Life, If Well Lived, Is Long Enough

What is the secret for living a long and happy life? The Rain Tree, a memoir by Mirabel Osler suggests that it must be a question of deep, lovingly attentive engagement in every part of life, and a respectful desire to experience each moment just as it is, the good, the bad, the triumphant and the tragic. I’m not sure that I can count the appearance of two elderly lady authors – Diana Athill and now Mirabel Osler – writing beautifully reflexive commentaries on their lives as a trend, but if it has a possibility of becoming one, I’m all for it. There is much to admire about youth – energy, ambition, determination, freshness of vision; but we lose out infinitely if we don’t balance that approach with the finer qualities of old age – a powerful gratitude, healthy indifference to all that thrusting and competing, the wisdom of knowing one self and others well, the experience of exploring relationships to their final point in death, a judicious reckoning with values and principles. We let our perspectives get knocked all out of balance if we don’t have access to that wise, genuinely playful, older voice.

The Rain Tree is not a chronological memoir, rather a series of evocative explorations of the critical passages in Mirabel Osler’s life. The experience of cultivating and writing about gardens, her early childhood, time spent living abroad, the death of her beloved husband and the extraordinary writing career that sprang up by chance late in her life (she published her first book after becoming a widow). She writes powerfully and evocatively about a world that no longer exists, be it London between the wars, Thailand in the sixties or rural Greece. The book opens with her figuring out which environmentally-friendly shroud she wants to have, and continues as extended love letters to children, grand-children and great-grand-children yet to be, so that they might know where they come from, the family history and the history that surrounded their family in times gone passed.

Her mother sounds like an amazing and exasperating person. A woman who lived at full-throttle, spirited, lively, charming, she left home to train as an actress (itself unusual) but as was so often the case in those times, she ended up obliged to have all her great dramas in the domestic arena, falling back on her career as a desperate Romantic. Her first husband, Mirabel’s father, died young of tuberculosis, but before his death she had fallen for a friend of a friend, an Oxford professor of economics. In those days uncomfortable choices had to be made. Phyllis left her two young daughters behind with their sick father to marry him, and was then barred from seeing her children until her first husband died. The second marriage didn’t last, either, although 160 passionate love letters still exist and informed Osler’s account of it. Some stability was provided the young Mirabel by her mother’s closest friend, the painter Stella Bowen, who was herself sucked into a difficult long-term love affair with Ford Maddox Ford.

Mirabel escaped into a happy marriage, but one driven by wanderlust. She and her husband, Michael, left behind a farm in England to teach in Thailand, a country that the author clearly adored. Her writing, always rich and lush, moves into a fifth gear to describe it:

‘From the hotel we took a boat to the floating market where vendors on sampans, loaded with produce, touted their wares along watery alleys between small, open-fronted houses. The women squatted in the sterns of their boats on platforms worn smooth by generations of feet, shaded by paper umbrellas as they cooked on clay stoves the food they sold to travellers passing up and down the river. Men fished, comatose in small skiffs; boys grinned and gobbed as they pulled up armfuls of lotus flowers in bud; and girls washed their hair, rising from the tea-coloured water with their black tresses, sleek as cats’ tails, hanging down their backs. On balconies over the river – to the discord of a badly-tuned wireless and among pots of greenery and hanging baskets of orchids – people gossiped, told fortunes or massaged geriatric limbs. Card players squatted motionless for hours; schoolgirls did their homework; grandfathers used abacuses; and a grandmother – pulling on a rope – rocked her grandchild to sleep in a bamboo cradle.’

Not only did Mirabel live here, enthralled by the sights and sounds, for many years, she and her husband managed the daunting task of adopting a Thai orphan. The bizarre bureaucracy involved in doing this (if you were Thai you could simply walk out the orphanage with a child in your arms who would grow up a slave in the family) is baldly recounted. Little Sureen was, as in all good fairy tales – an illegitimate child of royal descent, and the Oslers had to track down her father in a distant town and accost him, asking his permission to adopt the child. It’s quite a story, but at least it has a happy outcome. This was not the end of the family’s travels, either, as their lengthy stay in Thailand was followed by many years in Corfu, very much the land of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.

The memoir ends on an extremely touching chapter set in the present as the author contemplates her life now, the loss of her husband, the acquisition of new friends, new grandchildren, all the pains and pleasures of old age. Finding that one of her grandchildren has downloaded parts of the memoir from her computer on a visit gives her quite a kick; the thought that her story is wanted, that her young relatives might even be interested in it, is a source of deeply pleasing validation. But if I had a grandmother like this, I’d certainly want to know what she’d got up to in her younger days. Instead I feel I’ve been a privileged passenger on a trip across another world, a kind of Narnia of living memory, all the better and more vivid for once having been a reality. And I can only hope that if I’m lucky enough to reach 85, I’ll still have the sprightly, intoxicating voice of a Mirabel Osler.

22 thoughts on “Life, If Well Lived, Is Long Enough

  1. re: book review request by award-winning author

    Dear Tales from the Reading Room:

    I’m an award-winning author with a new book of fiction out last month.
    Ugly To Start With is a series of thirteen interrelated stories about
    adolescence published by West Virginia University Press.

    All the stories in my collection have been previously published in
    well-regarded print and online literary magazines such as The Iowa
    Review, Passager, The Bitter Oleander, Confrontation, Salt River
    Review, The Foliate Oak. and The Cortland Review.

    Can I interest you in reviewing it?

    If you write me back at, I can email you a PDF of my book. If you require a bound copy, please ask, and I will forward your reply to my publisher. Or you can write directly to Abby Freeland at:

    My publisher, I should add, can also offer your readers a free excerpt of my book through a link from your blog to my publisher’s website:

    Here’s what Jacob Appel, celebrated author of
    Dyads and The Vermin Episode, says about my new collection: “In Ugly to Start With, set in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, Cummings tackles the challenges of boyhood adventure and family conflict in a taut, crystalline style that captures the triumphs and tribulations of small-town life. He has a gift for transcending the particular experiences to his characters to capture the universal truths of human affection and suffering–emotional truths that the members of his audience will recognize from their own experiences of childhood and adolescence.”

    My short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Chattahoochee Review. Twice I have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. My short story “The Scratchboard Project” received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.

    I am also the author of the nationally acclaimed coming-of-age novel The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books, Penguin Group, 2009), winner of The Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers (Grades 7-12) and one of ten books recommended by USA TODAY.

    For more information about me, please visit:

    Thank you very much, and I look forward to hearing back from you.


    John Michael Cummings

    • Patti – you are very welcome! I did enjoy the indomitable spirit of the author, who certainly had her share of trials in life, but managed to find ways to overcome them with grace. I think you’d like that about the book.

  2. I’m so sad that my library doesn’t have this one, although it has her earlier book on gardening. Is it recent? Maybe it just hasn’t been released here yet.

    Anyway, this sounds lovely, and I’ve had very good experiences reading memoir-type books by older women! I agree that it’s an important voice, and one that makes me look forward to aging. 🙂

    • Eva, yes it’s a very recent book and not yet out in paperback in the UK. So it may well come to you (particularly as the publisher is Bloomsbury). Oh isn’t it important to have someone make a person look forward to ageing! That’s a crucial service to offer the world!

  3. What a woman! I will have to look for this one. A life well lived, indeed. As for you, litlove, your voice will still be sprightly and intoxicating at 95. Just a hunch… ; )

    • Aww, ds you are a sweetie. But as for the book, what a woman, indeed! I had a great-aunt she reminds me of in a way. My great-uncle was an artist and my great-aunt used to tell the story of when they married and returned home to find they only had enough money for a tin of baked beans to eat. So she instantly set my great-uncle to work painting another picture. No messing about with her! 🙂

  4. I love your opening, Litlove: “What is the secret for living a long and happy life? The Rain Tree, a memoir by Mirabel Osler suggests that it must be a question of deep, lovingly attentive engagement in every part of life, and a respectful desire to experience each moment just as it is, the good, the bad, the triumphant and the tragic.” I will add this book to my reading list–it sounds like an inspiring read. It occurs to me that no matter how “long” our lives last in “clock time” if we attentiviely engage with our moments respectfully, our lives become rich and our perceptions shift, so that we actually have “more time”. At least, that has been my experience when I slow down…. And yes, I agree with “ds” about your voice at 95 😉

    • Beth – how very true that is! I couldn’t agree more that the speed we live at alters our entire perception of the length of life we possess and the possibilities we have to do something with it. I am all for slowing down! And thank you, dear friend, for your lovely kind comment.

    • When I read the description of the adoption, I immediately thought of you. I’d love to know how this strikes you if you can get hold of it – much in it that would strike a chord, I think.

  5. I saw your post right after a long and somewhat tiring discussion with my best friend who wants to emigrate to Thailand and counts on me to follow. I’m not doing well in South East Asia, it is too humid for me and I like seasons. Never say never but not at this point in time.
    The topic of adoption from an Asian country is all to familiar as well. Adoption laws are absurd to the extreme. I know a family who went to Lithuania and came back with a child. The older the kid, the easier.
    In any case, I agree, she sounds like a warm and inspiring person. I’d like to have a look at her gardening book.

  6. Ah, everything that is wrong with that emigration plan is there in the phrase ‘counts on’. I don’t think anyone could make such a big life change as a shift in continent and climate unless he or she were wholeheartedly up for it. I know I am not destined for Asia, and don’t mind saying ‘never’ in my own case. I wilt outside of the mild British climate, so I empathise entirely. I’m intrigued by Mirabel Osler’s gardening book, too. I like a good gardening book, I discover!

  7. What a fascinating sounding woman! And she has written gardening books you say? I will have to see if my library has any of those. I love a good gardening book even if I can’t grow anything the author talks about in my climate.

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  9. With so many negative images of older women or of aging in general it’s nice to come across something like this–that throws it all in a more realistic and positive light. Sounds wonderful–if it is a Bloomsbury book I am sure they’ll publish it here as well–I’ll be watching for it as I seem to be in a memoir mode at the moment!

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  11. Hello. I want to thank you for writing the beautiful review of Mirabel Osler’s “The Raintree”. I am writing about the subject of ageing and I would like to quote your words in the paragraph beginning, “What is the secret for living a long and happy life?” Could I please have your permission and also your name? Warm regards, Kim Samuel

  12. Yes, certainly you can – thank you for taking the time and trouble to ask. My name is Victoria Best, and you can find out more about me in the ‘About’ section if you need to. Good luck with your writing!

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