Rough Winds to Shake

By Egremont, Max | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Rough Winds to Shake


Egremont, Max, The Spectator


Mrs Dorothea May is a widow of 70 who lives in a ground-floor flat in a smart district of London. She has the use of a small garden and it is into this that she ventures early on summer mornings, wearing her dead husband Henry's dressinggown. Slightly cautious in her movements, she suffers from a failing heart, not only in the physical sense, but through sudden capitulation to anxiety. She is childless, in touch only with some of Henry's relations whom she finds overbearing and not entirely sympathetic.

Widowed now for 15 years, she sees her marriage, to an older man whom she is sure that she loved, as an aberration. It had begun late (she had been aged 39) and had interrupted a generally solitary life. Mrs May was an only child, from a bleak, silent home; the reading of novels had, for her, taken the place of experience. Her parents were loving but inarticulate, rather dingy, not quite the background that the Mays expected from those who became intimately involved with them. Henry May, a refugee from a miserable first marriage about which he seems never to have spoken, brought her comfort, pleasure, companionship but not erotic passion. Expansive, smelling slightly of cigar smoke and cologne, exotic perhaps because of his family's central European background, Henry had seemed to dominate her meekness: another reason, surely, why Mrs May should feel the sense of loss which somehow eludes her.

Mrs May copes with the little epics of old age: an exhausting journey to Oxford Street, a disturbing dream, lunch alone in an Italian cafe where a few anodyne words with its former proprietor echo like thunder in her head. The struggles lack even the edge of a threat of deprivation, for Henry was rich and has left her with more than enough money. All this is described in Anita Brookner's gently aphoristic prose. It is told with compassion and wit: a civilised description of a civilised predicament.

Then a telephone call offers the possibility of change, or at least a temporary upheaval. The grand-daughter of a cousin of Henry is coming back from the United States to get married in London; the cousin asks if Mrs May will put up Steve, a friend of the bridegroom, and she is introduced to the world of three young people who are an affront to her `entirely suburban' values through their wilful gracelessness, their hideous clothes and their astonishing capacity for what seems to be genuine, if crazy, belief. …

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