Ladies in Lavender – The Short Story by William J. Locke (1916) and the Movie (2004)

Ever since I have watched the charming Ladies in Lavender I had felt like reading the short story on which it was based. It took a while to find it as I did not know William J. Locke‘s books. I finally discovered that it was in his short story collection Far-Away Stories. Ladies in Lavender is the only one I have read but since I liked it and I bought the book, I will certainly read others sooner or later.

Two elderly sisters (they are 45 and 48 respectively in the book but in their 70s in the movie), both spinsters, live together in a beautiful house on the seaside in Cornwall. They inherited the house from their late father and since his death, some 27 years ago, they have been living in that house alone, sharing a bedroom like a married couple. Theirs is a quiet life, very similar to the life of the ladies in Cranford. A change of weather, something special for lunch, a visitor, are the only distractions they seem to have. They are content and live a certain routine, with the older of the two being in charge.

All this ends when they find a young man on the beach below their window. The sea has washed him ashore. He is unconscious and his ankle is broken. The two ladies cannot help seeing how delicate and beautiful he looks and decide to have him carried to their house and look after him.

What follows is at times quite comedic in the movie. The young man doesn’t speak English, only a little German, but the ladies hardly speak any German at all. It takes a while and some coincidences until they find out that he is a talented Polish violinist.

It is touching how intensely these two old women fall in love with the young man. None of them has ever fallen in love before. They were not married, never had lovers. The adventure with the young man is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to them, it feels like a fairy tale and they assume he will stay with them forever.

The story of two elderly women falling in love with a very young man could seem somewhat far-fetched but a few years back my mother told me a similar story. She lived in an area of the city that is very green and where a lot of people walk their dogs. My mother was part of a group of 50 and 60+ women going for walks together when suddenly, one day, an extremely good-looking young man appeared with his dog (I wasn’t introduced so can’t tell you how good-looking he was). In any case my mother was quite bewildered as she observed how one of the older women started to fall for the young man. But not only was she in love, she assumed that he had feelings as well as he was very kind and attentive. When he finally showed up after a few months with a young girlfriend, the woman had a major breakdown.

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play the elderly sisters in the movie and they play them extremely well. They are touching and funny at the same time. The choice for the young man, German actor Daniel Brühl, was less fortunate. I just don’t think he is all that handsome, at least certainly not at handsome as the man described in the book.

In the novel, the story plays clearly before WWI while the movie takes place just before WWII, apart from this and changing the age of the main characters, the movie stays true to the short story but goes into much more detail in the second half.

As nice as the short story is, I preferred the movie. It’s a lovely movie with great actresses, a beautiful setting and a melancholic undertone that depicts very well a certain type of woman that life has passed by.

As I said in the beginning I did not know William J. Locke. It seems he was born in British Guinea in 1863. His novels were five times on the bestseller lists in the US and there are 24 movies based on his work. Amazing.

49 thoughts on “Ladies in Lavender – The Short Story by William J. Locke (1916) and the Movie (2004)

    • I can really not say whether he is a good writer. Ladies in Lavender is quite alright but that’s all I read so far. I’m just very surprised there are that many movies based on his stories.
      I really did like the movie.

  1. Both my mother and my mother-in-law loved this film. As I may have mentioned before, I’ll always read the book version if one is available, and I’m delighted in this case to know there is. I must look out for it now!

    • It seems that you might find it for free on-line. I’m so amazed that I had never heard of Locke and there are so many of his stories that have been turned into movies. I think that you would also like the movie in this case.

    • Some movies stay in my memory as if I had just watched them yesterday. This is one of those. It took me quite a while to track down the story. Odd that nobody seems to know him anymore.

  2. Nice review, Caroline! This story looks beautiful – I love older woman – younger man romances. It is interesting that though William Locke doesn’t seem to be very popular now, many of his stories have been made into movies. It made me remember a a movie called ‘Portrait of Jennie’ which I watched sometime back. When I did some research on the movie, I discovered that it was based on a novel by Robert Nathan and many of his novels have been made into movies. I had never heard of Robert Nathan before I saw that movie.

    Thanks for introducing us to an interesting new writer and a beautiful movie. I will look for this story and will try to watch this movie.

    • Thanks, Vishy and also for the recommendation of Robert Nathan whom I did not know either. Nor the movie. It is strange how some writers are just forgotten after a while. The story of Ladies In Lavender reminded me a little bit of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The story between the young man and the older woman is quite similar. Both, movie and book, are wonderful.

  3. I’ve never heard of the writer or of the film (not susprising, I don’t remember any film or any book of 2004)
    Strange that you and Guy don’t have the same response to the film. Usually, you agree, it’s intriguing for me.

  4. I saw this movie not too long ago, but didn’t know it had been based on a book. I had the same impression. Maggie Smith and Judi Dench were terrific. I thought there was so much subtext and subtlety. I could probably watch again and take away something even more.

    • The story is quite short and in this case I would say they made the most of it in the movie. Adding and altering a few things.
      I will re-watch it, I liked it so much.
      I was thinking how well Locke captured that feeling of the soul staying young despite the fatct that the body grows older. Maybe even more so if you haven’t experienced a lot.

  5. Never heard of William Locke either, but 24 movies based on his writing is pretty amazing. Judging by the date of his birth, I guess he probably never saw any of them made in his lifetime, which is a shame. Love the sound of this story – maybe I’ll read it, or watch the movie…

    • I start to feel a bit sorry for Locke but on the oter hand he was apreacited during his lifetime.
      The number of movies really struck me. I guess they are more modern. I didn’t look into it yet.
      I’m curious to read other stories and see if there are other hidden gems.
      I think he also had an interesting life with a lot of travelling.
      I’ll be curious to see whether you will like it.

  6. For several years, my daughter, my mother and I got together every Wednesday night for dinner and a movie at Mom’s house. I was in charge of the movie and we always seemed to like the British films the best. After the movie we’d enter it into the notebook we kept and gave it a rating. I remember that we all liked Ladies In Lavender very much. I’ll need to download his stories to my Kindle.

    • How nice, this sounds like such a lovely custom.
      There are a lot of wonderful British films, I agree.
      I hope you will like the stories. I’m planning on reading another one or two this weekend.

  7. I really liked The Ladies in Lavender (oh to have a cottage by the sea!!), but I had no idea it was from a short story. My library has some of his books, but not this one. It sounds like this is one I might well pass on but I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie again!

    • I’m totally with you regarding the cottage by the sea. I loved the setting. The story is better developped in the movie but I’m very curious to see what else he wrote. I will certainly re-watch the movie.

  8. I remember thinking this movie was only all right. I’ll have to check out the story though. Lovely that it’s available for the Kindle! 🙂

    • Maybe it depends on when you watch it. It was a perfect moment for me and the idea of a cottage in Cornwall certainly influenced me a lot.
      Either the South of France or Cornwall. Some day….

  9. I always heard about this movie because of the soundtrack (I love Joshua Bell) but I never knew what the movie was about, not to mention that the power duo of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were in it. Thanks for reviewing this…I might never had watched it, or read the short story. Yeah, I had never heard of William Locke.

    • I hope you will like it. Those two women are really a power duo. If you like Daniel Brühl you might enjoy it a lot.
      The soundtrack is another element I liked.
      I think we established beyond any doubt that poor William Locke isn’t known anymore.

    • Bit different from my usual recommendations, right? 🙂 I watch a wide range of movies and in this one I loved the story, the setting and those two actresses. I hope you will like it.

      • I watched it last night, the youngest sister is such a cutey. It was very good all around though I would always like more violin playing in it. But snuggling as I watched the movie, I fell aslleep towards the end. So it was a pleaasure to sleep to as well as watch.

        I saw Galipoli too which the ending was a blunt shock. I loved it! But I had trouble finding your Galipoli post in order to tell you so.

        • Your comment made me laugh, not sure you really liked it… 🙂 but maybe “nice to sleep to” should be a a new category when rating movies… hehe. No sleeping during Gallipoli, I’m sure. I didn’t review it. I haven’t reviewed my favourite movies because I have to re-watch them and always want to pick the perfect moment. I loved Gallipoli. The senselessness of the trenches, the cruelty of it, is shown so well.

  10. It sounds like a fun story. Ederly women fall for a very young man could be recipe for comedy. But how could someone never fall in love till that age? it’s kinda odd. Maybe because the year the book is written.

    I like the cover…really beautiful

  11. Thank you for the information about the author. I have watched this movie many times, from the perspectives both of a violinist and a fan of films conveying a subtle expression of human emotion, and this film touched me on both levels. Although both actresses were 70 when the film was made, they both captured so poignantly the yearning of an older heart for the passion that bypassed them in their youth. I thought Daniel Bruhl was perfectly cast, in that, regarding Ursula’s feelings for him, he successfully portrayed the transition from oblivion, to dawning awareness, to sweet sensitivity, to not wanting to hurt her feelings. He also brilliantly acted the “imp” as a foil to the wonderful comic acting (as always!) of Miriam Margolyes. The acting, the beautiful score, and the poignancy of the story, combined with the scenic splendor of Cornwall, makes this one of my favorite movies. Now I’m off to find the book!

    • My pleasure, Donna.
      I feel a lot like you about this movie. I often rewatch it. It has so many aspects that speak to me.
      The book/story is a little different as the two sisters are much younger but I think making them older worked very well in the movie.
      I hope you enjoy reading it.

    • It’s a while since I watched it so my memory is sketchy. I think she doesn’t appear anymore to not upset the sisters as, clearly, she and Andrea seem to be in a relationship.

  12. I just watched the movie last night – and actually was hunting for more information about the original short story because I am curious was to where the title comes from. In the film, at least, I certainly don’t recall the sisters wearing lavender – much less wearing it often, to be considered “the ladies in lavender.”

    As an aside, I too, was curious as to the conspicuous absence of Olga at the concert in London.

    • It’s been a while since I’ve read it so can’t remember if the title is explained in the story but I doubt it. I tried to find something online but couldn’t really find anything. Let me know if you have more luck.

  13. Are you sure that neither of the sisters had fallen in love before? My recollection of the movie is that Ursula had a sweetheart who was killed in the Great War. His picture is hanging on the wall of their cottage. Or was that their brother?

    • That was my recollection, as well. It struck a chord with me as, growing up in Somerset (not all that far from Cornwall), I knew some elderly ladies like that, who never married as they’d lost sweethearts in the War: with a million men dead in the UK alone, there was a whole generation of women for whom a relationship wasn’t possible.

      It was the last film I watched with my late Mother, so it is one I’m very fond of. The soundtrack can easily bring a tear to my eye.

      • Oh, I’m sure one of them was married before. I remember her looking at the photo, and that the other sister comments something like “you’ve had a love,” or “you’ve had a husband,” during the movie.

        • I’d taken it to be a fiancee: I think somewhere I’d read of them as the “Widdrington sisters”, implying they were both single (as they are in the original story) – as well as the fact they were living in their parents’ house. But maybe it’s one of those things that wasn’t explicitly resolved because it didn’t need to be?

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