An essay on Mylène Desclaux’s Why French Women Feel Young at Fifty.

Picking up this tongue-in-cheek guide to navigating ageing, I imagined to read something designed to fill women with confidence. The results were somewhat mixed. Mylène Desclaux – what a beautiful name – suggested hiding your real age from people at all times. This made me think of my ex-landlady Colette, who was proud of her age and experience, often playing jazz music in the kitchen that gave away a love of being a child of the 60’s. The horror, of liking things from your own era, that betray you are 60 years old! Her gorgeous Victorian house in Brighton, with high ceilings and tall windows, was full of black-and-white photographs, not only of film stars but of her family and the Salisbury countryside (where she grew up). She truly lived an independent, ballsy life, and I learned so much from living with her about certain things; not least that you shouldn’t be precious about your age. You can still be elegant, classy and fashionable if you admit to being an older woman – so this was one issue I had with the book. It didn’t really seem designed around filling women with confidence; rather, criticising them for it.

The second issue I had was that it was quite superficial. As someone who believes in lifelong learning and is enthused by the thought of meeting mature students who have amassed life experience, I wasn’t too impressed. The writer suggested that anybody who went back to university was obviously struggling with their careers, and that the hint of failure was all anybody would take from the announcement ‘I’m a student again’. I really struggled with this thought process, because fuck it – if you were a single mum for years and had to go back to education later than everybody else, the last thing you want is a rather girlish, catty book preaching about looking successful. Not even being successful – the concern is with looking like you are. Take, for example, the following extract:

You only say ‘I’m not doing anything’ to process your innocence. Also be aware that there are sanctified responses that will have almost everyone bowing down to you. ‘I write,’ for example, will get you close to the centre of the table.

I was really pretty taken aback with this notion – in general, the writers I know are in love with their craft because it fills them with an internal sense of satisfaction. Nobody becomes a writer to seat themselves at the centre of the dinner parties. The writer also talks about feeling irritated with returning to her home town and being regarded as a Parisian snob with a Northern accent. To be honest, that’s exactly the tone I took away from this book, along with a feeling of disappointment that it wasn’t quite the feminist embrace of ageing that the publishers had marketed it as.

I didn’t expect to be so dully irritated with a book of French literature. If you do want to read some good feminist writers from France, I suggest the almighty Simone de Beauvoir, although my favourite will always be Héléne Cixous. I don’t recommend you read this book – particularly not if you’re a woman approaching 50. It will knock your confidence, rather than fill you with it.

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