I spent March in England researching for a novel about Medieval women and exploring the culture and activism of today’s midlife women.
As a native of California, where a building from the 1950s is considered historic, the first thing that strikes me in England is the way surroundings tell stories. Medieval buildings rest on earlier Norman layers, on top of Viking on top of Roman ruins. In Cumbria we visited the stone circle at Castlerigg, a Neolithic place of astronomy and worship surrounded by wild lands and mountains. Writers are often told that place is character; in England it’s clear that place is also plot.
English people, like English buildings, are full of stories. I ordered cocoa in a tea shop in Grassington and mentioned we were on our way to the Medieval village of Dent. “Oh, Dent!” said our waitress. “I had my first job there when I was seventeen, as assistant to the coroner. He was an odd one.”
“Coroners can be a bit eccentric,” I said.
She pulled a face. “Not like this one. He had me getting his old mother ready in the mornings. Couldn’t say no, needed to save up for my first car. The old lady had a glass eye and I had to clean it and pop it into the socket. ‘Is it straight?’ she would ask. ‘Am I looking at you with both eyes?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I would say, no matter which way that glass eye pointed.” Our waitress shivered. “And then himself would come home at lunch and say, ‘Mother, your eye has slipped,’ pop it out, pop it back in and swivel it with his finger, like that.” She wagged a finger to demonstrate, then shrugged. “Got my car, though, didn’t I?”
Her story reminded me of my first job pouring afternoon juice in a nursing home, when an old bearded lady called me over and whispered in my ear, “Call the doctor. I’m dead.” That memory makes me shiver. At seventeen, the extremely old can seem entirely alien. No wonder ageism is a hard nut to crack.
I’d love to use the glass eye vignette in my novel, but the first glass eyes came to England from Germany in the 1800s, too late for my book. But other stories may influence mine. In Dent we visited the grave of a man named George Hodgson who is now buried next to the door of the Norman church. His flat gravestone is set into the ground. After George died in 1715 he was repeatedly seen wandering around town. His neighbors dug him up and there he was, fresh as the day they buried him. There’s a neat hole in his gravestone to accommodate the stake through his heart. This may inspire the origin story for a minor female character.
After Dent we passed near the cave of Mother Shipton, whose predictions about everything from the Great Fire of London to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII made her famous. Shipton lived in the 1500s, when part of my story is set. People came from miles around to seek her advice, and perhaps my characters will do the same.
We drove past Pendle Hill, with its history of witch trials, and stayed at Hurstwood Hall, a stately home from the 1500s that’s been converted to a bed and breakfast. Three triangles representing the Trinity are inscribed in the stone archway by the door. These “witch marks” were carved in the 1500s to repel evil spirits. Even at the time, there were those who refused to believe in witchcraft, but one of my main characters will be accused (setting off the action in the novel).
Besides immersing myself in medieval lore, on this trip I’ve learned about today’s culture of midlife women in England. For International Women’s Day I took a train to London where Eleanor Mills hosted a panel event called “The Rise of the Queenager: A Force to be Reckoned With.” Eleanor herself is a force. She worked for The Sunday Times for 23 years including as Editorial Director, Editor of The Sunday Times Magazine, and as a columnist and interviewer (interrogating everyone from Mikhail Gorbachev to Sheryl Sandberg and Theresa May). When Mills left that career at age 50, just as her daughters were about to leave the nest, she hit a crisis point. She decided to found Noon, an organization based on the premise that midlife women are exactly that: In the middle of life with so much more to do and to give. If you are not familiar with Noon, check out the great work they are doing on many fronts including career transitions, health and finances. Noon also conducts social research on the changing role and power of women after midlife.
As we gathered in the audience, I spoke with one woman who turned sixty that week and had concerns about what lay ahead. Another woman founded an advertising company focused on products that meet the needs of women over fifty. The audience was animated and eager for connection.
The event was a panel discussion that included entrepreneurs, media personalities, and the head of the British Fashion Council. The conversation ranged from women’s fashion (“We may see slightly larger women on fashion runways but how about in the windows of local shops?”) to women’s careers (“The higher we go in the pecking order, the more pushback we get”). As I listened to stories of women entrepreneurs and other stories of midlife women ignored by marketers, I began to wonder if what we really need is a separate, parallel economy for women after midlife. Why beat our heads against the wall, trying to make it in companies that are still dominated by men? If we have as much purchasing power as Eleanor describes, then they need us more than we need them.
In York we met up with the marvelous Rachel Peru, who became a curvy model after midlife and now has a podcast too. Rachel uses her platform as a professional lingerie model to encourage women to love and accept our bodies at every age and size. Given my separatist impulse in London, I was especially interested to learn that Rachel is in the midst of rebranding, creating a more inclusive identity that will educate men as well as supporting women after midlife. Separatism is not enough, Rachel told me. We need to bring men along on our adventure. Eleanor Mills has a “No Wankers” policy, and Rachel too makes a distinction between men who are worth educating and men to avoid. After getting fed up with shirtless trolls on Instagram, I’ve been in the habit of blocking any man who follows my page, and was interested to learn of Rachel’s more nuanced approach. When a man follows her account, she looks at his page and decides whether to keep him or block him. And if he misbehaves later, he’s out. “No Wankers” doesn’t necessarily mean “No Men.”
Near the end of our trip, news broke about the death of Jacqueline Gold, head of the UK retail company Ann Summers. Gold, who was 62 when she died, joined the struggling male-dominated company as a young intern. Under her leadership, Ann Summers grew into a woman-managed company with stores that sell lingerie and sex toys in every High Street in England. Gold will be remembered for providing a safe space for women to explore our sexuality. In 2015, Gold said: “I set out to empower women in the bedroom and now I want to empower women in the boardroom.” She was honored by Queen Elizabeth II with a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for her services to women in business. Hers is another great English story to bring back across the pond.
What is your story? Please keep your pen moving (or your keys clicking) as we build our culture together.