Why Women Sometimes Blow Up Their Lives Around 50
Fairlady|April 2017

A hit book about a high-flying 50-something who risks everything for sex with a stranger has been turned into a BBC series starring EmilyWatson. Here, the author reveals the unspoken truth about the female midlife crisis – and why the divorce rate among women over 55 is rising.

Louise Doughty

I am on a film set in Smithfield, east London. Emily Watson, Oscar-nominated screen star, is walking towards me with a smile. We are just two of a crowd of people in a grand building called Haberdashers’ Hall, where the most important scene of the BBC adaptation of my novel Apple Tree Yard is being filmed. The scene appears towards the end of episode one. The main character, Yvonne, played by Watson, is at a champagne-fuelled leaving do for the head of department of a university where she does some freelance work. Yvonne is a high-achieving, 50-something research scientist, with a husband and two grown-up children and a beautiful suburban home. At the beginning of this episode, she has been giving evidence at a House of Commons select committee on genetic engineering and has met an enigmatic stranger in a corridor, played with magnetic brilliance by Ben Chaplin. In a moment of recklessness that is completely out of character, she allows him to seduce her in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, beneath the Palace of Westminster, and they proceed to have what I believe is called a knee trembler. She doesn’t even know his name.

At this point in the story, the leaving do, she seems to be managing the two halves of her life – respectable middle-aged woman/erotic adventuress – quite well. She has disassociated one from the other. But something horrible is about to happen, something that will make her whole life spin out of control and lead to her being on trial at the Old Bailey for murder.

I have turned up on set during a break in filming and walk into the hallway just as Watson is emerging from having her make-up retouched. She sashays towards me in her party frock and heels, and I fall down a rabbit hole.

The creepy thing is, she looks exactly how I once imagined my heroine, Yvonne, might look that night at the party scene, although in the novel she is scarcely described. Watson looks great, the epitome of a middle-aged woman who has still got it, at the top of her career tree, successful and desired. In her black and-red dress she’s playing a confident high-achiever, with everything a woman of her age could want and a red-hot lover on the side. Somehow, the makers of this drama have produced a vision of my character that replicates precisely what I envisaged several years ago when I wrote the novel. Watson’s dress is almost identical to one that I possessed back then, my posh party frock, but I never referred to it in the book. It’s like they’ve been inside my head.

At that moment, one of the assistant directors comes up to me. ‘Hey, Louise,’ he says, ‘this must be really weird for you’. You have no idea, I think. ‘Does it ever feel like you could just click your fingers and we’ll all disappear, like this?’ He makes a wavery motion with his hand. What it feels like is that I could click my fingers and I would disappear into the rabbit hole of my own imagination, where I’m not sure I exist at all.

The technical term is dissociation. It’s that feeling that we all get, sometimes, as we’re walking along a street or sitting on a bus, that we are unreal, as if we are watching ourselves in the film of our life. Taken to an extreme, this can form part of a web of symptoms related to multiple personality disorders or post-traumatic stress syndrome, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. At least, I hope it’s not.

Here is what I think of as the ‘truth’ of Apple Tree Yard. By the time they reach middle age, all women are proficient liars, to themselves as much as those around them, because without a carapace, daily life is impossible.

Middle-aged women have dissociation off to a fine art, though novelists, who have to create a whole imaginative world, perhaps have it more than most. The American poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.’

How many times a day do you get to be honest, really honest, about what you’re thinking and feeling? If you don’t believe me, try this simple test. Spend one day, just one, being completely honest with those around you: your work mates, your children, your spouse. Will you still have a job and a marriage at the end of it?

The dress Watson was wearing that day, and its accidental similarity to one I used to possess, is relevant here because much of the artifice of women’s lives revolves – still – around appearance. Our clothing is a coded message to those we meet: here is how I want to be perceived. This becomes more relevant as we age for two reasons: our bodies are no longer what they were and we probably have more money to spend on the project of dressing them up.

The problem women and girls have is that their coded messages to the world are interpreted according to the world’s rules, not theirs. This is an issue anyone with daughters faces on a regular basis. When your 12-year-old wants to leave the house in a micro skirt – it may be called a body-con these days, and cost them less than you spent on a cup of coffee and a croissant on the way to work – you, as their mother, have an acute sense of the message the outside world is receiving. They don’t. They want to do it because their friends are doing it. They are dressing for their friendship group in the way that older women often dress: for other women. But because they’re young and nubile, the exterior world imposes its own desire upon their message.

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