper motivations, and their complex inner lives. Monica Dickens is occasionally sentimental, but only momentarily; her default tone is wryly observant, and her observations are frequently very amusing, in an “Oh my gosh, she’s right, that could be me!” or, “I know that person!” sort of way.
The book ends on a highly ambiguous note. Louise is about to change her life, and future happiness is a strong possibility, but there is a terrible price to pay.
One of my major issues with this novel is the rushed and superficial handling of the ending; after providing such micro-detail throughout, the sketchy handling of final events is something of a let-down, as if the author was really just ready to be done with the story, already.
I don’t personally feel that the author had any statements to make with this tale, much as it could be read as a critique of the treatment of the elderly (though Louise, at a hale and hearty sixty, isn’t really elderly, in the way that we interpret the term today). Every character is presented sympathetically in that we get to see all the facets of their personalities. We may not like how they behave, but we understand why they are like they are.
Yes, Louise’s daughters are selfish, but their creator does not condemn them for it. Louise is just as selfish in her own way, as is Gordon Disher. Everyone has something that they want, some vision that they’re chasing, which affects their relationships with those they are intimate with. It’s plain old human nature, and I appreciate Monica Dickens’ way of presenting each situation with glimpses of motivation and reasoning, and also those moments of reconciliation and affection which are so reflective of real life.
And this is why I love Monica Dickens. She is fully aware of the contradictory aspects of human nature, and forces them upon us in a way that is impossible to dismiss, all the while telling a diverting story. The Winds of Heaven, while not in her top rank, is full of good writing.
And that is all I have to say, at least for now.
I’m hoping to review more of this author’s work, but I find it is rather difficult to step back enough from someone I’ve read and re-read so much and really talk about the book in question while trying to remember that perhaps everyone else reading is not so familiar with the author’s canon. I read The Winds of Heaven quite a way along in my roster of Dickens’ titles; my response to the novel was definitely informed by that circumstance. If it was my first book by her, I very well might never have gone on.
Come to think of it, I’m not quite sure which was my first book by her. That’s sadly lost in the foggy mists of time. I think it was One Pair of Feet; I do remember picking that one up, in a vintage Penguin version, from a used book store in Calgary sometime in the 1980s, and not being quite sure what to expect. Obviously whatever it was that appealed still does!