Literature’s ageless loves
While most of our youthful passions fade before long, our bookish loves stay with us
I have just finished writing a book about ageing. There are lots of things that change as you get older, most of them bad. Your body parts succumb to gravity and your face begins to look like your mother’s. One of the very few upsides is that the hairs on your legs grow at a slower rate.
In addition, nobody is interested in old people. As Proust’s Baron de Charlus observed rather acidly: “You have not, perhaps, any personal merit – I’ve no idea, so few people have! But for a time at least you have youth, and that is always an attraction.”
However, there are some benefits to ageing. As our body changes, so do our tastes. I used to think, for example, that Les McKeown from the Bay City Rollers was the most handsome, cleverest, most miraculous man alive. This is no longer an opinion I hold. I also used to dream about Adam Ant sharing his eye-liner with me. Now I can afford my own eye-liner and wouldn’t dream of sharing anyone else’s, particularly not Mr Ant’s.
But one thing that has struck me is how the literary heartthrobs of our youth don’t ever change. Yes, obviously they are in print so they are unlikely to start suddenly sprouting hair in the wrong places and dribbling, but what I find incredible is how my opinion of them has remained constant.
Take Heathcliff, for example. I first fell in love with him when I was fifteen. In my mind’s eye he must have been no more than thirty, probably at the limit of what I would have found attractive back then. Some thirty years later I still wouldn’t kick him off the sofa; his smouldering manner, swarthy good looks and Machiavellian behaviour is as enticing to me now as it was then. Not bad for somebody nearly 200 years old. Then there’s Darcy. This is a man whom every woman in England, whatever her age, seems to be in love with. Otherwise they couldn’t keep making films and TV shows of the book. He is your perfect Byronic hero; totally disinterested, fabulously rich and a class A aristo to boot. What’s not to like?
Even heroines age better in books than they do in the real world. Compare and contrast Julie Burchill for example, with Emma Bovary. Burchill was a heroine of mine when I was a youngster trying to become a writer. Now I’m not sure I’d even want to have lunch with her – judging by recent photos, she’d probably scoff the lot. Emma Bovary though, silly as we all know she is, is as fascinating to me now as she was when I first read her adulterous adventures in my teens.
So why is this? How come when everything changes as we get older our literary heroes and heroines remain constant? Is it because they made such an impression on us that we never lose that sense of awe? I don’t think so. I can think of few things that had more effect on me than the arrival of Duran Duran. But now they seem old, hackneyed and rather pathetic, a male version of the Spice Girls.
I think it has more to do with the fact that a good book remains just that. Most people read The Great Gatsby when they’re relatively young. But ask anyone over 40 who has read it to tell you what they think of it and chances are they will still rave about the quality of the writing, the descriptions and, above all, Gatsby himself.
Above all, we remain the same age as when we first discovered novels – in my case around seventeen. I feel as if I could still be invited to one of Gatsby’s bashes on Long Island, and be asked to dance; or not look out of place at the Count d’Orgel’s ball. The Duchesse de Guermantes might make even me welcome in her salon, but here at last is a consolation of middle age: I have decided that I am still too young to read all of Proust, saving it perhaps until I am being pushed around Brighton Beach in a bathchair.
Or perhaps I will always be too young for all of Proust.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019