It’s about Sarah Durham, a 65-year-old woman, one of four founding members of a theatre company that is staging a play about the life of a young coloured woman, a 19th century poet and artist who loved and lost two men, and committed suicide on the eve of a marriage that, superficially at least, would have gained her respectability and acceptance.
There is another actor, in his 30s, who pursues Sarah aggressively, declares his love for her. She does not feel the same, and refuses to sleep with him, but ‘burns’ with desire for the other two men.
Sarah does not end up having sex with anyone. Bill seems like a coward. And Henry is a man of integrity: at one point, she wonders if he would be quite so righteous if she were not 65, but 25.
The same thought crossed my mind. There is a character in this book, a man in his 50s, who sleeps with two women half his age. We know this happens. We’ve heard women say things like ‘Men get more attractive as they age, women just grow old and undesirable’ and ‘White hair looks distinguished on a man, it ages a woman or makes her look like a witch.’
You may or may not agree, and your views may be to do with personal taste, or psychology or social conditioning. I prefer younger men and I believe this is because I have father issues –opposite of the sort that would make me attracted to older men, but who knows, these things are complicated.
Sarah’s situation is alarming and depressing, but I think it’s a true portrayal. I felt her frustration and despair, and was reminded of that Hardy poem, the one I first encountered at 18 and responded to with a fascinated horror and dread. the one I can relate to now, at 47; the one I imagine will make me cry, or laugh maniacally, in 10 or 20 years.
I wanted Sarah to be happy, to be allowed pleasure despite her age, indeed because of it (the third young man, the one she doesn’t desire, prefers much older women). Perhaps if I were in my 20s, or even 30s, I wouldn’t have cared much either way. I may even have regarded her emotions with scorn or disgust (although I doubt it, because I really did understand that Hardy poem).
What do Bill and Henry think of Sarah? How do they feel about her? She is an intelligent, capable, talented, successful and beautiful. Early on we are told she’s often thought to be 20 years younger than she really is. Why did Lessing make a point of that? Is it because she felt readers would not otherwise believe that Henry and Bill could be sexually attracted to Sarah?
Are they, even? Or is the connection purely mental and emotional? Do they struggle to figure out their next move because she’s so much older? It would be simpler if she were younger. Sex would then be inevitable, expected and natural … right? Why not with Sarah? What is the use of looking 20 years younger than you are if it does not get you laid? Perhaps the real point is that, despite her youthful looks, Sarah remains excluded: No matter how attractive Bill and Henry find her, their desire is outweighed by the knowledge that she is an old woman. Oh the horror, it just doesn’t bear thinking about!
And what if Sarah had slept with either or both, or all three men? Would readers roll their eyes at the absurdity of it? Some of us may cringe at the thought of 25-year-old women marrying men twice (and more) their age, but it’s a common enough occurrence not to provoke much of a reaction.
‘Old man’s darling, young man’s slave’ … why not ‘old woman’s darling’? I wonder how much of it is to do with a man’s accepted role as a provider, and the biological viability of a woman, that is to say, her ability to conceive. A man is the traditional breadwinner, and is able to father children til death, all things being equal. A woman is not expected to contribute financially to the household, and pays for her keep with her body: she offers sexual pleasure and bears a man’s children until such a time when she is no longer desirable and can no longer conceive. (The two states could be said to coincide.)
In Sarah’s case she is supposedly still sexually desirable although she can no longer bear children. I don’t think Bill and Henry care about whether or not Sarah can provide them with heirs. Nevertheless they might still be conscious of her inability to do so. They might not consciously care, but their subconscious might still reject her as unsuitable.
As for Sarah herself … what holds her back? Fear? Wisdom? A misguided sense of decorum? An astonishing level of restraint? A horror of rejection? What would a physical relationship with either man have meant for Sarah? Would it have been merely a brief pleasure? Did she view the encounters as pointless as there would be no question of a future with either man?
I’m 47 and I have, just once in my life, dated a man older than me. He was my very first boyfriend, I was 17 and he was 19. Since then it’s always been the case of going out with men several years my junior. Last year I thought I was in love with a 21-year-old (the worst mistake of my life). My current partner is 21 years younger. Often I wonder at my lack of prudence. Am I just asking for heartbreak and disappointment? Should I follow Sarah’s lead and not give in to my desires? What good will come of following my ‘heart’?
I dislike that saying about how it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It isn’t always true: I would rather never have even met the 21-year-old. But this man, this 26-year-old … how to tell what the future will bring? Que sera sera? Just how foolish will I feel in six months or two years? Do I really love him? Does he love me? Might it be possible that, 10 years down the road, we’ll still be together, and happy too? Would I be feeling this way if I were a 47-year-old man with a hot 26-year-old girlfriend?
I have no answers. I guess this is what it’s always been like for me. Choosing to take the less popular route: I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.