Willy Maley, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Glasgow University, writes a piece in appreciation of Autumn Voices which will be published in May this year.
Muriel Spark practically invented the idea of a “prime”, and in the case of Miss Jean Brodie, that prime, though cut short, was meant to cover the years from forty through to sixty. A generous allowance for a woman, you might think, and better than that “dangerous age of fifty” that Spark gives to one of her male characters – until, that is, you realise that Spark herself enjoyed a prime of far more generous proportions still, publishing her last novel in her 86th year. In fact, Spark, married and a mother by the time she was twenty, said her own prime came in her sixties. Autumn lasted a long time. Now, in Spark’s centenary year, we can talk glibly about late life writing, about authors ageing into authority, displaying a mature style, etc. What we see – and hear – in Autumn Voices, this marvellous collection edited by Robin Lloyd-Jones, are writers in their prime, at the peak of their powers, reflecting with wisdom and insight on decades of practice, three score years and ten – and more besides. This is not the last of the summer wine; this the fruit of experience, sweet as a Rutherglen Muscat, but bittersweet too, the way that all lives dedicated to writing, to artistry and creation, must be a mix of griefs and joys. Autumn Voices is not about the bleak midwinter, nor is it, for the vivid voices on show here, a midwinter break from the pressures of writing. Rather it is a moment of reflection before these voices fall silent again, but silent only to write, their vibrant voices coming back at us off the page. I found the recollections of these writers by turns moving, funny and inspiring. One author coms from a place geographically very close to me, but all come from a place metaphorically close to me, a place of the mind and heart. Americans call autumn “the Fall”, but these voices are rising.
Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break (2017), is one of the finest accounts of late life – and late love – since Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (1959). Scottish writers – and their Irish counterparts – have always aged well, and have written about the ageing process with great sympathy and sensitivity. They have also aged into authority and aged into authorship, since many of them, for reasons to do with lack of opportunity due to their class, gender or location, or a change of direction, have proved late starters. Alasdair Gray published Lanark when he was 47. D. H. Lawrence was dead at 44. Muriel Spark published her first novel at 39. Emily Brontë, on whom Spark wrote critical and biographical studies in her formative period, was dead at 30. Of course, many autumnal writers have known success in their springtime too, but precocity can sometimes wither on the vine while the late-flowering writer who emerges at a later stage can stay in bloom. Autumn Voices is a marvellous medley of memories and moments from the lives and works of a range of writers who are the bright side of sixty. They can look back at a body of work to be proud of, and since some are still at the top of their game, they can look forward to turning the next page. Ageism is one of the most persistent forms of discrimination, and Robin Lloyd-Jones has done a terrific job in bringing to book so many experienced and engaging writers, some raging against the dying of the light, others basking in the afterglow of midlife achievements. The idea of creative ageing is so vital to the health and well-being of us all that it should be at the heart of how we understand late life, a spell whose magic, we hope, will be cast over all of us. I certainly learned from and was inspired by the varied and vibrant voices gathered here. Warmth and wisdom in the bleak midwinter.