In a 2013 Guardian article the novelist Penelope Lively, then aged 80, bemoaned the depiction of older characters in fiction:
The stereotypes of old age run from the smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon. In fiction, they are rife – indeed fiction is perhaps mainly responsible for the standard perception of the old, with just a few writers able to raise the game.
According to a 2019 Gransnet survey of over 1,000 female readers aged 40+, the problem persists. Just over half of respondents felt fictional older women tend to fall into clichéd roles, and 47% felt there weren’t enough books about middle-aged or older women. Yet women over 45 buy more fiction than any other group.
Book blogger Caroline Lodge, co-author of The New Age of Ageing and Retiring with Attitude, agrees that cultural stereotypes of old people creep into fiction, especially negative and/or limiting perceptions of older women. I asked her what she thinks authors and their publishers get wrong.
They underestimate the benefits of experience and surviving. They assume technophobia, lack of physical ability, and lack of sexual feeling and/or activity. Some of the language is wrong (e.g. not all older women are grannies; I hate being defined as a pensioner). I think (authors and publishers) underestimate the problem of loneliness for older people. Fiction from abroad seems to be better at this, and some of that work addresses directly the place of older women in society.
But on a more hopeful note:
More fiction is taking account of some of the challenges of ageing: dementia is one obvious trend. Although publishers, readers and writers might approach older characters in fiction with caution, I’m convinced there’s no need.
So what are the benefits of seeing more older characters between the covers of our favourite novels?
Old Characters Can Learn New Tricks
Readers want characters they can relate to and who develop psychologically in concert with the plot. We might be wary of older characters if we envisage old age as a period of stagnation, but that doesn’t tally with the facts. In real life, although our bodies might dawdle, our minds remain active (unless fallen prey to dementia or other neurodegenerative disease). We can plan, grow and challenge ourselves until death.
In Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, a retired schoolteacher’s assumptions are upended when she takes a six-month lease on a flat in Venice. Formerly reserved and rigid, she falls in love: firstly with a man who can’t return her affection but, more importantly, with the beauty of the city and, ultimately, with life itself.
In The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce depicts an ordinary man attempting an extraordinary journey to repay a debt to a long-lost friend. With a deceptively light touch, it presents ‘young old age’ – Harold is 65 – as a time for atonement, for reconciliation to one’s own and to others’ limitations and cherishing what remains.
Even Enid, the embittered matriarch in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, becomes less bigoted in her 70s when her life improves.
Aged Protagonists Often Have a Rich Backstory
Older characters are potentially more interesting than young ones because their decades of experience can facilitate a multi-layered plot. Several successful novels are structured around a character looking back at life.
Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger charts the memories of a self-centred seventy-something journalist as she lies, riddled with cancer, on her hospital bed. Less well known, but to me the better read, The Rocks by Peter Nichols is a novel in reverse chronology. Beginning with estranged neighbours, octogenarians Lulu and Gerald, plunging to their deaths, it goes backwards in time to the dramatic incident that drove them apart. Centenarian Roseanne’s tragic personal history, alongside the tragic history of twentieth-century Ireland, is by far the best strand of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.
Given this vast potential of the older character, it’s a pity that, according to Caroline Lodge, readers are sometimes served “the older woman who is still living out her youth, still motivated by the love of her 20s, still a young woman, but presented as old, as if experience has had no effects.”
Age Stereotypes Can Create Endearing Characters
We might shy away from novels with older characters in order to avoid reminders of the prospect of losing mental and physical capacities ourselves. While not everyone succumbs to disease and disability, we’re generally more susceptible as we age. In the right hands, however, such incapacity can make for fascinating fiction with complex and endearing characters.
There are some excellent novels about dementia, such as Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing and Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest — both portraying the regression, terror and reparative drive inherent in the condition with humour and compassion.
Even curmudgeons can be good literary company. In The Narrow Land, Christine Dwyer Hickey shows the artists Jo and Edward Hopper well past their prime. Age and ill-health have exacerbated their differences: he taciturn, she yearning for the attention he cannot give. She’s simultaneously possessive and resentful of his more successful career and repeatedly goads him into arguments neither can win.
Old Characters Prove We Needn’t Lose Our Mojo
Okay, we can permit older people personalities, but can we accept them getting physically intimate with anyone else? What about actually having sex?
In the Gransnet survey mentioned at the start of this post, over a third (35%) of respondents felt fictional older women were usually portrayed as “uninterested” in sex, 21% thought they were portrayed as “desperate”, with only 10% thinking older women were portrayed as sexy.
The seventy-something neighbours in Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls at Night have experienced this squeamishness from the younger generation. At first, they don’t let it spoil their developing relationship, and what begins as a practical antidote to loneliness develops into love. But that’s before they’ve factored in their dependence on their children.
Although Barry in Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo does receive support from one of his daughters, he faces other pressures in keeping his sexuality secret. Published in 2013, this novel breaks through multiple literary taboos in not only presenting physical love between seventy-four-year-olds but also showing a closeted Caribbean-born gay Londoner finally coming out.
How Old Is Old, Anyway?
At what age do we consider someone elderly? Often, it’s simply that they’re older than us. The point at which someone progresses from middle to old age has been pushed forward by the baby-boomer generation, longer life expectancy and improved public health.
Yet publishers might promote a character aged anywhere between 60 and 100 as old. Imagine reducing the variability of people between birth and 40 to the single category of young!
Matty, the central character in my novel Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, is 70; in 2021, that’s far from over the hill. But in the novel’s setting, 30 years ago, she’d be elderly, especially to her social worker, Janice, who is in her early 20s. A third point of view character, Henry, isn’t yet 60 but has some of the rigid attitudes we stereotypically attribute to old age. Yet this reflects the fact that we can be stuck in a rut at any point in the lifespan.
Too Many Old People Won’t Kill a Novel
As with any marginalised minority, it seems that we tolerate older characters more readily as individuals than in groups. So it’s refreshing to find novelists daring to pack their pages with older people. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark includes only one character under sixty, and only in a minor role. First published in 1959, it’s a comedy of manners about a group of upper-class elderly Londoners. Although it requires younger characters to staff the care home, Joanna Cannon’s more recent Three Things about Elsie focuses mostly on the older residents.
Do Novels with Older Characters Get Ignored?
While bright and shiny youthfulness is attractive both in fiction and real life, well-written novels featuring older characters are popular with readers and the judges of literary prizes.
For example, Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature shortly after the US release of her novel about an eccentric woman in her 60s, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. One of my favourite novels, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, featuring an elderly couple and their adult children, won and/or was shortlisted for several awards. First published in 2008, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Costa award that year. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987; Rachel Joyce’s debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry sold over four million copies.
I think you get the point.
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