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Pass the cheese, Louise

Widowhood in 1955 was not a desirable state.

23 October 2010

12:00 AM

23 October 2010

12:00 AM

The Winds of Heaven Monica Dickens

Persephone, pp.320, 12

Widowhood in 1955 was not a desirable state. Not, at any rate, for Louise Bickford, heroine of The Winds of Heaven (first published in 1955, now reprinted by Persephone). Louise is 57. She has a small, inadequate income from her parents. From her ghastly husband Dudley she has inherited nothing but debts. She has lost her house and all her possessions, save a few clothes, and with them her way of life, her identity and her place as an adult invested with those attributes. In middle age, she has been downgraded to second chilhood. None of which is her fault. Within the parameters of Monica Dickens’s mid-century, middle-class world, such is the inevitable result of financial ruin and dependency. At a time of economic uncertainty, this is a troubling suggestion for readers today.

So Louise is ‘like a child who has got lost on a church outing’. During the course of Dickens’s novel, she will be found — although rescue comes from an unlikely quarter and is, again, none of Louise’s doing.

In the aftermath of Dudley Bickford’s death, his three grown-up daughters devise a plan: their mother will live with each of them in turn throughout the course of the summer, while during the winter she will stay in a hotel on the Isle of Wight belonging to her oldest schoolfriend, Sybil, who offers her cut-price rates.

This is not, take note, Louise’s plan. All summer long she lives out of a suitcase, always moderating her behaviour to suit the temperament and domestic arrangements of the daughter in question. ‘I know you hate it badly enough, being passed round from one to another … like a mangy cheese,’ Sybil tells her. A victim of charity, Louise becomes ‘a surplus piece of furniture’, a minor element of discord in her children’s homes:

Like other small animals she had a talent for getting underfoot; for being there when you had hoped she would not be.

It seems highly unlikely that she will be rescued from such indignities, and yet this is indeed what happens. Her Löhengrin is a grossly overweight, diabetic department-store beds salesman, who moonlights as a writer of sixpenny thrillers.

The Winds of Heaven must have pleased Michael Joseph, its original publishers. In its surefooted anatomy of helplessness, its warm but unsentimental portrayal of Louise, and its splendidly happy ending (which includes a sting-in-the-tail for the daughters, Miriam, Eva and Anne), the novel contains everything a publisher could ask of a bestselling female novelist.

But it is also more than that. Louise Bickford is a universal figure, a sorrowful out- sider who, burdened with domestic minutiae, attains the nobility of the romantic heroine at odds with an unfeeling world. The Winds of Heaven invests her with a grace and stature that those nearest her cannot see. And it does so with much style and wit.

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