Even as a child I was always drawn to the voice of wisdom and experience in books. At about eight years old I remember being adamant that once you were a grown up you were done, all cooked, no need to change or grow any more. You would have everything worked out and you just rested and got to read a lot in an armchair, dispensing wisdom to whoever needed it.

Not long after that age I remember being shocked by the revelation from the beloved Marmee in Little Women that that was not the case. Marmee reveals to Jo that like her daughter she is angry every day of her life, that she too struggles with impatience, that she has had a lifetime of struggling, but more importantly her struggles are ongoing 'I'm not patient by nature. But with nearly 40 years of effort I'm learning not to let it get the better of me'. Like every other reader, up until that point, I had believed that Marmee was perfect, kind and selfless.

Once this revelation came and when I re read the book several times as I grew older I saw the signs of Marmee’s struggles with the restrictions of her life, with her own character, saw her challenge to herself in the way she leads her daughters, the advice she gives them. 'Never think it is impossible to conquer your fault'. Jo’s struggles, all new and tempestuous are so dramatic and appealing when you are young, but it is Marmee’s ongoing struggles in middle age with anger and impatience that are appreciated and so easily understood by an older reader. 

My attraction to flawed yet wise older women characters grew. I fell hard for Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, the way that despite the narrowness of her life she can eventually let Anne in and love her. She changes and grows, becoming a more empathetic and open person under Anne’s influence. I still sob when she tells Anne ‘I think you may be a kindred spirit after all'. I began to look for the contrast in books between the perspective of the young, and older voices.

Cross generational books with multiple viewpoints became my favourite type of novel. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Armin is a perfect example of a book that does this well, taking four women of different ages and putting them together on a magical holiday in Italy and the joy is in the interplay between innocence and experience, between hope and cynicism and how the young can teach the older to let go of the past and still embrace the future.

Novels exploring generations of women and especially mothers and daughters, became my favourites, like House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, or The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, where the reader is immersed in the tension between old and young, between the traditions of the past and the need of the young to go their own way. 

When I sat down to write my matriarch Margo, I knew I wanted her to be older. Women account for 80 per cent of sales of fiction in the UK, US and Canada. It has always seemed wrong to me that women between the ages of forty and seventy are the book buying force the publishing industry relies on and yet they are so underrepresented in fiction.

While the publishing industry loves twenty-something coming of age novels by bright young things, it can be hard to find a woman above fifty in a novel who isn’t side-lined to a supporting role. We get to see a lot of older women in fiction as sweet and kind grandmothers, or widows. Margo in The Garnett Girls isn’t old but she is about to turn sixty which can feel like a significant milestone to women. I knew I wanted to explore the push/pull of the mother/daughter relationship, to have Margo being a force to be reckoned with, trying to control her family and keep her secrets.

Margo has very strong opinions, a certain way of doing things. For inspiration I turned to the classic strong mothers in literature from Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice to Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Most recently Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge was a portrait of a complex, infuriating older woman, a mother who is overbearing and believes herself to always be right, but also a woman with immense humanity and kindness.

What there was less of in literature were women past middle-age who were still sexual, still enjoying sex and having affairs.  We are told all the time that as women we become invisible in mid-life and yet I know many women in their fifties and sixties who still have glamour and good looks, who can still hold a room with their charisma. My own grandmother was like that well into her eighties. The only time she had a fall was when she was wearing stockings with high-heeled mules, a perilous combination for anyone going down steep steps. 

I wanted my matriarch Margo to be this kind of woman. Some women will always have sexual charisma, whether they act on it or not. In my other career as a book publicist I was lucky enough to look after Lauren Bacall for her memoir when she came to the UK and she was an eighty something who knew how to flirt better than anyone I had ever met. Margo Garnett not only has charisma but she is free to act on it as she is not married. 

One of the writers who has inspired me most in my own writing is Mary Wesley, who was a late starter when it came to writing, and who was seventy-one when her first novel Jumping the Queue was published in 1983. She is one of the very rare writers to embrace sex for her older characters and critics at the time were shocked that a seventy-one-year-old was writing erotic and racy bestsellers. Mary told an interviewer in 1945, 'The idea that people go on being sexy all their lives is little explored in fiction'. Mary Wesley often shows her female characters having affairs, taking lovers when they are married, starting anew in later life, going on living, and loving well past mid-life. 

I have had readers shocked by Margo’s sexual antics, and readers who cannot believe in her narcissism and vanity, her desire to be the main character. Some readers seem ready to embrace flaws in character in the young, believing they will grow out of them. But there is less patience when it comes to the flaws of older characters. And yet as I grow older as a reader, I am most interested in the lessons learnt as life goes on. 

It can be harsh facing up to growing older, being viewed differently. Margo is a character who believes she still is young, who still feels amazed that she has had children and is supposed to be a grown up. I can identify with this. In my spirit I am always thirty-two, still in the thick of thrilling relationship dramas, a disposable income and nights out that I could recover from. I was able to use this to my advantage when I was writing the Garnett daughters: Rachel, Imogen and Sasha who are all thirty-somethings.

But it was while I was writing The Garnett Girls that I had a sudden revelation. I was close to fifty, the big birthday loomed on the horizon and it struck me one day that I was much nearer in age to Margo, than I was the daughters. I had to sit with this a while but in the end it turned out to be a good revelation that I used to feel close to Margo. Would I in ten years really want to give up parties and negronis and trouble and fun? Would I stop wanting to be the main character? If you ask my friends they’ll tell you no, and in fact, she’ll only get worse!


The Garnett Girls is available now from all good bookshops.

The Author

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Georgina Moore

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