Review: The Stranger in the Mirror by Jane Shilling

Jane Shilling’s memoir of mid-life is a must-read for any woman over 40. The Stranger in the Mirror

Jane Shilling’s ‘memoir of mid-life’ is a fascinating journey through some of the issues that affect many women at this time. 

I read it straight through at one sitting, put it aside for a couple of weeks and then read it through again, finding myself marking something relevant on almost every page. In some ways, I wonder if Shilling and I were separated at birth, and in others, we are so different that I view some of her pronouncements with astonishment. I have never, for instance, imagined my eggs as an endless succession of unborn babies receding into the distance – frankly, now that my periods are arriving every two months or less, I couldn’t be more delighted – they’ve always been a fucking nightmare. Shilling is also a parent and I am not. I am married, she is not. 

Still, I digress. Shilling – something I greatly admire – doesn’t attempt to make herself likeable in this book. She’s clearly snarky, a possessive mother, difficult to live with, lazy about work. Her great honesty makes her all the more human.

Her skewering eye is also very accurate: "Throughout my adult life I had been accustomed to find my own experience as a woman reflected in the culture. Magazines and newspapers contained pictures of women of more or less my age, dressed in clothes that I might also like to wear, describing experiences familiar to me….Until the onset of middle age, when, all of a sudden, there was apparently no-one like me at all…"

I’m sure this is a situation we’re all familiar with: the erasure – either gradual or sudden – of women who look anything like you, in magazines, on television, presenting programmes, being asked to comment on issues. This is the thing that made me give up on fashion magazines a few years ago (I gave up on ‘womens’ magazines in my late 20s, since they’re such utter and total crap). It seemed to me that were were simply no striking, attractive, 40 and 50-year-old women in the fashion pages and that message is clear: you are not our market, fashion – our fashion – is not aimed at YOU. 

Fashion for women over 40, Shilling notices, becomes much more proscriptive: you MUST not wear this, you MUST not wear that; all advice is designed to cover and conceal any sign of ageing, as if ageing itself were a crime against society; all fashion is designed to be sexy, as if being sexy was the be all and end all. And she has little truck with the black skirt, good pearls, beige cashmere kind of dressing so beloved by the French – she wants her clothing to be a means of self-expression – she’s just not sure how to go about it any more without people thinking she’s weird. This is not, I should add, because she has gained weight or changed shape with age – Shilling has the taut horsewoman’s body that she sought to create and is in far better physical shape than many women of her age: she can still fit into her clothes, they just no longer suit her.  

There is also some anger from Shilling about the way younger women are being manipulated by the patriarchy. "What we lacked, growing up in the 70s, was the sense that looks are of pre-eminent importance – that not until you had those sorted out could anything else important happen in your life. In those pre-internet days the idea had not yet taken hold that to be a woman implies automatic participation in a permanent, worldwide beauty pageant. In the decades since I was an adolescent, the range of what is regarded as acceptable when it comes to female appearance has narrowed  so as to exclude the faulty, irregular, odd, quirky, counter, original, spare or strange."

I’m sure she’s right, but it’s the kind of statement that makes me glad I live in France, which welcomes jolie-laides and women that might be regarded as frankly ugly by the UK’s Barbie-doll culture, and where age is not considered a barrier to allure.  

The sudden realisation (which may come at any age) that you really ARE going to die and that there is no avoiding it; the knowledge that you have squandered the first 40 years of your life; the understanding that you have done damage and harm that can’t be undone; the fact that ageing teaches you that friendship is not "an endlessly renewable resource"; the loss of beauty; the coming understanding that you cannot escape ill-health and decline – all this is recorded by Shilling in unsentimental detail. "My youth was gone, I thought – and what had I done with it? I had made neither myself nor anyone else happy; done no particular good and some real harm, squandered my chances of love, left my friendships untended, wasted time and opportunities…I arrived at 29 and 39 and at the end of my 40s with the flustered, disorderly sense of someone embarking on a journey who hasn’t allowed enough time to pack." 

She also notes things that I have not: that women who formerly confided everything in their friends suddenly cease to confide. This is not something I’ve noticed among my contemporaries – we regularly get together to bitch about our husbands and kids, our hot flushes, our weight gain, our shifting periods. NOT to do so, I feel, is giving in to the culture, which may demand that women remain forever young, forever sexy, when we all know that the reality is different. But then, we are all drop-outs from the culture, as something we were already dissatisfied with: most of the women I know don’t wear makeup or perfume or high heels, or visit hairdressers, and don’t give a stuff about what’s ‘in fashion’. Shilling also has a friend who, desperate to keep up with work, lops 10 years off her age – losing, Shilling feels, 10 years of their friendship, too, into the bargain. 

There is a great deal of food for thought in this book about parenting, relationships, ancestry and job loss, but I must also add that it is markedly literary. Shilling is a book reviewer, with a degree in English, and clearly has more affinity with characters in literature than many that she finds in real life. Those who aren’t so enamoured of Colette and Chaucer, Amis and Updike, Byatt and Brookner may find that slightly alienating, but she has many insights, and a great deal to say (the botox session is particularly alarming). Above all, it is a plea for some other roadmap for ageing gracefully as a woman, because: "in my heart I knew I was entering a realm in which my accounting of my own value had better depend on something – solid bulwarks of love, or at least friendship; beautiful objects to look at; a useful purpose in life – beside the reflection of my face in the mirror".

I will leave the final word, however,  to a French designer whom Shilling interviewed at a time when she herself was pregnant, unmarried and panicking. Life changes every seven years, said the Frenchwoman, and although the change is always painful, the important thing is to embrace it and go with it.  

Can’t say fairer than that. 

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