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).
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).
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
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
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.
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