About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

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Nudity Laid Bare

                In the developed world the cult of worship of lean, youthful, beautiful bodies continues. The evidence is everywhere-on posters, adverts, TV, internet and on the street. Here in France there is a move to ban child beauty pageants, a move all our countries should be making. We should not be soaking our children in the idea that looks are the most valuable, the most important quality they can possess, neither should we be ‘hyper-sexualising’ them [to quote the French minister responsible for the action].

                Yet here in France, nudity is not only acceptable, but positively celebrated. I’d like to say that on the many naturist beaches, camp sites and resorts that exist in France the nudity is natural, innocent and innocuous, but when we’ve encountered them, traversing them during bike rides or walks [it is difficult not to in some areas], you cannot help but suspect there is an element of ‘display’ to the exposure. It is tricky, as a clothed person, not to look, when crossing a beach where everyone is unclothed. This is no discreet sunbathing amongst the sand dunes. Many [men especially] stand in the sea or at a vantage point, as much to be seen as to see.

                I was a teenager of the sixties and a young woman of the seventies, when hippie-dom, flower power and ‘free love’ were the mantra we all followed. In this era of what our elders termed the permissive society we became unleashed from the previous generation’s prudish attitudes. At music festivals kids frolicked naked in the mud, made love not war; anything went. There was an innocence to this behaviour. Then there was AIDS, conservatism, an end to free university education and ultimately the big recession.

                It is always said that in an era of boom hemlines rise, then plunge when times are tight. Nudity these days is not the innocent muddy frolicking of the early seventies, but a cynical exploitation seen in music videos or advertising. Outside of the media there has been a return, even on UK beaches, to the wearing of clothes, no ‘topless’ sunbathing, longer swimming shorts, more of what my mother, who was constantly shocked by the notion of ‘free love’ and all that accompanied it,  would have termed ‘modesty’. In the USA there has always been a more conservative approach to beach wear, ‘topless’ in my experience of US beaches, being against the law.

                Years ago I accompanied two friends on a 48 hour trip to Dieppe, the idea being to have a look round and collect some spoils from the supermarché. It was a warm day. We sat on the pebbly beach with ice creams. A large group of mixed middle aged singles and couples appeared and trudged down to the water’s edge, where they stripped off without the need for towels for concealment and donned swimwear. This was all undertaken without a scrap of self consciousness or awareness of anyone’s eyes. They then plunged into the sea as if no one else was there, simply to enjoy the swim; refreshing in more ways than one…