Vive les vielles dames

4th Estate, my U.K. publisher, asked me to write about my favorite female character from one of their titles. I picked Madame Manec, the elderly and gleeful spy from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. You can read what I say about her here and you can visit the 4th Estate blog here.


To celebrate WOM4N, we asked several of our authors and staff to share their favourite female characters from the 4th Estate bookshelves. Here, Judith Claire Mitchell, author of the forthcoming ‘A Reunion of Ghosts’ celebrates the indefatigable Madame Manec from Anthony Doerr’s ‘All The Light We Cannot See’

I live in a world that has little use for elderly women, and yet, if I’m lucky, an elderly woman is what I will someday be. I think about this from time to time. It’s not that I’m horrified by the thought of ageing. I’m actually intrigued by it. I’m a novelist, after all. I’m interested in how stories unfold, how they twist and turn, how they conclude. This applies to my own story as well.

What disturbs me is the culture’s dismissal of women who have the temerity to grow old, and the way that, at a certain point, a cloak of invisibility falls upon women, a cloak that is heavy and hard to shrug off and can even, I fear, come to feel comfortable.


This is why I’m so taken with the elderly housekeeper Madame Manec in Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. Madame Manec responds to the Nazi occupation of her small French town by reinventing herself as the leader of the local resistance. For Madame and the other members of the Old Ladies’ Resistance Club, advanced age is not a hindrance. It’s a superpower. Are these women invisible? Are they dismissed and overlooked? Yes, they are, and that’s great! Invisibility is a boon to the righteous saboteur. It lets her rearrange road signs, steal official letters, and bake top secret codes into baguettes. It lets her be of use.

“Seventy-six years old,” Madame Manec marvels, “and I can still feel like… a little girl with stars in my eyes?” This, it seems to me, is the way to navigate old age—you don’t deny the number. And the way you stay young is not by trying to look young. It’s by continuing to be involved and committed and useful. Maybe even selfless.

Fictional characters can sometimes become an adult’s version of an imaginary friend, and that’s what Madame Manec has become for me. I think of her canning peaches and making her employer’s dinner and cleaning his house and, oh yes, thwarting the Nazis in her spare time, and I figure I can at least wriggle my way out from under any heavy cloak that drops down on me. I can take the question Madame Manec asks those who are too timid to join her movement—“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”—and make it my mantra. Madame Manec makes me want to stand up in my increasingly sensible shoes and shout.

Vive la France! Vive la vieilles dames! Vive la resistance!

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