The first story in Jane Campbell’s Cat Brushing opens in the mind of an elderly woman taking herself to task for her sexual fantasies: “The lust of an old man is disgusting, but the lust of an old woman is worse.” Campbell then goes on to give us thirteen captivating stories of love and lust and loneliness and old age. Her book quickly disproves her opening statement; there are many kinds of lust (including that for the sensual satisfactions of simply brushing your cat) which make life richer and are far from disgusting. We don’t often talk about our physical needs or lusts (which may not be the same thing), but Campbell’s old ladies pull no punches.
Jane Campbell was born in 1942 and published her first book eighty years later – but this is not the tentative voice of a literary newcomer. This is an author who knows exactly what she wants to say (perhaps having had many years to think about it). Her language sometimes brings blushes, but it always has the ring of honesty. The stories range from infatuations of old women with their caregivers to complex relationships with Artificial Intelligence (AI) “creations” (one good, one bad – and I’ll come back to that) to simple stories of attachment to friends, place, animals. Death hovers throughout, but few of these ladies die in the stories, at least physically. Most of the characters make good (if hard) choices, but even when bad choices occur (one old lady runs away from a tyrannical handicapped sister, only to end up with a murderous husband), we are not so sure that the women have any regrets. Let me start with the AI stories.
In “Lockdown Fantasms,” short Covid lockdowns have eventually merged into a continual isolation for the old; old people who live alone must do with limited assistance, but they are allowed weekly visits from fantasms, which seem to be AI-generated beings who give the old people companionship of whatever kind they wish – the fantasms will even have sex with you, watch a movie with you, cook for you. At each weekly visit (they are not allowed more often) their form is different; one cannot get attached. But for the narrator in the story, the fantasm is something to look forward to and prevents her from using the morphine/tranquillizer combo that the government provides in case a hologram once a week is not enough. Fantasms are tweaked to respond to the needs of the recipient, but are only provided to those elders who live alone in pandemic-approved isolation. It is an incentive to remain isolated.
In another story, “Schopenhauer and I,” the form of AI is a personal care robot supplied to a resident of an assisted living home after her beloved dog, Hobbes, disappeared. The old lady is sure that the institution she is living in did away with her dog because he was too much trouble. In turn, they have forced on her a mandatory robot – which she names Schopenhauer, but casually calls Arthur, and hates with the same passion with which she loved Hobbes. Arthur monitors her 24/7, making life easier on staff. I won’t give away the ending, but it is a tale of retaliation, and vengeance by an old lady is not pretty. These two stories about AI do point out, however, that humanity can approach and utilize robots/holograms in many ways, but the choices relating to old people seem to be aimed at comfort and control – or, perhaps, to control through comfort.
In Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, the lusty old bawd from 14th century Bath tells us that what women most want is sovereyntee, sovereignty or control over their own lives. In days when women’s lives were chattel, this was a way of looking for equality of some measure. But companionship, sexual partners, are also of great interest to the old Alyson; she “kode of that art the olde dance” (she knew the art of the old dance). Thus, the sexual life of old women might not be a frequent literary topic, but it is not new. It has deep roots. And, incidentally, Chaucer’s last poem, which he wrote when he was fifty-nine, was “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse,” which has sly sexual allusions to his sex in old age.
Many of the stories in Cat Brushing dwell on the fantasies (and not just sexual ones) which keep us alive (and not just breathing). The final loss of such fantasies is never easy and sometimes kills us. Most of Campbell’s women come to terms with reality and adapt – but not all. Most of their fantasies involve relationships of various kinds and seem to evolve out of loneliness. What do we do for contact when we are old and alone? Even when the women in Campbell’s book find companionship, they know it may be temporary. Their partner, friend, pet, may die before they do. But for today they have a cat to brush, and the memories of touch and ecstasy.
I find that I don’t write many (any) dirty old lady stories; I am a New Englander born and bred and we don’t talk about such things. We try not to even think about them – more’s the pity. This is the value of Campbell’s book. However, my short story, “Snickerdoodles,” was inspired by The Wife of Bath’s Tale.