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Those strong older women in fiction

What do you make of the responses to my challenge to identify more strong older women in fiction? I issued the challenge when reviewing Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor and repeated it after reviewing Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. The responses are interesting, and although they tell us a little more about age and gender in fiction, the responses only confirm my suspicions – that there are not many more examples. See what you think of the list.

I should have asked a clearer question, at least have clarified what I meant by ‘older women’. Some respondents assumed I meant older than them I think. So the suggestions included the mother in Oranges are not the only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. I meant 55+ but the differences suggest how fast old/older is being redefined at the moment. John Humphreys described Mary Beard (later 50s) as old in the debate on older women presenters on TV recently. I find it hard to think of Mary Beard as old chronologically or in attitude. The debate was about TV presenters, so perhaps he was referring to appearance, where white hair = old.

And these suggestions prompt another thought about ‘older women in fiction’: that is that women in fiction appear older if they are strong characters. It plays into the stereotype of cantankerous, opinionated, awkward, or ‘ornery’ to use a North American word.

Two genres of fiction (I think they are both genres) are also interesting here: older women sleuths of the Miss Marple (Agatha Christie) variety. Beatrice Stubbs (created by Jill J Marsh) is another example. I love the idea of being retired and growing courgettes in Devon (not least because I plan to be growing courgettes in Devon very soon). And what this genre suggests is that older women can also conjure up good problem-solving skills, wisdom and other sleuthing qualities. They are level-headed and often see more clearly than others in the community.

And the other not-quite-genre-more-plot-framing-device is the old woman at the end of her life, looking back – as Hagar Shipley does in The Stone Angel, or Daisy Goodwill Flett in The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shield. (Should we read anything into the repeated use of stone?)

And then several people remembered, from Virginia Woolf’s novels, Mrs Dalloway and Mrs Ramsey.

27 older w

So here’s the list of suggestions so far. I can’t answer for all the items on this list as I have not read all of them, so would welcome any comments.

Penelope Lively        Heatwave

Penelope Lively        Moon Tiger

Alice Walker             The Colour Purple (Celie)

Alice Walker             Possessing the Secret of Joy (Tashi)

Margaret Atwood    The Blind Assasin (Iris)

David Mitchell          Ghostwritten (Chinese woman and Irish scientists)

Ian McEwan              Atonement (Bryony)

Siri Hustvedt             The Summer without Men

Dorothy Whipple     Greenbanks

Salley Vickers           Miss Garnett’s Angel

Salley Vickers           Dancing Backwards

Agatha Christie        Miss Marple series

Deborah Moggach   The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Linda Gillard             (characters in 40+ bracket)

J R Tolkein                 Lord of the Rings (Galadriel)

Jill J Marsh                Beatrice Stubbs series

Carol Sheld               Stone Diaries (Daisy Goodwin Flett)

Barbara Pym             (various)

Mary Wesley              (various)

Joanna Trollope        (various)

Elizabeth Taylor       Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Virginia Woolf          Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf         To the Lighthouse (Mrs Ramsey)

Special thanks to Triskele Books on Facebook, Reading Agency, Women Writers and Virginia Moffat on Twitter.

Thank you to everyone else who responded, or wracked their brains in response to my challenge. Please do add more, comment on the items in the list, challenge, observe anything about this challenge – find the strongly portrayed older* women in fiction.


* I mean 55+ but feel free to comment on this too!


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