After the death of elder statesman Lord Slane—a former prime minister of Great Britain and viceroy of India—everyone assumes that his eighty-eight-year-old widow will slowly fade away in her grief, remaining as proper, decorative, and dutiful as she has been her entire married life. But the deceptively gentle Lady Slane has other ideas. First she defies the patronizing meddling of her children and escapes to a rented house in Hampstead. There, to her offspring’s utter amazement, she revels in her new freedom, recalls her youthful ambitions, and gathers some very unsuitable companions—who reveal to her just how much she had sacrificed under the pressure of others’ expectations.
I hoped I would like this book and I did – the writing is wonderful, the story is both of its time and timeless, and the characters are lovingly drawn and realized. What I did not expect, however, was to unsettle my husband as I read the last chapter on an airplane, wiping stray tears as I raced to finish before we landed.
“There there,” he joked as the plane taxied to the gate. “It’s all over now.”
“Hush,” I sniffled, head down. “Two pages to go.”
Sackville-West’s writing grabbed me from the first page. It is beautiful without being flowery and it strikes on truths with the surety of a practiced ironsmith.
They all know that nobody cares for them; that’s why they talk so loud.
Characters are fleshed out in the usual away as well as through asides that are tiny yet enlightening.
“Besides, dear Lady Slane,” said Lavinia – she had never unbent sufficiently to address her mother-in-law by any other name….
The story is about a woman who, as the wife of a politician, put her own desires aside in order to be a respectable lady that is an asset to her husband’s career. Her children, now elderly themselves, have only seen her this way. Now that her husband has died the offspring debate ‘what to do with mother’, not realizing that she may have plans of her own.
All Passion Spent was written almost 90 years ago but some aspects struck close to home. Women putting aside their own ambitions in order to fit more neatly into a man’s idea of them. Women being questioned, doubted, or ignored when they are honest about how they want to spend their life. ‘She’s old, so let’s decide this for her’, ‘she’s young, she doesn’t know her own mind, surely’, ‘she must not be a good judge of character, that guy is obviously fleecing her’, ‘she’s not acting like herself, dad’s death must’ve broken her’. Only one daughter gets that Lady Slane is a strong soul that has finally gained some freedom and is going to do what she damn well pleases with it, thank you:
Edith alone frolicked in her mind. She thought her mother not mad, but most conspicuously sane.
I think the ending got to me as much as it did because the character work is so well done. Lady Slane is a woman I care about, am mad on behalf of, and root for the entire novel. And while sitting beside her as death approaches I can’t help but think about my own old age, and who I will share it with.
My point about the people I like, is not that they dwell morbidly on death, but that they keep continually a sense of what, to them, matters in life. Death, after all, is an incident. Life is an incident too. The thing I mean lies outside both.
Very nearly five stars.