Alice Elliott Dark Writes Women in Their 80s Like Men in Their 30s

In "Fellowship Point," buried secrets come to light as two lifelong friends fight to preserve their sanctuary in Maine

Photo by Justin Bisson Beck on Unsplash

Alice Elliott Dark’s Fellowship Point is an abundantly generous novel, rich in the love of a lifelong friendship and the beauty of Maine in the summer. It opens with a map of its titular location—a small peninsula where five wealthy Philadelphia Quaker families established summer homes decades ago. Fellowship Point is private property, a fact which drives one of the novel’s main conflicts. What will happen to this sanctuary after the point’s primary caretakers, Agnes Lee and Polly Garner—both in their 80s—die? 

I always relish a map at the start of a book, as I did this one, studying it closely, even though the word it depicts meant nothing to me—yet. But as I read each marked location grew in significance, and by the final chapter I felt as connected to this place as I do to its inhabitants.

Agnes and Polly are old women by any definition, set in their ways formed by their families, by Philadelphia society, by living through most of the 20th century, by leveraging their strengths and coping with their weaknesses. Agnes is a successful author and Polly is a homemaker—each leads a life their friend has not lived. And yet the differences in their world views and personalities spur them both to grow and to change, undergoing personal evolutions that provide the novel’s most poignant revelations.

Fellowship Point may be private property, but as a setting for a novel, it’s open to all. To be invited there, and be welcomed into this deep and lasting friendship—the likes of which many of us will never have—is a gift Alice Elliot Dark gives to her readers. 

Halimah Marcus: Agnes and Polly have been friends for their entire lives, and yet their personal lives look very different. Polly is married with children and no career, and Agnes has never been married, and is devoted to her work. This difference at times is a source of conflict. But I also wonder if it’s integral to the friendship, and in some ways allows it to function.

Alice Elliott Dark: It certainly seemed to me that they balanced each other out, and sort of made one person that we think of now as a more modern person, who has both aspects of life. The fact that they are so different from each other [keeps them] interested. Agnes thinks Polly is much smarter than Polly is treated by other people. Even though Polly is not by any stretch an intellectual sort of person, she’s so insightful and smart. I think they connect on that basis. But yes, they don’t entirely understand each other. They don’t entirely approve of each other. And I think that does compel them towards each other.

HM: There are so many books about female friendship, and maybe there always have been, but it’s a bit of a trend recently. Those books are often about how female friendship is erotic or intense or volatile. But the friendship between Polly and Agnes is much more long term, and quieter, almost like a marriage. Did you think about the ways that female friendships are represented in culture when writing this book?

AED: I didn’t explicitly think about it, but I am aware of how it’s been represented over time, especially in literature. I didn’t want to eroticize their friendship. I think there’s always an erotic element of friendship, but I didn’t want to explicitly bring that out because they wouldn’t have explicitly brought it out. They just didn’t grow up that way. 

Agnes’s sexuality is so different from most people. She never had sex in her whole life, ever. And she doesn’t feel that that sets her outside of the mainstream of human experience. She feels she’s had a very important life experience. 

At one point I really loved reading about Victorian women’s friendships, and how they were always lying in bed together, and embracing each other, and being really physically close. It wasn’t necessarily sexual, it was just very intimate. But I didn’t want to write their relationship like that. I wouldn’t say I was writing against anything. They were so real to me; I just let what happened between them be the way that it rolled out.

HM: I actually found it really powerful to realize—at the end of the book when it’s stated explicitly—that Agnes has never had sex. It’s something I could have understood previously, but I just hadn’t put a fine point on it in my mind. I found that moment moving, because I had never thought of her as a spinster, or someone who had missed out on life, or someone who had missed out on experience. To put it bluntly, I didn’t pity her in any way. I think that part of why I didn’t pity her is because she’s a writer, and because she’s a good writer, and because she’s contributed to the world through her writing. Do you think you could have written a woman like Agnes, with a full life, if she wasn’t a writer?

AED: I definitely could. I had a godmother who worked at a bank her whole life. And she had a life like Agnes. I mean, she was very popular and had a lot of friends, but she never had any kind of romantic attachment at all, ever. It just didn’t come up. When you were around her, you would have been embarrassed to even have the thought yourself, what’s her sex life? She was so complete. I was thinking of Agnes as a person like that. And no, I don’t think it has to be an artist. I think it can just be a person who has a sense of self that is enough for them.

HM: I wondered why you chose to make Polly and Agnes in their 80s, older than you are. Why not their 60s, for example? What was it like to write characters who were in a life stage that you hadn’t experienced yet?

AED: I’ve always just really loved old women my whole life, starting when I was little, and been really fascinated by them. Especially women like this—it’s kind of my fantasy life. Women alone. They’re not worried or destitute; they have money. They have freedom. They still are physically and mentally capable. I’ve known so many people like that, and they are invisible. You go to a party and no one talks to them, no one goes over to them. And a lot of times they’re the most interesting people in the room. I’m always amazed to see how shunted aside older women are, in every culture. There’s a few older cultures or smaller cultures where older women are considered wise, but that’s a rare thing. There’s like a huge wasted resource of women over 70 or over 75, as political actors, as intellectuals. I wanted to show women in their 80s that are like young men who are 30, with the same level of agency, future, potential, everything.

HM: I found the evolution of Polly’s marriage over the course of a novel to be really rich and nuanced. And that’s how her and her husband evolve as individuals, but also how their relationship evolves. And then even after his death, how her perception of their relationship evolves. What sacrifices does Polly make in order to have a successful marriage? What are those sacrifices worth to her and how does she define a successful marriage?

AED: I think she has a very old-fashioned sense of marriage being a commitment in a way that people don’t anymore. Very early in her marriage, she has a moment of real doubt, and there’s a scene where another woman expresses her doubt. Polly’s fascinated because she has feelings like these herself. But at the end of that scene, she just decides, “I’m not going to go there anymore. I’m going to just do this. I’m going to plunge ahead with this, and I’m going to have a baby, and I’m going to be a married person.”

I wanted to show women in their 80s that are like young men who are 30, with the same level of agency, future, potential, everything.

I think what she has to sacrifice is really looking at the reality of who her husband is. He’s a bit fatuous, he’s a bit self-important, he’s a bit all of these things. He’s not a bad person, but he’s not a great person either. And she has to imbue him with greatness his ego needs, and also kind of for her own needs, to be able to do the heavy lifting of a long marriage with children. She had a daughter who died and that’s very, very hard on her. I threw out a lot of pages about that. She’s in a world of men in her house. That’s another aspect of her friendship with Agnes. Agnes is the other female person that she can be with. She doesn’t have that at home.

I think that the cost to her is gross. She has a big growth spurt after her husband dies, but she also has a lot of growth just from sticking with something for a long time, which I think is what people find with long marriages. Everybody goes through a good ten, 15 years when they’re fantasizing about getting out. But if you don’t, then you start to see you’re the mirror of the other person. You see yourself in that mirror: who I am, how intolerant I am, how flexible I am. I think she’s grown a lot just from going through being in that marriage. And that is something that she values.

HM: In that scene you’ve brought up, it’s a lady’s luncheon, and one of them bursts into tears on the couch because she’s entered into this marriage basically having gone from her father’s house to her husband’s house. No one’s talking honestly to one another about what’s involved, or the shock of that. On the one hand, I was thinking, oh, thank God, so much has changed. People enter into marriages with eyes open, and so much more information. But then some of the thornier ego negotiations that happened between Polly and Dick had me wondering, is this an entrenched fact of heterosexual marriage, even today? What do you think about that, in terms of how heterosexual marriage has evolved?

AED: There’s a lot more noise around it, a lot more articles, a lot more of this and a lot more of that. But I think the reality still is that going from being unmarried to being married is a shift that you don’t really expect until you do it. I just had a student who got married this weekend, and she wrote to me the day afterwards and said, I can’t believe it’s actually different. It is like there’s a weird feeling that comes over you. And then the next feeling is, “Who the hell did I marry? I knew this person.” But, you know, you get in deeper, deeper. All those articles and everything, they’re helpful. And talking to your friends is helpful. But you’re still there on your own with someone who just becomes, you know, more strange. I think there’s a strangeness in marriage that I don’t think it’s solved by information or therapy or anything. We’re all strangers. You see the stranger in someone when you’re married to them.

HM: Agnes thinks of herself as a steward of Fellowship Point. Steward is a significant sort of Quaker word because it implies care, responsibility, but not necessarily ownership or control. Even though you are the author and the creator of this story, and therefore kind of owner of it, did this idea of stewardship resonate with you in your writing? Did you ever feel like the steward of this story?

We’re always seeking for things to make sense, for things to coalesce, for things to reveal themselves. And we can do that as writers.

AED: That’s such a beautiful question. I would say yes. What I immediately think about is the hundreds of pages I cut, and that I still feel that they’re part of the book, even though they’re not part of the finished book. The book had four male points of view, which all got cut by the end of the editing process. All of that felt really important to me. I’m thinking of the word shepherd. I felt like I was shepherding all of these pieces together into one pen, which was a book. I never felt like I’m a channel or anything like that. But I’m also not sweating over figuring everything out. Characters come to me, the situations come to me, and it is like being given a piece of land, or given a puppy, or given something where you step into a role of stewardship. You’re not forcing it. You’re not making it.

HM: Thinking about all these hundreds of pages that you cut, while I was reading the book, I would have been happy to read it forever. But there’s this sort of question of the Borgesian map. At a certain point, the novel will be the same size as the life of the characters. It has to restrict itself and put boundaries around the story that it’s telling. It can’t be the same size as a life. When the plot started to really kick in at the end, I felt the art form of the novel snap into place. A novel does have to have some artifice in order to be this thing that we call a novel.

AED: I’m a big fan of artifice. I love Virginia Woolf and I love what she tried to do with interiority. It’s actually, I think, very artificial, but intended to look like thinking and in an interesting way. I think it’s making something exactly like you’re saying. Everything comes, everything snaps together. And it’s so interesting and satisfying because we’re always seeking that in life. We’re always seeking for things to make sense, for things to coalesce, for things to reveal themselves. And we can do that as writers. We can make that happen. I love reading novels where it’s really well done, because it teaches me a little more how to think about it in life. It’s almost like a lesson in how to pull things together, how to draw certain threads of what you’re thinking and let things go. 

As a teacher, I talk a lot about how writing is valuable, whether you are publishing or not, because learning how to think this way, and how to know what to keep, what to let go, what’s important, what’s not important, what’s relevant, is really valuable to just making your life feel very rich and meaningful.

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