Jane Shilling, middle age and House With No Name’s birthday

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Tuesday 3rd April 2012

If I’m honest, the main reason I booked to hear Jane Shilling’s talk at the Oxford Literary Festival was because she’d been teamed up with Rachel Cusk.

Cusk is the writer whose recent memoir about her divorce, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, has prompted a flurry of criticism and debate.

But at the start of the discussion, the audience (like me, mostly middle-aged and female) was told that Rachel Cusk had had to pull out. No reason was given, but instead, the session on Women in Middle Age would be Jane Shilling in conversation with writer and journalist Rebecca Abrams.

Abrams got the event, held at Christ Church, off to a cracking start by telling us that while Shilling calls her book about middle age “a monument to introspection,” she reckons it’s “a call to arms.” She also referenced two brilliant quotes from a couple of Hollywood stars. While Doris Day said “the really frightening thing about middle age is that you know you’ll grow out of it,” Lucille Ball declared that “the secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.”

Jane Shilling began writing her own book, The Stranger in the Mirror, in her 40s, when it suddenly struck her that she was becoming middle-aged. Her frank memoir garnered plenty of headlines when it came out, largely because of its cover (above). There can’t be many 40-something women who would countenance posing naked in front of a mirror – but that’s what Shilling did.

“It’s very painful to relinquish youth,” she said. “But part of living a good middle age is to embrace it. At some point you arrive at the realisation that what remains is more important than what has been lost.”

And despite newspapers’ stereotypical view of middle-aged women as either desperate to look younger or grumpy old women, she reminded us all that the middle aged are in the majority. Not only that, interesting role models are “coming out of the woodwork” – women like Helen Mirren, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett.

Ending the discussion on an upbeat note, a woman in the audience piped up and said she wanted to “put a more positive spin on things.” Middle age isn’t all empty nests and worries about ageing, she said. “I have just hit 50 and there are some very good things to be had.”

PS. Today is House With No Name’s first birthday! It seems no time at all since the very first post, but thank you so much to everyone who’s read House With No Name over the last 12 months and here’s looking to the next 12.

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