A celebration of the grand old dames of the family

<i>The Virago Book of Grandmothers</i> written and compiled by Penelope Farmer (Virago, &pound;17.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What is a grandmother? A dear, silver-haired old lady dispensing home-cooked food and gentle wisdom. A bundle of unadulterated misery with a genius for self-pity. Ena Sharples standing four-square in hairnet and lisle stockings. Pillar of strength, keeper of tradition, guardian of culture; feisty and wily, loving and indulgent, warty and witch-like.

What is a grandmother? A dear, silver-haired old lady dispensing home-cooked food and gentle wisdom. A bundle of unadulterated misery with a genius for self-pity. Ena Sharples standing four-square in hairnet and lisle stockings. Pillar of strength, keeper of tradition, guardian of culture; feisty and wily, loving and indulgent, warty and witch-like.

How stereotyped is this group? Of course, as Penelope Farmer points out more than once, a grandmother is simply a woman who has lived long enough to see her offspring reproduce. So why an anthology, with predictable categories such as Traditional Grandmothers, Lively Grandmothers, Grandmothers From Hell and so on?

Well, because it's fun, and because it follows on nicely from Farmer's previous Virago Book of Twins and Doubles and her Sisters: ananthology. This is a book to browse at random and see what comes up, and there are some gorgeous nuggets here. It is also a very personal project for Farmer, the first grandmother in four generations of her own family to survive. This is, we are told, an "autobiographical anthology". The sections are linked by her musings on the state of grandmotherhood, for which she has no role models and feels compelled to seek definition.

In pursuit of this, her research has carried her far and wide. There are fictional and autobiographical grandmothers, such as the vengeful crone who sells poor Erendira into whoredom in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Innocent Erendira, or Bertrand Russell's grandma, who spoke four languages fluently, was a fount of wisdom when it came to literature, politics and mythology, but couldn't for the life of her grasp how locks on rivers worked. There are interviews with the likes of Shirley Hughes, Phyllida Law and Margaret Forster, as well as many less famous women. There are anecdotes, memoirs, poems; laments and celebrations, sentiment and cynicism; accounts of old age, senility and death.

What emerges strongly is, in the words of Phyllida Law, the desire to be "a rich vein", a kind of archive linking past and present. There are few generalisations, the main one being that relations between grandmothers and grandchildren are less fraught than those between mothers and children, sometimes taking the form of a kind of "mutual naughtiness", one of secret indulgences behind the parents' backs. "For old people," as Simone de Beauvoir notes, "the affection of the grandchildren is a revenge upon the generation in between."

In our own culture, the position of the grandmother has changed as the greater freedom of women has continued to affect roles. Becoming a grandmother these days often involves an initial uncertainty. Shirley Hughes thinks trendy grandparents run the risk of becoming "grotesque"; some of the sexy, adventurous grannies gathered in these pages would disagree.

Contrast them with the African Hehe grandmothers, in effect debarred from sex with their husbands from the time of their eldest daughters' first pregnancy. Here, in the field of anthropology, some of the most fascinating comparisons are to be made. We learn of South African Xhosa grandmothers, of whom it is said "They are cast-off things; their use is over". Or the Chinese communists in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, giving axes to the old women and telling them, "Go kill yourselves. You're useless".

How much more fortunate are the rural Italian grannies of Abruzzo, cherished by extended families, vital to the running of the household and its economic stability, not only because of their fine embroidery work but because their care of grandchildren enables the parents to work. Just as vital, though heartbreaking, is the role of those American grandmothers, mostly Afro-American and Puerto Rican, who take care of the bereaved offspring of their own children who have died from Aids and crack cocaine addiction.

Generally, however, the positive is resoundingly accentuated; the negative, while not eliminated, does take a back seat. This book would make an excellent present for someone who has just become a grandmother.

Comments