In 1903, Cosmopolitan magazine published an essay in praise of “The Woman of Fifty”. She is, we are told, someone of “distinctive charm and beauty, ripe views, disciplined intellect [and] cultivated and manifold gifts”.
The essay is quoted by the writer and editor Marina Benjamin in her 21st-century meditation on middle age, The Middlepause. While her work is indeed intellectual and cultivated, Benjamin also speaks directly to a sense of communal, lived experience that her readers — likely other middle-aged women — will appreciate.
Benjamin’s experience is intertwined with perspectives on reaching 50 and beyond from history, philosophy, feminism — and, most passionately, from the life and work of the French writer Colette (1873-1954). Benjamin’s enthusiasm makes one eager to return to that (rather appropriately) out-of-fashion author. “Frizzle-haired, feline, and as exuberantly prolific in life as in words”, she led an extraordinary life. Her work, Benjamin realises, particularly suits the mature reader: “I have come to admire Colette more and more over the years. As a student I found her Baroque language forbidding . . . now I see how wrong I was.”
Most notably, she recommends Break of Day, written in 1927, when Colette was 54. In it, a middle-aged woman (also called Colette) is content to be alone, living the simple life, enjoying her garden: “She hoards and reckons up everything, even to blows and scars — a scar being a mark which she did not carry at birth, an acquisition.”
Benjamin’s quest — which serves as a lodestar for many of us of a similar age — is not to reject but to embrace those “blows and scars”, whether they are the unsightly stretch marks we carry as a legacy of child-bearing or the emotional scars of our bereavements and losses. Her manifesto is clear: “those wounds are to be cherished as defining, they have strengthened and built us, and once we own them . . . we must work with the raw material of our suffering and integrate it into newer, more mature and more intricately sculpted selves.”
The Middlepause is erudite, with a lengthy list of notes and ideas for further reading, but it is also personal — part memoir, part unflinching travelogue through the unsettling physical and mental challenges of the menopause, that barely spoken-of transition that “represents the kind of enormous shift in bodily morphology and cell function not seen since puberty. It’s like some internally explosive chain reaction”.
Each of the book’s chapters is named for something corporeal. It starts with “Organs”, and Benjamin’s own experience of their loss. At 48 she is in hospital, “barren and in shock”. Surgeons have removed her fibroid-filled uterus and “my ovaries had gone with it in a two-for-one deal”. Benjamin’s writing is witty and self-aware, but she soon realises this is an irruption for which she is unprepared. The menopause arrives for her not, as it does for most women, as “a slow accrual of subtle depletions”, but as a single, violent loss.
Finding a way forward from this low point (which includes the chapter on taking “Hormones” — the most sensible writing on the vexed subject of hormone replacement therapy that I have yet come across) gives Benjamin’s book its narrative backbone.
The most moving section (“Head”) is about mortality — that most pressing theme of middle age — and in particular the death at 49 of Benjamin’s friend, the journalist and academic Kirsty Milne. Benjamin found solace in getting to know Milne’s other friends in their shared grief: “Our reunions will be an unforgetting, yes, but also a pledge to move forwards together,” she writes.
Benjamin writes so perceptively about the familiar — in this case female friendship — that she effortlessly freshens and elevates it: “What I am attempting to describe here is a horizontal sharing of knowledge and experience that cuts in a different direction to the mother-to-daughter transmission of women’s secrets that we are more familiar with.”
At one point, Benjamin’s teenage daughter asks her what she considers the best age in life to be. When would you stop the clock? At 35? Tricky. It’s hard to appreciate that you have seen the “high water mark of one’s life until it has passed”. Women heading towards 50 and beyond will share that worry, but The Middlepause is an honest and uplifting call for us to fight on, battle-scarred and proud of it.
The Middlepause: On Turning 50, by Marina Benjamin, Scribe, RRP£14.99, 240 pages