Claudia Hampton is 76 years old and approaching the end of her life. In fiction final days are serene, composed, moving calmly towards reconciliation and conclusion. Or it might be a gloomy time, full of regrets for those who will live on as well as for the dying. In Moon Tiger Penelope Lively gives us an alternative to both the serene and the gloomy end of days. Claudia is spending hers as vividly as she lived the rest of her life.
Claudia Hampton is lying in hospital, terminally ill. She has a project.
‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment: she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ (p1)
This is the opening paragraph. The history of the world is in immediate contrast with the infantalising language of the nurse. We may be amused by Claudia’s intention, but by the end of the novel we understand that it was a good description of her occupation, even if it was composed in her head
On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone’ (p2). She has been written off, no longer ‘someone’, but the reader soon learns that Claudia has a continuing, rich and fecund inner life.
The novel refutes the conventional narrative of what a woman’s life should be and that the endpoint, the purpose of her life is marriage and motherhood. Claudia is not a conventional success in these activities. The ‘happily ever after’ that threads through fairy stories, school stories, romances and much of ‘women’s’ fiction is not Claudia’s ambition. She has forty more eventful years after the death of her great love, Tom.
In her first years she regarded her brother Gordon as her equal, tied together in argument and competition. In her early adulthood in the 40s she became a war correspondent in Egypt, a career shared by very few women. In the desert she met and fell in love with Tom, but he was killed. Fiction often presents the love of a woman’s life as her main story. But Claudia’s life continues.
After the war she had a long affair with Jasper, an exploitative opportunist, and still did not marry, despite having a daughter. Asked why she has attracted so few proposals of marriage her reply suggests a truth – men have had a good sense of self preservation. The daughter, Lisa, was raised by grandmothers. Claudia wrote successful popular history, out of kilter with the grand narratives of post-war academic writing. Old women are usually thought of as moderating their stance towards the world but Claudia does not do this. She remains challenging.
And the final days and hours? Claudia spends these as she has lived. She examines her life, the final days are another accretion of events, strata laid down as in geology. Addressing her long-dead lover, Tom, in the final chapter, she says,
I am twice your age. You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of the forty years of history and forty years of my life; you seem innocent, like a person in another century. But you are also, now, a part of me, as immediate and as close as my own other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself.
… I need you, Gordon, Jasper, Lisa, all of them. And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing. (p206-7)
A woman’s life
Claudia’s life is an accretion of her experiences, of her achievements and failures, of those she has loved. The story is told from multiple and rapidly shifting perspectives. At some points we are with her in her hospital bed, then shift to her visitors, whose different experience of the same events is caught by slight changes. The structure of the novel thus reflects a view of life not as linear (no journey metaphors here), but as happening all at once.
The idea that memory is linear is nonsense. What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself – can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time. [Penelope Lively interviewed in 2009 with Sarah Crown in the Guardian]
It’s an unsettling book. The comfortable cliché of the journey’s end is rejected. I suspect that some people find Claudia too difficult, an unsympathetic character. She is not prepared to live as other people want or expect. Do we need to like Claudia in order to see that she offers a refreshingly different approach to being an older woman?
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was first published in 1987 by Andre Deutsch. It won the Booker Prize that year. I used the Penguin edition from 1988.
Posted by Caroline Lodge of Bookword