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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16 Responses to Those strong older women in fiction

  1. Donna Ziegler

    Oddly enough I recently found a Facebook page called “Midlife Fiction Page” which is taking suggestions for books featuring characters that are 40+. You may find some additions to your list there.

    • Caroline

      Great to hear from some writers who feature older women. Thanks so much. And for the heads ups about the publishing company and Facebook pages that might lead to further examples of strong older women characters.
      Nicola, I dont possess an e-reader (yet?) so I hope you will also be publishing in hard versions soon.
      Hope all the writing goes well folks.

      • Thanks, Caroline. All my books are still around on Amazon et al but the Robert Hale mysteries are in hardback which means they’re expensive, though quite a few libraries have them!

  2. Hello Caroline
    JJ Marsh here. author of the Beatrice Stubbs series.
    Thank you for highlighting this phenomenon. I grew up with Golden Age detectives, and found something appealing about older women with stubborn determination, life experiences, and a certain freedom that comes from being (semi) invisible.
    I purposely chose a protagonist older than myself, who has ‘issues’.
    My driving force with Beatrice Stubbs is twofold:
    To show how a clichéd older woman can be experienced, knowledgeable and instinctive.
    To show how a ‘lady detective’ can also be insecure, sexual and craving validation.
    The older women I know have learnt to live with their choices, absorbed the blows and managed their imperfections.
    These women are great stories.

  3. My first novel, ‘Scuba Dancing’, was published by Transita, a company that specialised in publishing books featuring older women. My characters ranged from late 30s to mid-eighties and tend to be on the feisty side; it’s now available as an eBook. I’m currently writing two cosy mystery series, both set in and around Winchester. The contemporary series features recently-retired headmistress, Harriet Quigley, which are published as hardbacks by Robert Hale Ltd and which will be published in June and July of this year as eBooks, (‘Murder Fortissimo’ and ‘A Crowded Coffin’)

  4. Possibly not quite 55 but the protagonist of Lisa Goldstein’s Strange Devices Of The Sun & Moon is a 50-something widow in Elizabethen London.

  5. Some suggestions for you, from the fantasy genre:

    Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series – two of the best-written old ladies in fiction! Their first proper outing is in “Wyrd Sisters”, which is a satirical fantasy mashup of Hamlet and Macbeth, told from the PoV of the witches and the players.

    Amat Kyaan, the elderly accountant in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet – she’s wise, cunning and as tough as old boots, as old ladies often are, and my favourite character in the first novel, “A Shadow in Summer”.

  6. Hi Caroline, are you interested in short fiction? My 2012 short story “Nightside On Callisto” features some very mature characters. The story is available online at Lightspeed Magazine and will be republished in the anthology “The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Thirtieth Annual Collection” Edited by Gardner Dozois

  7. Sylvia

    Mia Ziemann is 94 (Protagonist of Bruce Sterlings “Holy Fire”).

  8. Rebecca

    How about Dora and Nora chance in Angela Carter’s Wise Children? They’re both in their eighties and fabulous. And their grandmother, Granny Chance, is brilliant too.

    Or see Coronation St: Blanche Hunt, Rita Tanner, Bet Lynch, Gloria Price, Elsie Tanner, Betty, Liz McDonald, Sylvia Goodwin, Emily Bishop… The list is endless!

  9. AJ Hall

    In Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet and in his Booker-winning follow-up Staying On we have the following older women who are principal characters:

    Lili Chatterjee (Lady Chatterjee)
    Ethel Manners (Lady Manners)
    Mabel Layton
    Barbie Batchelor
    Lucy Smalley

    • Caroline

      India seems to have spawned novels that include older women. There is Mrs Moore in A Passage to India to add to your suggestions.
      Thanks for your addition. I’ll make a composite list in the near future.

  10. Caroline

    To everybody who has posted suggestions in the last few days – many thanks. I have been away enjoying myself, and was very pleased to return home and find so many suggestions. I have one or two more from conversations with other readers and hope to publish a revised and extended list fairly soon.
    Some suggestions are new to me, and some I greet as old (older) friends.
    Please add more if you think of them.

  11. Hmmm, what about the horrible Miss Bohun in Olivia Manning’s ‘School for Love’? Although I’m not sure whether her age is ever specified…

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this suggestion, Helen. And see my blog tomorrow about a revised list and some other things related to this topic.

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