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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Home Alone?

                An item on a radio magazine programme recently concerned people who, by accident or design will be spending Christmas alone. Listening to these individuals explaining their situation, one stand out feature came across. The women had made a deliberate choice to spend the day in solitude, whereas the men felt themselves to be ‘shut out’ through no fault of their own and felt aggrieved. Some of the stories were painful to hear, such as the father who’d split from his wife and would not get to see his only son due to his ex having a new partner.

                There is a strange irony to all this. Even in this era of [slowly] increasing emancipation it is, at best unusual to see a woman sitting alone at a bar or a restaurant table, whereas a man in such circumstances would not be considered out of the ordinary or an object of speculation. The Dad who felt abandoned could simply take himself off to a hostelry. He might not know anyone but would at least be able to observe the revelries from the fringe or even get involved. The women in the programme had all planned their solo day already. They would not be leaving their homes, but knew exactly what they would eat, watch and do, and all were eagerly anticipating and expected to relish their time alone.

                During a mid-life period of singledom I took the bold step of booking, not one but two holidays as a single traveller. Although this rash action was partly a result of a messy relationship break up I forged ahead with the first- a week long skiing trip- not without a modicum of self doubt. ‘Think of it as a course you are going on’ encouraged a friend [I was a virgin skier]. I will never forget boarding the coach to the resort and explaining to the puzzled holiday rep that there was one in my ‘party’, or descending to the dining room at the hotel and forcing myself to ask if I might join a couple at their table when there were no empty tables available, then the continuing, painful experience with a lone breakfast supported only by a book as a prop. When I descended to the basement to join a beginners’ ski class the holiday underwent a miraculous conversion. My fellow beginners were a charming, friendly, inclusive bunch who invited me to join them for meals, après-ski, breakfast and outings for the entire week. The encouraging friend came to collect me from the airport, finding me cheerful, refreshed and hopeful-hopeful enough to approach the next lone exploit with confidence.

                I went to The Gambia, without the support of a ski class, but with a ‘go-for-it’ attitude. I engaged fellow travellers in conversation, chatted to fellow diners, went for tea with stallholders in the market, booked excursions, including a two day trip up river to stay in a thatched hut with a party of Netherlanders. Everyone I met was friendly and kind.

                These days, as blog followers know, I travel, dine and spend Christmases with Husband, a companion who, on balance, I prefer to be with than without-but I wonder when lone women diners and travelers will ever be a natural phenomenon?