Magazine article The Spectator

Pig in the Middle

Magazine article The Spectator

Pig in the Middle

Article excerpt

The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age

by Jane Shilling

Chatto, £16.99, pp. 241,

ISBN 9780701181000

Writing an autobiographical account of middle age is a brave undertaking, necessitating a great deal of self-scrutiny at a time of life when most of us would sooner look the other way and hope for the best. Jane Shilling took up riding relatively late (she even joined a hunt, as described in her book The Fox in the Cupboard), so she has physical daring. The Stranger in the Mirror shows that she also has emotional and intellectual courage.

Unsurprisingly, the news is not good. God and gardening are the traditional refuges of the menopausal, but neither seems to hold much interest for Shilling. Romantic entanglements seem unlikely and her teenaged son is advancing towards independence: solitude looms. Career prospects diminish. Looks aren't what they used to be. Regrets prosper.

She fears, in a chilling phrase, 'an inability to be delighted'. Her clothes look peculiar on her. Shilling is particularly good about the strange mutiny of her wardrobe:

The disjunction between the person I felt myself to be inside and the person my clothes announced me to be was intensely disconcerting - a sort of sartorial aphasia, as disturbing as finding oneself suddenly unable to communicate in a language one had once spoken fluently.

This will be all too familiar to readers of a certain age. I remember the exact moment when it happened to me, in the changing room of a dress shop where I was trying on a frock. I knew better than to attempt a frill or a flounce, but this was a fairly sober item, navy blue with white spots. Famously, middle-aged women report the shock of seeing their mother staring back in the glass, in place of the girl they once were. But it wasn't my mother. I would have been glad to see my mother.

Instead, I seemed to have raised the dead:

for there reflected in a suddenly excruciating froth of polka dots was someone who looked just like the late Bubbles Rothermere.

It is at this point that women face the stark choice between the grey cardigan and Barbara Cartland pink, the one promising effacement and modesty, the other pseudo-cheer. Shilling doesn't go into this dreadful fashion dilemma, which is a rare case of shirking on her part.

But this is a literary book - Virginia Woolf is much mentioned; Chaucer's Wife of Bath invoked - not a self-help guide. The comedy aspects of middle age are mostly absent, too;

perhaps wisely, for who could hope to compete with Nora Ephron's masterly and hilarious I Feel Bad About My Neck, a volume no woman over 40 should be without? …

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