As the year approached in which she would turn 50, Marina Benjamin, editor, author and mother, decided she needed to shake things up, to embrace movement, to welcome instability. She wanted, in the six months left until her decisive summer birthday, to push herself back into writing and, in this elegantly written, extended essay she explores what it means to have lived for half a century, and contemplates what may be left in perhaps another half century.
Benjamin starts by looking at the literature of ageing and there is a fascinating segment on the history of HRT, treatment which may have partially succeeded in slowing the physical manifestations of age but has a dark personal history at its core. She then talks movingly about her own triple loss of a parent, her youth and her reproductive organs (following a sudden hysterectomy) and how the loss impacted so seriously on her that for a time she couldn’t write a word. Menopause is not something Benjamin feels she can wholeheartedly embrace; there is too much pain and fear for that. Fortunately, her ability to craft a stylish phrase returns in spite of having to endure an ‘insomnia-soiled bed’ just as her daughter discovers sleep, vivid images of mid-life many women will recognise.
For Benjamin there are two indicators that perhaps this fascinating meditation both on reaching 50 and the menopause, not the same thing and for many women not coincidental, may be considered by some an indulgence. First, she cites the robust views of her Iraqi-Jewish mother – ‘the archetype of Margaret Mead’s ‘zestful’ post-menopausal woman, motoring through her days, congratulating herself on how much she’d gotten done …(for whom) pausing to reflect on menopause amid all this activity would have been unthinkable.’ Secondly she is part of a group of women who meet regularly to celebrate being alive since one of their number, to whom the book is dedicated, brutally succumbed to lung cancer two years shy of 50.
But, inspired by the French writer Colette who saw each new phase of her life as a re-birth, a chance to let go of the past and embark on a new form of writing or even a new lover, (Colette was well into her sixties when she met and married Maurice Goudeket, the Jewish journalist 16 years her junior), Benjamin without emulating that, nonetheless finds her equilibrium and, urged on by her husband, agrees to mark her milestone birthday with a party so that by the end of the book she has turned 51 and it felt like nothing. By writing the book she has lost her fear of moving forward and maybe helped others in the process. 60 won’t be half as bad, she concludes.
Anne Sebba’s latest book ‘Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s’ will be published in July by Weidenfeld & Nicolson