Older women in fiction: the top five posts

I am very proud of the series on older women in fiction on this blog. The reviews are among my most read posts, which means there is an appetite for fiction on this subject. Looking at the whole series it is clear that these novel writers do not want to present the stereotype of the cosy granny. Instead, they show the realities and suggest some feisty alternatives to the stereotype. Here are the five most read posts from the series with summaries and links to the comments. All are highly recommended.

mrspalfrey green1 Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, with a little money and some class. Not wanted by her daughter she goes to live with other elderly people in the Claremont Hotel near the Cromwell Road in London. She meets an aspiring novelist as a result of a fall and presents him as her nephew. Confusions result. There are sharp observations, gentle humour and an honest look at what it meant to be old and lonely in the 1960s and ‘70s. A lesson for today as well.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)

25 Stone AngelThe Stone Angel is by a Canadian and follows the slow loss of capacity by the aging Hagar Shipley as she becomes dependent upon her son and his wife. It is an arrangement that suits them all badly and as she declines further she is institutionalised. She escapes and experiences adventures and insight before she dies. She is a fighter, ‘a holy terror’ according to her son.

Thanks Litlove for the recommendation

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published by Virago Modern Classics

  1. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (1931)

117 All passion coverThe widow of a great man steps out of his shadow and away from the controlling impulses of her many children to live her final months on her own terms. As a result 88-year old Lady Slane meets people who have more qualities than her former husband, despite his achievements. And she herself becomes a force for good. It is set in London in the years between the wars.

Thanks Emily Books for the recommendation

All Passion Sent by Vita Sackville-West published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)

46 Moon TigerAnother feisty woman this time aged 76, a journalist, who on her death bed is reflecting on her life. We are given further insights as she is visited by people from her past. The novel, as all by Penelope Lively, provides insights into the effects of one’s past on the present, as we see from the extended passage from the diary of Claudia Hampton’s lover who died in the war. As a result we come to see Claudia’s final weeks and her whole life in a different way. This novel won the Booker Prize.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively published by Penguin Modern Classics.

5 The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972) Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

80 Summer Bk coverAn evergreen book that centres on the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they spend their summers on an island off the coast of Finland. This grandmother is an artist and is tetchy, wise, ailing and independent.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson published by Sort of Books


Some further reflections

All but one of the books explored so far in the series have been written by women. A Passage to India by EM Forster is the exception. Mrs Moore is not one of the main characters in the novel, although the idea of Mrs Moore is more extensive than her presence. You might also notice that several of them are published as classics, and that Virago is responsible for three of the five.

During the last two years I have built up a list of fiction containing older women, including suggestions from readers of the blog and twitter users. You can find it here. Please make suggestions for additions to the list.

Please add your comments to these reviews. I have noticed that people do not tend to comment on reviews of books on Bookword, or not as much as they do on other topics.

The 12th post in this series will appear in February, when I look at Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reviews

10 Responses to Older women in fiction: the top five posts

  1. Thanks for putting this list together with a synopsis of each. Each seems to have qualities to recommend adding to the reading list.

  2. Marion Reid

    How very much I enjoy your posts. I have read three of the above titles and look forward to trying the other two. Thank you for your blog.

  3. Marianne

    I am so delighted that you introduced me to The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I have now read it three times and know that it is something I will need to read again from time to time. Her voice is so unusual but strikes so true.

  4. Julia F.

    I was really happy to come across this post! I don’t think there are enough books out there featuring older women as the heroine or protagonist. Thanks for sharing this with your readers. I have to recommend a book I recently read about a woman who has it all; wealth, a life of leisure, a “loving husband” who then loses it all just as quickly and has to start from scratch. Her husband leaves her for a younger woman and she has to go out and get a normal cubicle job and find herself again, and find her strength! The book follows 52 year old Tanzie Lewis on her journey of espionage, revenge, and finding herself. It’s called “Revenge of the Cube Dweller” by author Joanne Fox Phillips (http://www.tanzielewis.com/). I think it is great to be able to find a fiction book that can take your mind off of reality for awhile and this book accomplishes just that. I hope you will check it out and perhaps it can make it on a future list!

    • Caroline

      Hi Julia, so pleased you like this theme and thatr you have added to it. Thanks for your suggestion. 52 doesn’t quite make my older women category, but it’s way older than many characters in fiction, and therefore should be encouraged. Hope you come back and comment again soon.

  5. I was very happy to come across this list! I’m a writer of comedy fiction and my book has an older protagonist so have come across your post when trying to find more for a Goodreads list as it is true, it’s a very hard niche to finf. It is here & I’d love to see a few more additions to it.:

    Thanks for posting this. So happy to havs found more for my own reading list! 🙂

  6. I just read and reviewed Mrs. Palfrey.which I found both fun and troubling. I have also recently read and reviewed two other books centered on older women that you might want to add to your bibliography.
    The Woman from Tantoura, by Radwa Ashour, narrated by a Palestinian woman in her seventies. It is mostly about the experience in war, but has some nice sections on aging and memories.
    Obasan, by Joy Kogawa. Japanese-Canadian story about the narrator’s elderly aunt, Obasan.

    Thanks for your attention to older women. Is this the best place to respond to your posts about them?

    • Caroline

      I’ll be over to see what you said about Mrs Palfrey in detail as soon as I can. I think troubling and fun are good words to use.
      Thanks for the suggestions of additions. Good to get nsuggestions from other traditions, Palestine and Japanese-Canadian. I’ll add them to the list when I next update it. The list can be found in the page About older women in fiction (see header).
      Please respond where and when you wish. Good to have an active reader on board.

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