When I saw that Jessie of Dwell in Possibility was hosting a Mini Persephone Readathon this weekend, I knew I wanted to take part and I knew exactly what I would be reading: The Winds of Heaven, a book published by Persephone which I had originally been planning to read for Jane’s Monica Dickens Day last month but didn’t have time. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Monica Dickens as I’ve never read any of her books before, but I loved this one and will now be looking for more.
The Winds of Heaven (1955) follows the story of Louise Bickford, whose husband, the controlling and oppressive Dudley, dies a year or two before the novel opens. Left alone with no money to support herself, Louise cannot afford anywhere to live, so is forced to rely on the hospitality of her daughters. Although Louise has shown her three daughters nothing but love and affection, they each make it very clear that they don’t really want her staying with them and see her as a burden to be moved on to the next sister as quickly as possible.
Louise is a lovely person – generous, selfless and sensitive to the feelings of others; I had a lot of sympathy for her and for the situation in which she finds herself. The logical solution would be to get a job, but a combination of factors – her age (approaching sixty), her class, her lack of experience at any type of work and the disapproval of her daughters – mean that this is never considered as a realistic option for Louise. All she can do is continue to move from one household to the next, trying to make herself useful but knowing that she is unwanted and unappreciated.
The three daughters seem to have inherited none of their mother’s good qualities. They are three very different people, but in their different ways they are all as unpleasant and selfish as each other. Miriam is a snob, obsessed with appearances and her place in the community. Her marriage is not a particularly happy one, but as Arthur is rich enough to pay for holidays abroad and ponies for the children, she’s not complaining too much! Eva, the middle sister, is an aspiring actress who lives in London and is too preoccupied with her career and her affair with a married man to give any thought to her mother’s problems. Anne, the youngest, is a farmer’s wife but does very little to help out on the farm – she is a lazy, sullen, resentful woman who thinks only of herself and her own comfort.
For a novel with so many unlikeable characters, I found this a surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining read. Louise’s story is obviously a very sad one at times, but Monica Dickens writes with enough humour and lightness that it never becomes completely depressing. And although her relationships with Miriam, Eva and Anne are difficult, Louise does have two special people in her life who make things much more bearable. One is her young granddaughter Ellen, with whom she forms a close bond. Ellen is Miriam’s eldest daughter and, like Louise, she often feels like an outsider in the family. The other is Gordon Disher, a man she meets while sheltering from the rain in a London tea shop.
Mr Disher is the most unlikely of romantic heroes – he is overweight, sells beds in a department store and writes cheap paperback thrillers with titles like The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini. He is also a lovely, kind, gentle man who sees that Louise is unhappy and does all he can to make things better for her. Their meetings are few and far between – Louise is sure she’s too old for romance and she doesn’t spend a lot of time in London anyway – but I found their relationship quite moving and always looked forward to the moments when they were together.
Towards the end of the book, events take a more dramatic turn and if I have a criticism it would be that I’m not sure whether this was really necessary. The final sentence, though, was perfect! I wish Monica Dickens had written more books about these characters, but I enjoyed this one enough to know that I will be investigating the rest of her novels anyway!