Onward, old legs!

I’ve been searching for fictional examples of strong older women for a few months. The lack of obvious characters started me off, but the responses to my search has resulted in a decision to initiate three blog activities and I want to persuade you to come along with me.

My search began when I attended a day course at London’s adult education centre, City Lit. The course tutor drew on literature to consider Growing into Ageing, and for guidance about the purpose of the last phase of your life.

We looked at poems by Dylan Thomas (‘Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, which was used by Margaret Laurence as the epigraph for the Stone Angel), DH Lawrence (Uprooted) and Mary Oliver. I took the title for this post from her poem Self Portrait.

We looked at Shakespeare: King Lear, Jacques’s speech in As You Like it and Prospero in The Tempest. And we considered what we could learn from Homer’s Ulysses.

You will have noticed only one female writer (someone referred to Jenny Joseph’s poem Warning; you probably know the first line ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ to double the number of female writers). Also no novels. So I began my quest for strong older women in fiction.

Since I began my quest I’ve had to refine my terms:

Older – older than the person reading the blog? I use the term to mean 55+ (all kinds of problems of defining age with numbers, but I’ll leave that to our next book). For some that seemed young (A comment from twitter: ‘that made me laugh because 55+ seems very young to me’) and for others unimaginably old.

Strong – strongly written, ie not one of EM Forster’s flat characters, but a fully drawn character; with a bit of a determination about her like Hagar Shipley or Jenny Joseph.

Fiction – I was asked did I mean classics or contemporary. My response was – any, which led to a suggestion from theatre (Paulina in The Winter’s Tale).

25 Stone Angel

My original list is the most read page on my blog to date, closely followed by the review of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. I have added some suggestios to the list with contributions from Twitter, the blog, conversations with other readers, academic reading and a conference related to the wide-ranging New Dynamics of Ageing research project (its scope includes literature, other arts, science, sociology etc).

38 Strong W books

Now to my three actions. First: a new Readalong. I plan to read a novel that includes a strong older female character and post on the subject every two months. I will start with Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively in August. It will alternate with the other Readalong (see About the Book Group), which is intended to be more general.

Second, here is the revised, extended but not definitive list – additions are marked §. I hope that you will find lots of interesting reading here. Feel free to make more suggestions. Dickens anyone?

Margaret Atwood    The Blind Assasin (Iris)

Angela Carter           Wise Children (the twins) §

Agatha Christie        Miss Marple series

EM Forster                A Passage to India  (Mrs Moore) §

                                     Howard’s End (Mrs Wilcox) §

Margaret Forster     Isa and May

Patrick Gale               Notes from an Exhibition (GBH) §

Jane Gardam             Last Friends

Linda Gillard             Various

Siri Hustvedt             The Summer without Men

Tove Jansson             The Summer Book §

Doris Lessing            Various §

Penelope Lively        Heatwave

                                      Moon Tiger

Olivia Manning         School for Love (Miss Bohun)

Ian McEwan               Atonement (Bryony)

Jill J Marsh                Beatrice Stubbs series

David Mitchell          Ghostwritten (Chinese woman and Irish scientists)

Deborah Moggach   The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Toni Morrison          Beloved

Barbara Pym            Various

Carol Shield             The Stone Diaries (Daisy Goodwill Flett)

May Sarton               The Reckoning §

Wm Shakespeare      The Winter’s Tale (Paulina) §

Joanna Trollope        Various

Elizabeth Taylor       Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Salley Vickers           Miss Garnett’s Angel

                                     Dancing Backwards

Alice Walker             The Colour Purple (Celie)

                                     Possessing the Secret of Joy (Tashi)

Dorothy Whipple     Greenbanks

Mary Wesley              Various

Virginia Woolf          Mrs Dalloway

                                     To the Lighthouse (Mrs Ramsey)

Third: I am adding a category to my blog, to help people find these reviews more easily: older women in fiction.

So please add to my list, and join me in the new Readalong, – make your comments and your suggestions.

 mrspalfrey green

If you have enjoyed reading this and want to be notified of further posts please subscribe to my blog. Just enter your email address in the box on the top of the column on the right.


Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading

10 Responses to Onward, old legs!

  1. Eileen

    This is a very strange book but I loved it. This is the description I wrote for our book Retiring Lives:
    Bernice Rubens (1990) The Five-year Sentence. Abacus Books.
    I read this book years ago, long before I began to think about retiring and it is one of those rare books that I read three or four times. It is a grim but gripping tale of a woman who is planning suicide rather than face the prospect of a lonely and miserable retirement. Used to obeying orders all her life she is faced with a leaving present of a five-year diary and this forces her to make a diary entry everyday. The first entries are boring instructions but gradually become more bizarre and outrageous. The book conjures up a very lonely existence and desperation but it is witty and darkly humorous.

    • Caroline

      Great addition to the list. Thank you Eileen. The protagonist sounds a little like Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel – fighting against people’s reaction to her age. I must add it to my ‘to be read’ list.

  2. Avril

    I think Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen should be in your list. Eva is the most fascinating character and her relationship with David is powerful, intense and poignant.

  3. Pingback: Great post on strong older women in fiction from Bookword blog | Age UK Islington Get Togethers

  4. Catherine Lundoff

    It’s fantasy rather than literary, but I’ve been working on a resource list of writing about aging in science fiction and fantasy which might be of interest – http://catherineldf.dreamwidth.org/261709.html

    I’m also working on a series about middle-aged women who turn into werewolves as they enter menopause. “Silver Moon,” which is the first book, came out last year. 🙂

    Thanks for doing this! More to add to my reading lists.

  5. Bii

    Having just finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, I’d add that to the list as old Jiko is a significant lynchpin.
    Also worth mentioning Tove Jansson’s Summer Book in which the old grandmother is a significant (and quite wonderful) figure.
    Moon Tiger is excellent.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for the addition. I don’t know Your siggested book – yet! I agree about Tove Jansson’s Summer Book. And you will find my reflections on Moon Tiger has been posted today! Please visit my blog again.

  6. Pauline Clooney

    I love the concept of this list. I think I’ve just discovered my reading list for 2014. I would like to suggest two from Irish writers, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry and of course the wonderful collection of short stories The Love Object by Edna O Brien…Ireland’s answer to Alice Munro.

    • Caroline

      I hope as you read some of these you will also leave comments, and join in the readalong. Those already reviewed can be found by linking to the relevant category. Thanks for these two suggestions. Great to have an Irish persepctive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *