Category Archives: Older women in fiction

Rallying the Older Women Writers

Something rather wonderful happened last week. It was Thursday, Leap Year Day. As usual I had tweeted (yes on X) about The Sleeping Beauty which was the post featured before this one. Sometimes I post a second tweet, hoping it is topical and will bring readers to the articles in the archive of this blog. I looked back through my archives, found what was on the blog on the previous Leap Year Day, in 2020. It was a few weeks before the lockdowns began. We were beginning to get very worried about Covid-19. But my post had a different theme.

It was called 

Let’s have more older women writers

You can read the article here.

It was itself referring to an earlier post from 2016. In 2020 I continued the theme of discrimination against older women writers began my comments with a little provocation.

Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

I used this quotation in my tweet.

The Response

I’ve got a modest following on my blog and on twitter, so I was quite unprepared for what happened. It was unprecedented. Within 24 hours it had been liked 44 times, retweeted 16 times and I had gained 21 new twitter followers. In addition older women writers had added their comments. In that same time period, ten writers provided information about when they published their first book (all older than 57), many were on their second book and more had published several. It’s never too late, said one; I’m 65 and still going, said another; and another reported that she was 64 and on her 9th book. A publisher reported that they were about to publish a novel by an older woman and took no account of age.

I was pleased that one woman in her 50s said that she had been doubting her capacity to write but was encouraged by the Bookword post. Referring to the picture another commented that I would read whatever she’s writing. Martin Amis was correctly outed as the writer of the statement about women disintegrating after 70.

I have never had such a response to a tweet, and the readership of the 2020 Leap Year post immediately exceeded 100 on that day.

So why this response?

In 2020 the article I placed on Bookword blog did not have this response, so I have been wondering why the tweet and the blog post appealed to so many people in 2024. I’d be glad of your thoughts on this.

I’ve been tweeting for more than 10 years, and I have noticed that some of my tweets get a great deal more traction than others. These tend to be the ones that ask a question that people want to answer. I think the provocation about women over 70 was enough to get some people to check it out.

The 2020 post (Let’s have more older women writers) did not reach many people when it was first published. Some things might have changed since then. For example, four more years’ worth of women have entered the demographic of ‘older women’. Each new cohort are better educated and possibly have a feistier attitude, are more ready to stand up for themselves than their older colleagues. And those who responded to the tweet with their own experiences were all 65 years old or younger. 

Perhaps there are more older women writing and publishing and perhaps creating a market for fiction by older women. Older women have more money, more disposable income and form a growing market for books (and films and tv series) about older women. Some of the writers who responded with their published record will be including older women characters.

Women are living longer. Well, they were, up to 2020. I’m not sure whether this group is still enjoying increased longevity. Sadly, the neglect of the NHS and the cost of living and other factors in the last four years are causing the death rate to rise. Many of the women who are living longer continue to write for longer too.

It is interesting that the possibility of double discrimination – ageism combined sexism – has provoked this affirming response. What do you think?

Silly old Martin Amis, indeed.

On the related theme of older women characters in fiction, remember that this blog has 70 posts in the series Older Women in Fiction. You can find the full list here. It also includes recommendation from readers. Please feel free to add your suggestions. 

And you might be interested in a book for which I was a co-author: The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, published by Policy Press in 2016. You can read about it here.

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Filed under Blog, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, words, Writing

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout 

This is the fourth novel about Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. In her most recent novels, Elizabeth Strout has frequently revisited the characters she has created, filling in their back story or taking them into their future. This novel features Lucy Barton but includes references to Olive Kitteridge. At times she has used multiple short stories to create a different form for a novel, as in Olive Kitteridge and in Anything is Possible. This enables a wider view of the characters, but in Lucy by the Sea she keeps close to Lucy, so close that it is narrated in the first person.

Lucy by the Sea

Elizabeth Strout has great skills as a writer: in Lucy by the Sea she captures Lucy’s bewilderment at the advance of the coronavirus and the precautions people around her are taking. At a time when the incidence of Covid appears to be increasing again it all feels drearily similar. But in this novel, we are cast back to that time when it all seemed so unbelievable, so swift and so doom-laden.

The novel opens with a reprise of the events of Oh William, concerned especially with a trip to Maine that Lucy made with her former husband, William. They returned to their separate lives in New York. At the start of Lucy by the Sea it is the winter of 2019-2020. Lucy has just published a book and in the autumn did a promotional tour in the States.

I was also scheduled to go to Italy and Germany in the beginning of March, but in early December – it was kind of odd – I just decided I was not going to go to those places. I never cancel book tours and the publishers were not happy, but I was not going to go. As March approached someone said, “Good thing you didn’t go to Italy, they’re having that virus.” And that’s when I noticed it. I think it was the first time. I did not really think about it ever coming to New York.
But William did. (6-7)

William tries to persuade Lucy to leave New York. She continues to downplay the dangers of the virus, until people in her social circle begin to fall ill.

It’s odd how the mind does not take in anything until it can. (7)

She continues to resist William’s increasingly determined efforts to get her to move out, until the first deaths take place. Together they travel to a house he has rented for them in Maine, on the shore. At first Lucy thinks they will be there for just a couple of weeks, but the weeks extend into months as the pandemic persists.

Now Lucy must learn everything new: new friendships, new forms of exercise, new household routines, new ways to spend her day, a more distanced perspective on political events, and new worries about the two daughters. While everything has changed, the lives of her two daughters do not stay still either, and she is forced to take a more distant role in their lives than she would choose. She also with William thinks about passing time, about memory and about ageing. 

The narrative follows the first year of the pandemic, with all its mysteries, unexpected turns and reflection. William and Lucy make adaptations, find ways to deal with frustrations, and continue to stay safe in Maine. As her daughters go through difficulties, and her relationship with William changes, she also has to come to terms with the political situation.

On January sixth, as I came in from my afternoon walk to the cove, the television was on and William said, “Lucy, come here now and watch this.” I sat down still wearing my coat and I saw people attacking the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and I watched the news as though it was the first days of the pandemic in New York, I mean that I kept looking at the floor and had the strange sense again that my mind – or body – was trying to move away. All I can remember now is watching a man smashing a window again and again, people pushing up against one another as they got into the building while the policemen tried to hold them back. Many different colors swam before me as I saw people climbing up walls, all moving together. (233)

Later she has some insight into people who feel poorly about themselves, who had fun made of their religion and their guns, and who are looked at with disdain. But then she has clarity.

I sat for a long time on the couch in the dark; there was a half moon that shone over the ocean. And then I thought, No, those were Nazis and racists at the Capitol. And so my understanding – my imagining of the breaking of the windows – stopped there. (239)

After a year of the pandemic Lucy has experienced many challenges and has developed into a much more sympathetic person towards the people she meets and knows. She also sees more clearly the problems in her country.

I felt that this novel had put me back in touch with those early months of the pandemic, with all the fears and uncertainties, the disbelief, and the ineptitudes of our governments, and all the adjustments we made. 

I was unsure about the references to Olive Kitteridge, in a local care home, in this novel. I did not feel I needed an update on her or her love of birds.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, published in 2022 by Viking. 288pp 

Thanks to Anne for the present of this book.

Related Posts

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Bookword, May 2022)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories

Ursula K Le Guin’s Space Crone

When Ursula K Le Guin died in January 2018, it seemed far too soon. She had given us the impression of being endlessly inventive, always wise and a champion of thinking, learning, developing in community with writers and readers. Above all, she had important things to say about language and how humans should live in this world (and other worlds too). I had read The Wizard of Earthsea and been stimulated by the idea there about the power of naming things. And I had enjoyed being provoked by her imaginative ideas on gender and sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness, and by her other sci-fi fiction. And I had begun reading her essays on writing the Tao and her collection of writing advice and exercises in Steering the Craft. I thought she would last forever.

Her death was too soon, although she was 89. She defied conventional ideas about aging, aging as a time when you become more right-wing, aging as a time when you slow down, aging as a time when you have used up all your good ideas. The concept of a space crone challenges all that. The essay of that name was written in 1976, when she was not yet 50, but she looks squarely at the menopause and how older women are not valued. Not quite 50 years on from the publication of that essay, our society is just beginning to take account of the menopause, if not the value of older women.

That essay provides the title to a new publication of essays, stories and lectures by Ursula K le Guin, Space Crone, published by Silver Press (an independent feminist publisher based in London) in 2023.

Space Crone

The publication of this collection, bringing together Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing on feminism and gender, seemed like the continuation of her influence. In this post I recommend two of the items in this collection: a short story, and a commencement address. The short story, Sur uses reversal of gender roles to spin a challenging tale. The address was delivered to graduates of a women’s college and in it she discusses languages, and their importance in feminists’ struggles.

Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic, 1909-1910

The short story is framed as an account of an all-female expedition to Antarctica in 1909-10. The historically-minded of you will know that the first acknowledged team to reach the South Pole was led by the Norwegian Amundsen in 1912. This story, narrated by one of the female team, describes their alternative expedition, and rather than celebrating heroism and bravery, praises other qualities. You’ve never heard of this expedition, or of any evidence that they were the first to reach the South Pole?

But I was glad even then that we had left no sign there, for some man longing to be first might come some day, and find it, and then know what a fool he had been, and break his heart. (23)

So what happens when women, not men, set off on an expedition in such a dangerous place? They display qualities celebrated in this story, qualities of shared leadership, mutual support, modesty and generosity (such as allowing men to take the credit for being first). They are persistent in the face of challenges, even a specifically female challenge, and other physical difficulties such as frostbite. The power of their friendships, their camaraderie was behind their success.

There are other ways, Ursula K Le Guin seems to tell us, of narrating these heroic stories; there are other qualities that we should value and esteem besides the heroic and the brave. Her fiction shows us this again and again.

Sur was first published in the New Yorker in 1982.

Bryn Mawr Commencement Address (1986)

In this address, Ursula K Le Guin considers how language is used, in what today we might call different discourses. She identifies three. The language of power, of politics, of dichotomy, used by all those with power. The graduates have learned this language for their degrees and like us to heaf the language of people in power.

Then there is the mother tongue. Every person’s first language, which is the language of relationships, connection, of binding together not division, of experience rather than argument. Because it is the language of women, it must be ignored by men as they mature. Those who are powerless can find their voices and a different power by unlearning the language of power, and by recognising the third language, the native language. 

And what she calls the native language reflects the everyday, the creative, the language of experience. She gives many examples of this native language. Many are from first nations peoples which is hardly surprising as she grew up in a household of anthropologists: Sojourner Truth, Wendy Rose (Hopi and Miwok people), Joy Harjo (Creek people), Linda Hogan (Chickasaw people), and Denise Levertov. All are women, most are poets. And they have gentler truths to speak, in softer language. 

Speaking to young women graduates she encourages them in the tones of the native language:

If being a cog in the machine or a puppet manipulated by others isn’t what you want, you can find out what you want, your needs, desires, truths, powers, by accepting your own experience as a woman, as this woman, this body, this person, your hungry self. On the maps drawn by men there is an immense white area, terra incognita, where most women live. That country is all yours to explore, to inhabit, to describe.
But none of us lives there alone. Being human isn’t something people can bring off alone; we need other people in order to be people. We need one another. (43)

I see the connection between these two writings. The story Sur is narrated in this third language, the language of experience, and community. It is a story of community and experience, and challenges the dominant discourse of the explorer: a brave and heroic man who gets there first.  

Both my recommendations are from the 80s. I make no apologies, for I am from the tradition of the Second Wave of feminism, – I’m not even sure how many waves we can count today. I too found a voice in ‘the furies and glories of the seventies and eighties’ (33) as all those women offered their experience as truth. Let experience speak. Let us value those experiences, the importance of relationships, of community. Let us not use only the language of power, but also the language of creativity and life.

Space Crone by Ursula K Le Guin, published by Silver Press in 2022. Edited and introduced by So Mayer and Sarah Shin. 

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

Related posts and books

The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (June 2019)

Imagination and the writer: Ursula K Le Guin including references to The Wave in the Mind (August 2018)

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin (March 2018)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin (July 2017)

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula K Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula K Le Guin, published in 20014 by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K Le Guin, published by The Eight Mountain Press in 1998. 

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin first published in 1969. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

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Summer reading over ten years

I began blogging just over ten years ago. Recent Twitter lists of summer reading encouraged me to look back over those years and see what I was blogging on 7th July in those years. Here are just seven posts from the 787 that I have produced over that time. Some themes emerge from those years: the older women in fiction series, translations, thematic posts, and the established fiction which I preferred to chasing the new. I have included links in this piece to all the posts mentioned. Happy summer reading!

Onward, Old Legs (2013)

Several novels featuring older women had already appeared on my blog by July 2013: Stone Angel by the Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, and I listed more than thirty others. Many of them I have now read, and some have been dropped from the list for various reasons. The full list for the series can be found at this link

Ways with Words (2014)

2014 was the year that Retiring with Attitude was published. I wrote it with my friend and colleague Eileen Carnell. We were asked to do a presentation on our book at the Ways With Words festival at Dartington that year. We have written one book since then, The New Age of Ageing with our colleague and friend Marianne Coleman. Our writing careers have slowed down since then!

Island Novels (2016)

Two years later I wrote a post on the theme of novels set on islands. It was a rich subject and I referred to Night Waking by Sarah Moss, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and four other novels. I enjoy putting together themed posts.

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen (2019)

To the North was the seventh of Elizabeth Bowen’s ten novels reviewed on Bookword blog. In 2019 I was in a phase of reading novels that had been published for some time. It’s something I have continued with, and Elizabeth Bowen is a writer for whom I have great admiration. On a train travelling north from Italy the recently widowed Cecelia meets Markie, and is nearly taken in by him, but he transfers his attentions to her sister-in-law …

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (2020)

For several years I had followed a theme, reporting on a book every decade. In 2020 I picked publications by Virago, and in July this was the choice from the 1960s. I wrote,

This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2021)

I read most of this short novel when I was trapped on Pewsey station, following a walk with a friend. There were no trains, no taxis and no room at the inn. The novel, like the others by Sarah Moss that I have reviewed, mitigated the dire circumstances. A train eventually arrived.

[Summerwater] is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (2022)

This novel, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, was first published in 2017. It follows one family through three generations, beginning in Algeria just after the Second World War and ending in the banlieues in the present day. I learned a great deal from this novel and thought about it again when France erupted earlier this summer.

And the others?

BTW in 2015 it was A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and in 2017 a themed post about novelists called Elizabeth. In 2018 I posted my thoughts about Missing by Alison Moore.

At the moment I am reading about the last months of the German High Seas Fleet (for a thing), and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (for another thing), essays in Space Crone by Ursula le Guin, and enjoying the catalogue of the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery of paintings by Berthe Morisot, which I saw last weekend.  

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation, Writing

Lyrics for the Loved Ones by Anne Goodwin 

Where can you hear the voices of older women? How often do you hear them or read them? I began the series, older women in fiction, on this blog assuming that I would not find many books featuring the lives of older women. I was wrong. Thanks to many readers I have compiled a list that now contains more than 100 titles, with 66 of them linked to reviews on this blog. This is the 66th post in the series.

Anne Goodwin was an early supporter of this series and has also joined in my quest to see if older women writers have been marginalised. And she answered my impertinent questions on the topic. I think her publication list indicates that it is the independent publishers who are leading the way in taking on older women writers.

Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Lyrics for the Loved Ones

It was a pleasure to meet Matilda Windsor again in this second novel in which she is the central character. In Matilda Windsor is Coming Home we met her after 50 years of incarceration in Ghyllside Mental Hospital in Cumbria, where she had been sent as a young pregnant and unmarried girl. That story looked at the new policy of Care in the Community, and how it would affect a person who had been institutionalised for so long.

In this new novel she is now a very old lady, living in Scarrowdale care home in West Cumbria. Matty has developed strategies to deal with her long-term care. She understands her circumstances through her own fantasies, imagining herself as a great performer, for example. She is always upbeat as a result of her mother’s voice prompting her inside her head. She gives everyone nicknames, for example, the ‘Loved Ones’ are the other residents, many of whom find her difficult. Olive Oyl is a politically aware former teacher; Oh My Darling Clementine is the nurse who was much loved by Matty but who could no longer work due to Windrush investigations; Bluebell her replacement has blue hair and so forth.

The novel is set at the time of Covid, and its characters are the staff and residents of Scarrowdale and relations of these two groups. There is a great deal of angst to go round. Not only are the questions and challenges raised by Covid for care homes staff and residents explored through the characters, but they also have other issues, as we did. There is the fear of cancer when treatment must be suspended; a mental health worker who sees the additional toll of the pandemic; searching for past histories to help understand one’s life. Some of the characters are affected by the #Black Lives Matter campaign. The toppling of Sir Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol prompts Matty to imagine that she is to blame for slavery, and she feels terrible guilt. An isolated woman tries to manage with very little support.

Responding to the crisis Matty plans to raise money for the Red Cross by reciting 100 poems, one a day up to her 100th birthday, on her You Tube channel, during lockdown. She is helped by Bluebell, who equips many of the residents with ipads with which to connect with the wider world.

The creative mind of the main character is as engaging as it was in Matilda Windsor is Coming Home. A spotlight is also thrown onto the work of the care staff, especially Bluebell, who reminds us of the many care staff who went beyond what was expected of them, and who provided exceptional personal care and opportunities to the people in their care during lockdowns.

Inequalities were exacerbated during Covid, many already existed. It was a difficult time for everyone, but some suffered more than others, as this novel vividly illuminates, with humour and humanity. It also reminds me of the importance of communicating, creativity, honesty and mutual assistance in times of trouble, and at all times. 

Thanks to Anne for providing me with an advance copy of her novel.

Lyrics for the Loved Ones by Anne Goodwin, published by Annecdotal Press in 2023. 333pp

Related Posts

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin (Bookword July 2021)

Let’s have more older women writers (Bookword February 2020)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (Bookword December 2015)

Older Women writers – in demand or not? (Bookword April 2023)

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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Older Women writers – in demand or not?

Are older women writers in demand or are they ignored by the publishing industry? I read two articles recently which appear to offer opposite points of view on the subject of older women writers. One point of view is optimistic: 

… experts say: older writers are now at a premium – with radical, edgy women aged into their 80s particularly sought after. [Guardian 25.2.23]

The other suggests that the same old ageism/sexism is still operating against older women writers as it always has.

            … it seems many older women writers feel herded towards retirement before they’ve even got going. [Mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23] 

I note that in the first quotation, the experts were from the perspective of publishers and agents. The second quotation reports the experience of the writers. Some of the difference I am questioning may arise from these contrasting perspectives. But which is it – older women writers are in demand or they are not?

Older Women Writers are in Demand

To support the argument that older women, especially women in their 80s, are the writers most sought after by publishers, Amelia Hill, writing in the Guardian, assembles the following evidence. First the publishers themselves are keen to publish work by older writers, apparently. It began with the small, independent presses, but now they are all at it.

“The publishing world is working hard to normalise and celebrate the vast diversity of women over 45 and to value their collected, distilled wisdom, their lifetime of reading and radicalism that is not possible for younger writers.”

This is the view of Lisa Highton, an agent and former publisher, quoted in the article.

Elizabeth Strout

Second, she lists several notable older writers, such as Bonnie Garmus, whose debut novel Lessons in Chemistry has been such a success. Others are Miranda Cowley Heller, Jo Browning Wroe, Louise Kennedy, Joanna Quinn Nikki May and Shelley Read.

Ann Tyler

And why are publishers taking on these books? The reason is simple – they are following the money.

“The vast majority of books are bought by women aged 45 and above. They’re a hugely important demographic and increasingly want to see themselves represented in books.” [Lisa Highton]

Women Writers are overlooked by Publishers

Mslexia has the strapline: the magazine for women who write. In an article from Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) by Debbie Taylor called The Time of our Lives, she explores the issues. I find it strange that Amelia Hill makes no reference to this article when she wrote the piece reported above. 

In her article Debbie Taylor describes how attitudes to age are defeating women writers, for example many literary prizes are age limited, which mitigates against older women because they often start their careers later and are more likely to have interrupted careers. No-one would want to quarrel with strategies to encourage young writers, but it is hard for older writers to gain success and exposure with so few literary awards open to them.

Barred from a raft of high-status awards, patronised or parodied in fiction and rendered literally invisible of book covers, no wonder women writers feel marginalised and wary of submitting their work. 

She quotes a survey where 50% of 1700 writers believed that ageism was a factor in how they were treated by agents and editors and 21% had experienced ageism. With those views in mind she went on to challenge three myths about older writers:

  • Their work is conventional and old-fashioned,
  • They have shorter writing careers,
  • Only old people want to read books by (or about) old people.

Although highly critical of Martin Amis and publishing practice that discriminates against older people, Debbie Taylor notices that there is some movement.

The doors are ajar for older writers. It’s up to us to ram our trainers, Doc Martens and stilettos into the gaps and push them open. True, ageism is an ongoing issue in publishing, but it’s not insurmountable – and let’s face it. This is a tough business whatever your age.

Helpfully for those wishing to do the necessary work, the article also listed sources, pressure groups and awards in a side bar. Bookword blog headed that list, and the article also featured a list of ten top titles from the older women in fiction list on this blog. This blog, and the series Older Women in Fiction, is mostly concerned with characters in novels and short stories. But it also promotes women writers, and older women writers.

Older Women Writers – in demand or not?

I think money, sometimes called the grey pound, will decide this issue. Succeeding generations of older women are better educated, get better jobs, have more disposable incomes, and live longer, all factors that will support buying books. We know they are the backbone of the book-buying readers. Publishers, agents, editors will not want to go against their own commercial interests.

So there may be sexism and ageism in publishing, but there are signs that this is changing. There is less reason to discriminate against older women writers than ever, especially as the quality of their writing matches that of younger writers. 

Related posts and articles

Things are definitely opening up’: the rise of older female writers by Amelia Hill in the Guardian; 25thFebruary 2023.

The Time of our Lives by Debbie Taylor, in Mslexia, Dec/Jan/February 2022/23. You can find the Mslexia website here.

Let’s have more Older Women Writers from Bookword February 2020, in which I reported on the opinions of some older women writers.

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here. You can find more than 100 novels and collections of shorter fiction which feature older women. There are links to more than 60 books that I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – again

Mrs Palfrey was the first in the series on the blog called Older Women in Fiction, posted ten years ago in March 2013. This review has been followed by another 63 in the series. When I read and posted about Mrs Palfrey I did it under the mistaken impression that older women were rare in fiction. While they may form a small proportion of the fiction market here in the UK, I have discovered that the reader can find many books in which the older woman is the main or a significant character in a novel. 

In addition to the 64 reviews, there are another 50 recommendations from readers for inclusion in the series. Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

We are introduced to the unlikely hero in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with this description.

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag. (2)

We already know that Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and thereby establishes her status among the residents. It allows Ludo an opportunity for some research as he is writing a novel about an old people’s home called We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. 

In Mrs Palfrey Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions. ‘As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.’ They experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems. At the Claremont they are concerned to keep up appearances. As Elizabeth Taylor deftly shows, such a life infantilises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are aging and it is inconvenient and embarrassing. Mrs Arbuthnot’s incontinence, for example, is the cause of her slipping further into dependence, moving to a shared room in a nursing home for the elderly. She tries to pass it off as a welcome move to a quieter place.

On the blogs I sampled ten years ago, the reviews frequently suggested that Elizabeth Taylor has placed ‘eccentric’ residents at the Claremont. I don’t think it is so much eccentricity that she is describing. Rather, she has a penetrating ability to pinpoint a mannerism or gesture or foible, an ability to present characters with their warts. I think she is much admired by writers as well as readers because she is so economical, her details telling us so much about a character. Neither comic nor patronising, she has an awareness of the ludicrousness of people’s behaviours and attempts to hide the truth. 

Mr Osmond is a bore because he is lonely. He is also afraid that the world is changing and writes letters of protest to the newspapers about being treated by foreign doctors. He hates the accents of the weather forecasters. He is sour and has an old-fashioned fruity, male sense of humour. He likes Mrs Palfrey and suggests marriage. The scene of his botched proposal has comic aspects because he handles it so badly. But it is also an authentic conversation resulting from his lack of perception and insight into another person.

Lady Swayne has ‘another irritating mannerism – all her most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements, she prefaced with ‘I’m afraid. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common or garden Church of England. … I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.’

These are ordinary people, observed without whimsy or exaggeration. Take this little scene where Mrs Arbuthnot, who has ears ‘sharpened by malice’, has asked Mrs Palfrey to change her library book.

It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl. She was just going out for one of her aimless walks, to break up the afternoon, and was delighted to be given an object for it.
‘Something by Lord Snow, perhaps,’ Mrs Arbuthnot said. ‘I cannot stand trash.’ 
’But if you’ve already read it …’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously.
‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’
Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily. After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour. (p23-4)

A small pleasure is the mention of books read by the characters. Mrs Arbuthnot ‘got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings.’

Elizabeth Taylor frequently explores the theme of loneliness in her fiction. She is quoted on this subject on the now disappeared blog Dove Grey Reader Scribbles in a review of The Soul of Kindness:

I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others – by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country – even by having committed murder…

Another comment on the blog reviews was how the readers had found the topic of ageing and death difficult and referred to their own grandparents or parents. But we need more books that explore this difficult area. There are other very good older characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such as Aunt Sylvie in The Marriage Group, who rewrites the labels indicating who will inherit what, despite having forgotten that some of the recipients had themselves died. She blamed them for neglecting her.

I still haven’t seen the film of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, starring Joan Plowright. There will undoubtedly be more films dealing with later life, as there’s money to be made from us older folk. It’s my experience that films rarely offer as much as the original text, and older people get played for laughs: forgetfulness, incontinence, men pursuing young women and vice versa. Have you seen Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

After reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I went on to read and review all her novels. Loneliness is a theme in all of them. Some of her characters deal better with it than others. Mrs Palfrey seems stoic to me. 

Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel published in her lifetime. It appeared in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 

Despite many champions, Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively neglected. Perhaps one reason for that can be discerned from the title of her biography by Nicola Beauman The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by the champion of neglected C20th writers, Persephone. And it may also be that because of her Home Counties life, neglect of the London literary scene, and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

I have reviewed all her novels and her short story collection on Bookword. I have been rereading them, in no order, in the last few months. My admiration for her writing keeps on growing.

Related links

You can find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series here.

You can find my original post about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont here (from March 2013)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, with an introduction by Paul Bailey, thought to be the model for Ludo.

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Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó

I have previously enjoyed two novels by the acclaimed Hungarian writer, Magda Szabó: The Door and Abigail. In Iza’s Ballad I found another profound novel which educated me about Hungary in the 1960s, and about human relationships everywhere, specifically mother-daughter relationships.

The mother, Ettie in Iza’s Ballad, is in her 70s, so she qualifies for inclusion in the series on Older Women in Fiction. This is the 64th post in the series (see below for link). In this novel Ettie carries a good deal of the story, being widowed and acquiescent in her daughter’s decisions about her future. Magda Szabó shows us a woman from a small town, where she has spent the last 50 years, now grieving her husband, and then uprooted as she is sent first to a spa for a week’s holiday, and then to Budapest to live in her daughter’s flat. 

It is a theme in novels about older women that their views are not sought or taken into account. For example, in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West. This denies a woman’s experience of six or more decades, her previous responsibility for a home and for a family, perhaps also for a job, and her ability to act independently. I would like to believe that today such disrespectful behaviour is not inflicted on older women today. I would like to believe that. 

Iza’s Ballad

Ettie has been happily married for nearly 50 years, living in a rural town, and raising one daughter. But her husband Vince dies of cancer, and it brings change to Ettie’s circumstances. Her daughter Iza whips her off to Budapest, with none of her old belongings. She will care for her mother in her modern flat, where her mother will have to do nothing. In her determination to care for her mother she forgets how much Ettie likes to be useful.

Iza was a determined child. She worked for the Resistance during the war, married Antal (also a doctor), set up a clinic, survived Antal’s decision to leave the marriage and works hard in Pest. She has a new lover, and now that she does not have to return to her hometown or financially support her parents, her biggest decision is whether to marry Domokos or not.

The older woman is deeply unhappy living in Iza’s flat, for she is discouraged from doing anything to help with the housekeeping or the cleaning. All her married life she enjoyed the search for the cheapest goods and food, she had valued hard work and lively social interaction with people she had known all her life, but these are all denied her. Iza makes the assumption that her mother should rest, do nothing in the house, and that this would be enough for her. Her happiness at living close to her daughter is whittled away, and she becomes a sad and lonely creature. The return to her hometown to oversee the installation of the headstone on Vince’s grave is the catalyst for her attempt to recapture happier times.

As the novel progresses, we learn about the history of each character. We learn why Vince was disgraced as a judge and then reinstated. We find out about Antal’s boyhood and how he was supported by a donor to make his way through school and university. It takes time to find out why Antal left his marriage to Iza, but we find out how the lives of so many have been interwoven as the more fortunate help those less capable.

The novel is full of contrasts: the metropolitan life – the rural backwater; war-time and peace; generations; old fashioned values – modern life; change – statis; and so forth.

Szabó does not promote any one set of values over the other. Rather she presents difficult relationships, resulting from the lack of communication, unquestioned assumptions and characters who do not see things the same way. 

Iza’s ballad is the key to her abrasive character and behaviour.

As for Iza, she hated sad stories as a child. There was one particular ballad from [her father’s] student days, that he could never sing to her because she would burst into tears and plead for the dead character to be brought to life again. She never heard the end of the song. (311)

Iza could not bear her mother’s unhappiness, so she tries to make everything right, but forgot to listen to how the old woman would like to end her song. The nurse who cared for Vince on his deathbed, sums up Iza’s approach to life.

‘Good Lord,’ thought Lidia, ‘how exhausted she must be with that constant self-discipline, that need to save not only her family but the whole world. How hard to live with the hardness of heart that dares not indulge itself by grieving over dead virgins [in the ballad]! The poor woman believes that the old people’s pasts are the enemy. She has failed to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present.’ (315)

How many today regard old people’s pasts as the enemy? How many, in dealing with older people fail to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present? Magda Szabó knows it well, and in this novel slowly reveals the pasts of her characters to show just that.

Magda Szabó

The author is perhaps the best-known Hungarian writer, and perhaps the most frequently translated. Born in 1917 she lived in Hungary until her death in 2007. From 1949 – 56 she was not allowed to publish work that did not reflect the dominant Communist Party views of idealistic realism. She was dismissed from her post in the Ministry of Religion and Education and taught for a while in a Calvinist school while out of favour (see Abigail). She also wrote poetry and plays,

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó, first published in Hungarian in 1963. The English translation by George Szirtes was published in 2015 by Vintage. 328pp

Related posts

The Door by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog July 2016)

Abigail by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog April 2020)

Reviews of Iza’s Ballad can also be found on Heaven Ali’s Blog from August 2017, and on JacquiWine’s Journal from December 2022.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (Bookword blog August 2014)

Older Women in Fiction Series – the list on Bookword

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Birds of Passage by Bernice Rubens

I am not easily shocked. I am not often shocked. But this novel shocked me. It also served to remind me how far attitudes have changed in the 42 years since its publication, specifically attitudes to rape and exploitation of women. 

I picked this book to include in the series on Older Women in Fiction on this blog. This is the 62nd in the series which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

Birds of Passage

Two widows live next door to each other. For decades they have planned to go on a cruise together when their husbands have died. In due time, they are both widowed, both passed 60, and both have waited the required and decent amount of time, and so they embark on a Mediterranean cruise for three weeks. Neither of them experienced marriage as a happy state, seeing it more of a duty and a series of gender-specific tasks, notably the men cut the hedge and determine what grows in the garden. Neither of them has had much excitement or happiness in their lives, but they have done what was expected of them.

Also on the cruise is another widow, Mrs Dove, who wins her ticket in a competition, and she takes her daughter with her. The daughter is suffering from a crisis of sexuality (my description, certainly not Bernice Ruben’s) for having been abandoned by her husband, Alice Dove has taken up with predatory Nellie, and is portrayed as a dungaree-wearing man-hater. Mrs Dove has been so well groomed by her late husband that she is quite at a loss in social situations. She too has had her life shaped by the expectations of her husband and her social group in Ilfracombe. At the end of the novel she escapes these expectations, and her daughter reflects that she is a woman …

… who married [Mr Dove] because he was of the opinion that he was good for her, who stayed with him till he died because it was his version of her duty, who even mourned him, heeding his instructions from the grave which taught her where her obligations lay. And who had heeded him since, together with the neighbours who were of the opinion that her husband was a good man, that it would be ungracious of his memory to think of marrying again, that she should not plant vegetables in a garden he had devoted to flowers, though her heart yearned for them, and that she didn’t need a colour television, because black and white had been good enough for the good Mr Dove, and should certainly be good enough for her. (200-201)

On the cruise Mrs Dove agrees to marry Wally, a lonely, overweight and intrusive character, a bit of a fantasist. Both feel that the other passengers are expecting them to become engaged, and both find the same escape from their predicament.

Rape

So far so good. Here is the troubling bit. The main narrative concerns the two neighbouring widows, Ellen and Alice. (A small niggle was that both this older woman and Mrs Dove’s daughter have the same name. No use is made of this confusing detail by the novelist. So I can’t figure out why she would do it.)

At the start of the cruise, both women are raped by the same predatory waiter. Ellen is badly traumatised by the rough treatment of the man, and when she threatens to expose him he reveals that he had already provided himself with insurance against this, for he has secretly taken a photograph of her in the nude, apparently willingly posing for him. She is so shamed that she is unable to reveal the abuse to the purser. It continues, night after night.

Her friend, Alice, on the other hand, finds herself awoken into sexual ecstasy by the rape. And she waits impatiently every dawn for her assailant to repeat his attentions to her. Neither women can reveal what is happening to them, for they are ashamed.

Let’s pause here and consider what we have read:

  • Lesbians wear dungarees, have their hair short and hate men. They are rescued by rediscovering their feminine side.
  • Some women enjoy rape, are turned on by the violent abuse.
  • Another woman is so afraid of being exposed in a naked photograph that she will endure three weeks of abuse.
  • Neither woman thought to get the chains reattached to their doors to prevent the waiter entering their cabins.
  • Ellen did go as far as to buy a Swiss army knife in Venice to protect herself but was unable to use it. 
  • The woman who did complain, that was Alice Dove who fought back successfully and dragged the waiter to the purser’s office, she was not believed. The waiter turned the story around. Apparently, women were in the habit of claiming rape when their advances to the waiter were rejected the purser noted. I could not help but bring the serial rapist, a Met policeman, to mind at this point in the story. Join the dots, I want to shout.
  • And this story has been described as ‘a true comedy of manners’ by the Guardian reviewer of the time, quoted on the front cover.

I find it hard to understand how the situation of gaslit widows, and serial rape can be described as a comedy of manners. I can only think that in the 42 years since this novel was published, attitudes to women, and older women in particular, have moved on. Thanks to #MeToo and the work of countless women to expose the levels of acceptance of sexual abuse against women.

Rape cannot, today, be the subject of comedy, let alone a comedy of manners. The treatment of a woman exploring her own sexuality is also a serious matter.

And yet there are some positive things in this novel. Bernice Rubens makes mockery of bourgeois ideas about what is acceptable to other people which decide people’s behaviour. And at least Alice Dove responds decisively to the rapist. Older women are revealed to be complex creatures, not simply lonely and frustrated. But I remained shocked that 42 years ago we thought serial rape of older women a fit subject for comedy.

Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens

Born in Wales in 1923, Bernice lived a long life, publishing 27 novels between 1960 and her death in 2004. She was the first woman to win the Booker Prize, in 1970, its second year, with The Elected MemberBirds of Passagewas her 12th novel. Her autobiography When I grow up was published shortly after her death in 2005.

Birds of Passage by Bernice Rubens published in 1981. I used the paperback edition from Abacus. 215pp

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively ten years on

I read this novel nearly a decade ago. It was one of the first to be featured in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. I found in it a refreshingly unsentimental view of ageing in an intelligent woman. 

I noticed that it was chosen by the novelist Taiye Selassi in What Writers Read, which I reviewed very recently on this blog. She described how reading this book had a significant effect on her writing and claimed it as a ‘masterpiece’. Her comments encouraged me to reread it.

Moon Tiger

On my first reading I noticed how the protagonist, 76-year-old Claudia Hampton, is infantilised by the medical staff in the hospital. 

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment: she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ (p1)

On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone.’ (p2)

These two small incidents set the tone for the care of the old woman who was a very successful writer and historian. Such lack of respect, the ‘old dear’ view of older women, is distressing and can still be met with today, despite a better understanding of respecting the old.

The other, and much more significant idea in the novel is that memory and life are not understood as linear, not a long succession of events. Rather, Claudia’s life is an accretion of all the experiences and relationships she has had: as a sister, lover, mother, foster mother and writer. Those experiences are still with her, have formed her and are still part of her understanding of herself. She understands that ‘nothing is ever lost ‘and ‘a lifetime is not linear but instant’.

From childhood Claudia’s life has been a challenge to the accepted view of how a woman should live in the twentieth century. In her first years she regarded her brother Gordon as her equal, tied together in argument, competition, and physical attraction. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. After the war she had a long affair with Jasper, an exploitative opportunist, and still did not marry, despite having a daughter. Asked why she has attracted so few proposals of marriage her reply suggested a truth – men have had a good sense of self preservation. The daughter, Lisa, was raised by grandmothers. Claudia wrote successful popular history, out of kilter with the grand narratives of post-war academic writing. She lived a life that is challenging.

Working as a correspondent in Egypt was a vivid and important phase in her life. She revisited Cairo much later and makes this observation.

The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same, sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once. (p68)

It was in Cairo during the war that she met and fell in love with Tom, who was serving on the tanks. They had a passionate affair and planned to share their lives after the war. But he was killed. Although this is undoubtedly the main passion of her life, she has forty more years as she reflects as she approaches her own death.

I am twice your age. You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of the forty years of history and forty years of my life; you seem innocent, like a person in another century. But you are also, now, a part of me, as immediate and as close as my own other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself. (206)

Most novels would have made the love affair the climax of the narrative. But it is in keeping with the idea of the plurality of experiences that make up a life that this novel provides the reader with a different experience.

These features of Moon Tiger were what impressed Taiye Selassi when she first read it, and her reading encouraged her to continue with her own writing.

Bouncing back and forth between past tense to present tense, starting sentences without subjects, ending paragraphs with ellipses, moving from first person subjective to first person omniscient to third person objective and back again was the wildest, freest, most thrilling prose I’d ever read. It left me giddy, wondrous. Was writing allowed to be so free?! Was a writer? (115 in What Writers Read)

In that first reading she wondered at the ‘rebellious prose’, ‘dazzling structure’, and ‘unfurling of form’. And from understanding and admiring these characteristics of the writer’s craft and noticing the author’s confidence in her writing, Taiye Selassi felt empowered to write her own novel (Ghana Must Go). 

And all over again I found myself admiring the richness and intelligence of this wonderful book.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, published in 1987. I used the Penguin edition of 1988. 208pp

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1987

Related posts

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The original post from August 2013.

How it all began by Penelope Lively, also in the Older Women in Fiction Series in February 2018

Books about Reading and Writers, including What Writers Read, edited by Pandora Sykes, in January 2023.

The Bookword page about the series Older Women in Fiction can be found here

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