Representations of Older Women in Literature ‹ Literary Hub
As an older woman myself, I find it easy to feel angry at the occasional denigration of older women in the media, by social care institutions, by the medical establishment, and sometimes even by members of their own families. loving.
As women move down the scale of sexual desirability – as they develop a different shape, walk with more difficulty, and lose their youthful glow – it is assumed that they become dumber, less interesting, less deserving of everything they desired before falling”; that, in essence, they become non-women at all and, above all, homogeneous.
For some time now, I have relished literature that offers wonderfully varied portrayals of old women. They are good company. These are pieces that expose the cruelty inflicted on older women and impress me with their ability to pursue the essence of the complex creature that still exists inside the worn body. Inside all of them is the struggle for their independence.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes
I can’t remember what caught my eye about Lolly Willowes a few years ago, but the book was an eye opener for me. Here is the celibate aunt, the foundation of so many Victorian stories, rewritten as a rebel. Lolly (a ridiculous name given to Laura, a symbol of the family’s belief that no one needs to take her) rebels against the entire establishment as it presented itself to her at the time.
“Custom, public opinion, law, church and state…all would have shaken their massive heads against her plea and sent her back to bondage.” Rather than cling to the shreds of dignity and respect that might have been left to her, she chooses to throw away whatever her current society offers. She has been worrying miserably for years, bound by the demands and needs of her sister’s family.
There were Lollies in my life: a generation of women whose potential husbands were destroyed in the trenches of the First World War. As a child, I remember them as infinitely kind and patient models of self-sacrificing femininity. They were more than ‘old maids cycling to Holy Communion in the mists of autumn morning’, as George Orwell so casually and cruelly captured them: just a part of the English landscape.
The moment of Laura’s awakening is memorable. One fall day, while shopping for her sister, she finds a store selling homemade jams and bottled fruit. She sees them as the remnants of the summer that have chosen to find refuge there. Laura feels a “great desire” and her weight feels like a “load of ripe fruit” waiting to be picked. She forgets everything, where she is, why she is there. She has a vision of an orchard in which she stands, feet on the grass, arms outstretched to pick the fruit. In short, a transformation has taken place.
She buys beautiful chrysanthemums, asks the shopkeeper where they come from, buys a map of the village and goes to live where the flowers come from. Inevitably, she becomes a witch.
WH Auden, “Miss Gee”
This poem consists of 25 very simple quatrains, telling a simple and quite poignant story about the shy dreams of an “old girl”. She lives alone. She is small and physically unappealing. She has “a velvet hat with trimmings”, a dark gray suit, a purple mac and a green umbrella. We deduce a limited and invariable dressing room. She has £100 a year to live on. She is impoverished. Nobody cares.
She goes every Sunday by bicycle to the Saint-Louis church and knits for the church bazaar. She has a dream charged with Freudian symbols: she is the Queen of France and the vicar dances with her then, with the head of a bull, pursues her through a field of corn, “charging horn lowered”. On her way to church, she can’t bear to see the couples who love each other. She buttons her clothes up to her neck and prays that she can resist temptation and be a good girl. Auden sees the harrowing truth behind the innocuous “old maids” narrative. His life is painfully restricted; however, Miss Gee herself is brave, carefree, determined. She continues to cycle to church.
One day, however, she has to go to the doctor by bicycle. She is sent to the hospital, where she is bedridden in the women’s ward “with the sheets up to her neck”. “She’s done for,” the compassionate doctor says to his wife, pondering the possible causes of the cancer. She becomes a corpse, dissected by medical students. His whole little life is there before us, but as a singular person – worthy of our attention – rather than an overlooked category.
Katherine Mansfield, “Pictures”
A short story by Katherine Mansfield called “Pictures” illustrates another old woman’s courageous and determined attempts to maintain her identity, against all odds. Miss Ada Moss wakes up cold in her miserable room in a seedy hotel, and her day begins. She is poor, hungry, miserable. She is harassed by her landlady. She’s fat with hideous varicose veins. She has no decent clothes. She smells and she cries and it makes her nose blush. She is patronized and rejected by everyone she comes in contact with in her attempts to find a job. Her appearance is gone and her talents are useless in the world she now occupies. She was a contralto singer but no one wants to know. She can’t even find a place where someone will serve her a cup of tea (she only has one and three pence) so she remains undernourished.
However, her courage is enormous and she remains kind and polite to everyone she meets. The “Photos” represent the substantial breakfasts she cannot afford, the letters offering work, the lovers she hears about, the money she desperately needs. She sits in the park and feels it is good to be on her feet and notices the birds looking for crumbs she cannot offer and worries about a falling child. Eventually, she decides to go to a local cafe where, she dreams, she will meet a dark handsome gentleman in a fur coat who has been looking for a contralto in London.
Instead, she is approached by a very unattractive man who comes looking for her. “I like them firm and well covered,” he said, considering her. She accepts a brandy from him and “sails” after him out of the cafe. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. “I’m a respectable woman…I’m a contralto singer and I’m only shaking because I haven’t eaten anything today.” There is not an ounce of self-pity.
Viviane Gornick, The loneliness of self
Here is another image of an old woman:
“One afternoon in January 1892, in a packed Washington DC convention hall, a seventy-six-year-old woman rose with difficulty from her seat to address the assembled audience. She was short and very fat, dressed in black silk from neck to ankle, had a fair complexion, bright blue eyes and a head full of famously thick white curls. She could have posed as an “American grandmother” except that her features were imbued with an excess of complicated character (open, haughty, warm, distant) and on her face as a whole was played a worried intelligence to which one would hesitate to inflict trouble.”
Here is Elizabeth Cady Stanton as described by Vivian Gornick in a book called The loneliness of self. Although Miss Moss is similarly portrayed, no one assesses Stanton’s qualities based on her form. The title is taken from an article Stanton is about to read. In the article, Stanton argues that women must learn to be independent, no matter how dependent men want them to remain.
Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Parsonage
The famous Miss Marple personifies but subverts the unmarried English spinster. Living in a stereotypical English village, she is always courteous, always careful to observe propriety, always ready with a cup of tea. But she’s also extremely observant, solves crimes, and has “a mind like a meat cleaver.”
Leonora Carrington, The auditory trumpet
Marian Leatherby is the heroine of Leonora Carrington’s surreal story The auditory trumpet. She lives with her son and his family and is very happy. She’s 92, has no teeth, but, as she says, “I don’t have to bite anyone.” She has “a short gray beard” which she finds “rather gallant”. Notably, she is also deaf. When her friend gives her a hearing trumpet, she overhears the family discussing sending her to a nursing home.
Her grandson says, “These old people don’t have feelings like you or me. She would be much happier in an institution.”
When she confronts them, they tell her that she will be surrounded by her peers and trained nurses, so she will never feel alone.
In response, she tells them, “I never suffer from loneliness. I suffer greatly from the thought that my loneliness could be taken away from me by a bunch of ruthlessly well-meaning people.
cat brushing by Jane Campbell is available from Grove Press