Tag Archives: olderwomen in fiction series

As We Are Now by May Sarton

The title of this novel is taken from a New England tombstone, included as its epigraph:

As you are now, as once was I;
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s May Sarton was concerned that women should be able to choose the way in which they lived. This novel explores how an old woman can live her life as she wishes, albeit that she is approaching death and is dependent upon strangers. 

This is the 55th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to the reviews. This  is the second novel by May Sarton in the series, the first was A Reckoning, published in 1978, five years after As We Are Now. Thanks to Anne Goodwin who recommended it, and her book is also included in the series: Matilda Windsor is Coming Home.

As We Are Now

May Sarton was never afraid to take on difficult issues in her writing. Both novels included in the older women in fiction series address the same question: how can women retain control of their lives when they are getting older and sicker and more dependent. In A Reckoning, Laura has been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She responds in a positive way:

I am to have my own death. I can play it my own way. … I’ve got to do it well. (p7)

She is not able to achieve this. Like Laura, Caro Spencer is alone in the world. Up to this point she has lived an independent life, but at 75 suffered a heart attack. She left her house to live with her older brother, with whom she has always been close. But he has recently married again and she did not get on with the new wife. Caro has been placed in a remote old people’s home, a farmhouse, run by a mother and daughter. The care provided is not monitored, the mother and daughter team try to save money, and the other residents, referred to generically as ‘the old men’ are more or less comatose.

Caro wants to make sense of her life, before she dies bring everything together. She decides to write her thoughts in a notebook.

I call it The Book of the Dead. By the time I finish it I shall be dead. I want to be ready, to have gathered everything together and sorted it out, as if I were preparing for a great final journey. I intend to make myself whole here in this Hell. It is the thing that is set before me to do. So, in a way, this path inward and back into the past is like a map, the map of my world. If I can draw it accurately, I shall know where I am. (10)

Her search for completeness, for integrating the different aspects of her life is thwarted as she perhaps foresaw by the ‘Hell’ of the care she gets. The only beauty in her life is found by looking out of the window, and by the friendship of Standish, another patient, who is deaf and bed ridden. She is punished for transgressions and tranquilised to keep her biddable. She is isolated and confused. 

We discover that Miss Spencer had lived an independent life, always a little out of step, as a Math teacher in a small town in the Midwest. She had an English lover who she visited in England and went on a couple of trips with him in Europe. The affair petered out with the interruption of the war. She appreciates elegance, such as mathematical problems, and music. But her sources of support are not adequate to the trials of being in this home. And she wishes that she had prepared better.

The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it. (23)

For a while she is provided with friendship by Standish, a local Methodist minister and his daughter and finally by Anna, the wife of a local farmer standing in for one of the carers while she is on holiday. Eventually she comes to see that the only way that she will regain control is by violent means.

It is a very telling book, not so much of the abuse of older people although it describes that. She is drugged, isolated, infantilised, humiliated and all independence is removed. We come to see the needs of an older person to find a good way to live their final years: dignity, warmth, friendship, connection and a place in a community. The title leads to a warning for readers: as you are now, as once was I. 

May Sarton

May Sarton was unceasing in her attempts to be heard. She published 53 books in her life, 19 novels, 17 collections of her poems, 15 non-fiction books, 2 for children, a play and some screenplays. She had a 13-year relationship with a woman, but refused to allow her writing to be described as lesbian. She preferred to be known as a lesbian woman who wrote. She lived in Europe and on the West and East coasts of the US, born in 1912 and died in 1995. May Sarton’s life is less celebrated these days, but she made a huge contribution to feminism. 

As We Are Now by May Sarton, first published in the US in 1973. Reissued in the UK by The Women’s Press in1983. This was the edition I used. 134pp

Related Posts

A Reckoning by May Sarton

Older Women in Fiction lists

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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The Book of Old Ladies by Ruth O Saxton

This book fits right in with this blog’s series on older women in fiction. I am pleased to have had my attention brought to it. And I am pleased that Ruth Saxton has drawn attention to thirty-one works of fiction that challenge the stereotypes so common in literature, and in the beliefs of society at large about the lives of older women. Many of the novels and short stories have been featured on the blog: either in the list of suggestions or reviewed in the 50 posts published so far in the series on older women in fiction.

This is the 51st in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books with links to the reviews here.

So what is The Book of Old Ladies about?

The subtitle reveals some of Ruth Saxton’s purpose in writing this book: celebration. In this case the celebration of ‘strong characters and vital plots’ of older women, works of fiction that make older women their focus. 

She describes how her reading life in the US began with some good young female protagonists (Jo March, Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre), but when she got to college there were no women writers on the literature syllabus. Even when women were allowed onto reading lists in academia, older women, she observed were ‘simply beside the point’. While women writers and women as protagonists have achieved a better status in recent decades yet there is still, she claims, a paucity of fiction about older women. This was important because

As I aged, my focus turned from the girl and the mother to the grandmother, or the woman my age, and I began to look for plots that might help me map a possible future beyond the familiar fairy tale where the old woman is stereotyped either as the wicked witch of the fairy godmother. … I kept running into the same old stories in which the older women are simply beside the point. (2-3) 

Early searches brought elderly female detectives to her attention, such as Miss Marple and Mrs Pollifax. She observed how they were able to detect because they were invisible. We might add that as outsiders they are able to see what the characters and perhaps the readers cannot. The Miss Marples of this world are no guide to aging and old age.

I wanted to read the novels in which fictional older women prepare for the journey of aging, inhabit the territory and become increasingly their truest selves. (4)

For Ruth Saxton this means finding examples of older women who do not behave as if their life is behind them, who challenge the notion that marriage and motherhood are the pinnacle of a woman’s life, that old age is all downhill. We need more women in fiction who are more than the wicked witch or fairy godmother; both stereotypes refer to how the older woman stands in relation to others. We need more old women who are characters in their own right.

Organising the examples

Her analysis divides the chosen texts into five categories:

  1. Romancing the past (the continuing story of marriage and romance for women, which will drive out creativity and artistic success);
  2. Sex after sixty;
  3. Alternate realities ( the older women consider their current situations without much attention to their pasts);
  4. Never too late; and 
  5. Defying expectation.

The discussion of thirty texts under these headings is an interesting approach, and with only a few pages to discuss each one inevitably makes the originals appear thin. But organisation into themes brings more depth.

She includes a novel that I also admire greatly: Margaret Drabble’s recent novel The Dark Flood Rises, and concludes with a personal note about how the book was influenced by a car accident. You can find my review of The Dark Flood Rises here.

Some reflection on vocabulary and the cover

Finding a suitable phrase to describe women over 60 can be problematic. When we were writing The New Age of Ageing we had long discussions about the language used about older people in English culture and how we should refer to older members of our communities. Every phrase brings with it a great deal of baggage. To call women ‘old’ is difficult, and over the years I (and fellow writers) have used the softer ‘older’. Even the word ‘women’ is experienced by some as less polite than ‘ladies’. And the combination of those two sets of words can be difficult. Try them (out loud)!

Old woman
Old lady
Older woman
Older lady

And the subtitle uses that coy expression ‘of a certain age’. We are afraid of age. Our society does not treat old people well. We find all kinds of ways of avoiding what is seen as a stigma or even a fault – being old

The cover is also intended, I suspect, to allay fears of too fierce an approach. It is pink, with silhouettes and the main title in elaborate, curly lettering  – a kind of Jane Austen appeal?

I am not sure enough of the nuances of American culture to know whether these observations apply across the Atlantic. 

Despite these reservations I am grateful to Ruth Saxton for drawing my attention to many texts previously unknown to me, and for offering some new perspectives on familiar books. Even on the occasions where I have taken a different slant on a text, I am still thrilled to find a writer who shares my ideas that books about older women are undervalued. 

I would make the same point about women in society in general – older women are undervalued. 

The Book of Old Ladies: celebrating women of a certain age in fiction by Ruth O Saxton, published in 2020 by She Writes Press. 295pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

My full list of about 100 novels featuring older women can be found here.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading