I’m quite a fan of Helen Kitson’s debut novel The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson (Louis Walters books 2019) and was eager to read her latest, Old Bones, which focuses on a group of not-so-young women living in a Shropshire village. However, as someone well into my sixth decade (and nearly out the other side!) I was somewhat vexed by what struck me as the very ‘elderly’ depiction of these women who in fictional years are actually younger than real old me. After an exchange of messagesand views I’m very pleased to welcome Helen here today to answer that question and a few others.
I really loved The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson and very much took to the village of Morevale. Did you always plan a village series or did Morevale creep up on you?
I didn’t plan it at all, but when my publisher, Louise Walters, commented that the village in ‘Old Bones’ bore a striking resemblance to the one in ‘Maddie’, I had a bit of a lightbulb moment. It suddenly made sense and I realised that it was, in fact, the same village. Once that had become clear to me, I was filling a notebook with dozens of ideas for future Morevale stories, so it definitely uncorked something that had been sloshing around in my subconscious!
Old Bones is the story of three women all of whose point-of view we experience. As a writer I was interested to notice Diana ‘speaks’ in first person, the others in third. Was there a rationale for that?
This was largely a stylistic choice. Although I have what amounts to three main characters, I felt (rightly or wrongly) that it would be less confusing for the reader to present Antonia’s and Naomi’s chapters in third person, whilst also subtly highlighting the fact that Diana is in many ways the hub around which everything else revolves. My feeling is that it would have been a noticeably different story if I had presented Antonia and/or Naomi as first person narrators with Diana’s chapters in third person.
It’s great to see a novelist putting ‘older women’ in the spotlight but I did feel that the sisters Diana and Antonia (and their friends and relatives) seemed very ‘elderly’ in their habits, preoccupations and style choices – much more so than women I know in their early sixties or even seventies. Would you like to explain if there was a reason for that portrayal and if you worried it might alienate some of your target audience?
They are ‘elderly’ in their behaviour, and the reasons for that are explored in the book, and is central to the story and its themes and concerns. It is also a conscious nod to Barbara Pym (one of my favourite authors Ali – yes, mine too!)) whose genteel and often timid characters inhabit an old-fashioned world of cardigans, Evensong and the remoter corners of academia. In some ways Diana and Antonia are the dark, awkward shadows of Belinda and Harriet Bede in Pym’s ‘Some Tame Gazelle’.
I appreciate that some people might find my portrayal of Diana and Antonia annoying, but I very much wanted to explore characters who are a bit oddball, whose lives have followed a particular trajectory that has made them who and what they are. They are very insular characters who haven’t fully come to terms with the wider world, which has had the effect of prematurely ageing them whilst at the same time their inability to move forward and draw a line under the past has resulted in a kind of emotional arrested development.
Even though Diana and Antonia do, in some senses, have each other, I think they are both fundamentally lonely, isolated in the separate worlds they have constructed to define themselves and their lives. The problem of loneliness is important in the novel, and in particular in the tentative and spiky relationship between Diana and Naomi. Some people have a gift for making friends easily and some simply don’t, which is something I particularly wanted to explore.
Of course Diana and Antonia are not representative of the vast majority of older women, but it was never my intention that they should be. They are deeply flawed characters, embittered by missed opportunities and wounds inflicted many years before. It is their inability to draw a line in the sand and move on that provides the impetus for the story, and in many respects I would describe it as a cautionary tale of the potentially disastrous consequences of living in the past and lacking the courage to embrace the possibilities offered by the present.
So I certainly didn’t set out to write characters who were in any sense role models for how I believe older women should look and act – rather the contrary! Even though I understand why this might grate on all those very many women in their 60s whose lives are far richer and far less insular than Diana and Antonia’s, I don’t think that’s a reason to pretend that everyone breezes into middle age and beyond in the same way. So much depends on one’s attitude and life experiences.
The novel’s title refers to Antonia and Diana as well as to the human remains found in the quarry. They have allowed themselves to become old before their time, and the discovery of the literal old bones is something of a wake-up call to these women who have buried themselves in consoling rituals and behaviours that no longer satisfy.
For me Diana, although sympathetic, in some ways remained a bit of an enigma. Would you say she more or less stood still for much of her life following her teenage years, or are there parts of her story we simply don’t need to know?
Although Diana often reflects on her past in the text, she elides a great deal, and the reader has no knowledge of what she was like during the period between Gill leaving Morevale and Diana stepping into the role of her mother’s carer. It seems obvious to me that she should have moved away from Morevale at the earliest opportunity, but escape isn’t always as simple as it sounds. It’s incredibly easy to allow the years to slip by, to put off doing things for vague ‘reasons’, and I think this is what happened to Diana.
She seems resentful of the fact that she and not her sister had the lion’s share of caring for her mother, but I think some part of her was probably grateful for this excuse to remain in stasis. Her premature ageing is, I think, also tied in with this. We use different strategies to cope with stressful or difficult situations, and I think one of Diana’s coping strategies was to mirror her mother’s behaviour, attitudes and worldview. There is something of this in her attitude towards Antonia, too, as if Diana has subconsciously taken on the role of her mother towards her younger sister.
Naomi was a fascinating character, much at war with herself, who finds a kind of peace in the end. The ending for Diana was more ambivalent. Without giving too much away, did you feel she found a resolution of some kind?
I do, and largely because her story is very much bound up with Naomi’s. These two characters have, I think, learned much from each other, and their tentative friendship is something that I believe will grow and benefit both of them. I think the pain Gill caused to Diana will continue to hurt, but I picture Naomi chivvying Diana along and giving her a stiff talking to when necessary! Change never happens overnight, but I do see a more fulfilling and outward-looking future for Diana.
Apart from the men who have departed the scene in various ways, there is only one male character and he isn’t central to the plot. Did you feel the women’s problems were particular to their gender or is here a comment her on women’s predicament or social status?
I think there is a sense in which Antonia and Naomi have bought into the idea of the fairytale “happy ever after” of marriage and motherhood as the desirable end goal for a woman. Naomi’s first marriage was clearly a failure, yet she holds onto it as if it were a precious thing. She tries to convince herself that her job gives her status, but I think she does see the failure of both her marriages as a negative reflection on herself and her value. Diana’s situation is somewhat different since she’s not attracted to men; nevertheless, she does seem to use the failure of her relationship with Gill all those years ago as an excuse for the unsatisfactory path her life has taken.
Any more coming up from Morevale?
I have written a third Morevale novel, which is in the first draft stage, and have an outline plan for the fourth, so watch this space!
Thanks again to Helen for her very pertinent answers and a chance to think about the place of older women in fiction. Meanwhile, please note I pesonally won’t be going for a blue rinse any time soon!
More about Helen
Helen lives in Worcester with her husband (YA author Elon Dann), two grown-up children and two rescue cats. She holds an MA in Art History and works as a legal secretary. She began her writing career as a poet: her first poetry collection was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize. Her two novels are published by Louise Walters Books and set in the fictional Shropshire village of Morevale.
Buy Helen’s books here