In her review of Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel Midwinter Break, Irish author Anne Enright notes that “The world is full of long-married people, and literature almost devoid of them”[i]. Unsurprisingly, many writers and readers may feel there isn’t a great or gripping story to tell in such an orthodox situation. It is strange, then, that a novel about a retired couple in a long-term marriage, written by a white, western, male, Catholic writer includes a female protagonist worth talking about on International Women’s Day.
In the novel, Gerry and Stella Gilmore – both originally from Northern Ireland but now living in Scotland – travel to Amsterdam for a short midwinter break. It is clear from the beginning that Stella is in control of the day-to-day running of their lives. She decides where they go on holiday, when the heating comes on, while Gerry refers to her as “her ladyship”[ii] and routinely hides the extent of his drinking habit from her.
MacLaverty expertly runs the reader through the minutiae of the couple travelling to the airport and on to Amsterdam; Stella does the vacuuming while they wait for their late taxi because “there was just a black bit of I-don’t-know-what there”[iii] and Gerry examines the wrinkles in the wallpaper of their Victorian tenement flat[iv]. It seems that their relationship is completely unremarkable. When they are in Amsterdam, however, the reader realises how there is something on Stella’s mind that is entirely separate from her marriage to Gerry. The morning after their first night in Amsterdam Stella wakes before Gerry and heads out into the city – she does not even leave him a message[v]. Rather than wandering aimlessly, Stella has a specific place that she is trying to find, and the recollection of a message from the place’s website reveals that it is not a place she has discussed with Gerry.
Stella makes a visit to the Begijnhof, a group of houses for lay religious women who lived as a religious community, did not take vows, and were free the enter the outside world. She has decided that in her old age she wants to live a more “devout” life[vi]. The decision is framed as Stella finally grasping at her own independence. She admires figures like Julian of Norwich, “a woman anchorite with a man’s name – the first female to write a book in English”[vii]. The religious figure that Stella admires is a woman (despite a slightly confusing name) who felt a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God, as Stella wants to experience herself. For her, the Beguine represents the opportunity to live an independent religious life, with “a great sanctuary feel to it”[viii].
Although it is embedded in religion, Stella’s response to the dissatisfaction of her marriage is quietly progressive. Recently, divorce rates among over 65s have risen fastest amongst older people[ix] and Gerry and Stella’s marriage is a perfect example of how routine can become monotony, issues ignored can become deep-seated, and irritation can turn into contempt. Stella is fully aware of Gerry’s dependence on alcohol and is exasperated when, contradictory to her unflinching belief in God, Gerry is constantly disparaging about religion and believes that “all religion should be in museums”[x]. Even though Stella’s retreat into religion seems antiquated, it is her way of breaking out of an unhappy marriage. She is working towards her own purpose rather than sacrificing herself for someone else.
The turning point comes when Stella has her official appointment to inquire about living at the Begijnhof, only to find out that it no longer exists. Instead of being a religious community, the site is now home to any single woman who can afford it; the on-site chapel is purely incidental. The woman in a charge is “more of an estate agent” than the leader of a sisterhood[xi]. The life that Stella envisioned for herself as an escape has become impossible –a religion that is supposed to be universal and unchanging has disappeared and Stella has been left behind.
It is often difficult to understand how Stella can be such a dedicated Catholic yet still somehow be liberal and progressive, and MacLaverty goes to great lengths to articulate that her religion does not go hand in hand with bigotry. She wants to dedicate her life to God, “Despite what the Church thinks about women”[xii], despite its problems with covering up sex scandals, its attitudes towards homosexual relationships and its barriers to women. Stella wants to be part of a church that is “rational, kind, loving, ritualistic, Christ-centred”[xiii]. She wants to follow a version of Catholicism that does not exist in her own reality.
Despite this, Stella is a strong female character in her own way. Her life has not been defined by Gerry. After all, she discovered the Begijnhof some thirty years before the events of the novel on a professional trip she had taken without him – he always asks Stella to go away on work trips with him[xiv]. It is also clear that she is extremely intelligent – there is a 4-page section of narrative from Gerry’s perspective recalling some of the most obscure bits of knowledge she has[xv]. Ultimately, Stella is a strong female character because she knows her own mind and makes her own choices. It is worth remembering in a year when women’s rights have come to the mainstream like never before, that feminism is not about each woman living the perfect life, but about giving women the freedom to live whatever life they choose, even if that is joining a Catholic sisterhood, or staying married to the same man for fifty years. This is a novel that reflects the complexity of a woman whose life has been inextricably linked with that of a man who no longer makes her happy.
[i] Anne Enright, “Midwinter Break Review: a portrait of love’s complexity”, www.irishtimes.com, 5th August 2017.
[ii] Bernard MacLaverty, Midwinter Break, (London: Vintage, 2017), 7.
[iii] Ibid 11.
[iv] Ibid 9.
[v] Ibid 40.
[vi] Ibid 90.
[vii] Ibid 42-43.
[viii] Ibid 78.
[ix] Patrick Scott, “Divorce rates increase for the first time this decade as over-50s untie the knot” www.telegraph.co.uk, 18th October 2017.
[x] Ibid 161.
[xi] Ibid 185.
[xii] Ibid 183.
[xiii] Ibid 201.
[xiv] Ibid 5.
[xv] Ibid 211-214.