I am, for no known reason, re-reading Middlemarch. I picked it up because I was thinking about my father and the racing world I grew up in. It was a marvellous world, and I remember it with flinging fondness, but it had absolutely no thought in it that was not about horses. When I first plunged into the wide prairies of Middlemarch, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I could not stop talking about it. (What a dead bore I must have been.) After a while, my father patted my hand gently and murmured, very kindly: ‘And this George Eliot, has he written any other good books?’
He was a horseman, what can I tell you? He read Timeform and The Sporting Life.
I was fourteen. Now, thirty-four years later, I come back to it and it is just as dazzling as I remember. But the perspective of age has changed it all. I had quite forgotten Eliot’s sly jokes, so naughty that they make me laugh out loud. (I don’t recall laughing at the time, I was far too earnest.) I now understand, after only a moment, exactly why Dorothea marries Mr Casaubon. At the time, stupidly romantic, I could not understand one word of that. Those moles. Now, I see why her ardent soul could not bear all those well-meaning relations and friends and neighbours, why poor Sir James with his ridiculous puppy and his good-hearted cottage schemes would not do for her.
I think: how funny it is that schools gave me these books to read when I could not comprehend half of them. The summer after Middlemarch, I was reading The Knight’s Tale, L’Étranger and George Herbert. After that: Huis Clos, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Keats and Robert Lowell. I must admit I never got on with pious Mr Herbert for a solitary second, but I was all over the existentialists and convinced that I had the measure of Lowell’s knotty Nantucket poems. I was living proof of the correctness of Donald Rumsfeld (not a phrase I ever thought I would write): a perfect festival of unknown unknowns. I had no idea how little I knew.
When I am not wigging out about mortality, or getting cross with myself for making schoolgirl errors when I really do know better, I like age. As I motor towards fifty, I think that there are lots of lovely things I have now which I did not then. My vanity has almost entirely disappeared. I have a ten-second moment of despair when I see pictures of myself looking bonkers, with terrible hair and no chin. (I never had much of a jawline, and it is running away now, gravity taking its toll.) But most of the time, I don’t really care what I look like. I have a uniform, suitable for doing horses and writing books, and I stay at a reasonable weight so that I do not burden the red mare’s delicate back. I brush up for the races, because it’s the least those fine thoroughbreds deserve, but that’s it.
I know that, apart from actual life and actual death, things really are not a matter of life or death. I was thinking this morning, as I happily walked my horse out into the long meadow, the view reminiscent of the green grass of Wyoming, of the broken hearts of my twenties, when I really believed that not being loved by a certain gentleman meant my life was over. I don’t do that any more. I keep emotions saved up, until I see the whites of their eyes. At this age, there is death and loss and sickness, a great generation going, brilliant minds fading. I save my sorrows for those.
I can work out now which is Object A and which is Object B. I know that when some people seem scratchy or distant or cross, it is not always because I have done something wrong. It’s usually their stuff. (This is the technical term.) I understand that the humane thing is to leave them alone to work it out, and not make it my drama. I know too that turning everything into a drama is dull and selfish, and drains away the life force from those around you. I think I was a bit of a drama queen in my youth. I’m glad I grew out of that.
I know now, which I did not then, that not everyone sees the world in the way I do, and that is all right.
There’s so much about growing older which is a relief. There are so many circuses which are not my circuses, and so many monkeys which are not my monkeys. The ability to step away does not sound like much, but I think it’s a life-changer.
I can still twist myself into a pretzel of angst, and I don’t expect I’ll ever learn about how to deal with the Cupboard of Doom, and I still get stupidly easily hurt and take things to heart which should not be taken to heart. I’m a bit of a muddler and a bit of an obsessive and my geekiness has never left me. I can fly to vertiginous heights of enthusiasm, which means there is usually a crash afterwards. I can get out the twisty little firestarter of self-sabotage, when things are going too well, as if it’s too scary to sit with good fortune or calm seas.
But there really are a lot of things which have changed for the better since I first picked up that mighty novel. I’m writing them now because I like the idea of them, and I think they should be marked. Women are told so often that age is a disaster, that they become invisible, that the mean old menopause and the hideous wrinkles and the sagging skin tone will render them sad and sexless and altogether negligible. I think this is a big fat lie. I say: bugger the menopause. I say: be as visible as you want to be. I say: those wrinkles, which society says you must despise and regret, are the story of every smile and every frown. Think of the brain. Think of all the things it now has in it which it did not have, when the skin was smooth and unlined. Think of the human heart, which has been beaten and battered and bruised, but which somehow survives, expanding against all the odds, which now has the love of many, many years in it, which can tell the difference between the lasting adoration and the fleeting fancy, which beats steadily on, as the years roll by.
Who needs a Grace Kelly jawline, when they have all that?
Actually weren’t very good, apart from the HorseBack ones, so here is a small selection from the last few days:
Not caring about a really bad hair day:
The mare’s hair is a bit scruffy too, but she cares even less than I do:
The Younger Brother took those two last ones. Always credit the photographer. That’s another of the important things I have learnt.