I have always read fiction to find models for how to live, how to be. I am not alone; we search for ourselves in story, often seeing our own lives in fictional plots and imagining our potential futures through the lenses of fictional lives. Stories offer us ways to make sense of our pasts and to forge a way of being in our presents and futures. The stories we read, the plotlines we encounter, impact our sense of ourselves and what is possible.
From a childhood drenched in testimony and storytelling by old women, including my grandmother and her sisters, I learned a love of narrative, even as the plotlines offered to me as a girl were notably limited. I grew up feeling as if I personally knew the characters in my favorite girlhood novels. Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennet, and Willa Cather’s Antonia were my introduction to smart female characters who loved books and education, though their major life choice was only whom to marry. These books, and books like them, eventually led me to be the first in my family to go to college.
As a college student, I scoured my syllabi for books by any women at all, but the only fiction I was assigned to read was by men. As a young mother in the feminist movements of the 1970s, I returned to school for my master’s degree and was introduced to American women such as Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Zora Neale Hurston, and dozens of others, whose work I taught in my community college classroom and shared with friends. I read these books hungry for a story in which I could see myself, through which I might find plots that would aid me in my attempts to manage being a daughter, a wife, a mother, a feminist, and a teacher, but I often found myself torn between Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, never allowed both to rock the cradle and to write the book in the same (life) story.
When I was in a doctoral program in the early 1980s, several of my professors commented that there were simply not many women worth serious study; a graduate course on women writers, taught by a visiting professor, resulted in our discovery of original editions of eighteenth-century books with uncut pages shelved on the open stacks, unread. I continued to read the women writers I’d studied in my master’s program, such as Woolf and Doris Lessing, whose female characters were not simply the foil for male characters’ development.
Later as a professor, I taught, wrote, and edited books on Woolf and Lessing, as well as books about contemporary women’s fiction, girlhood, mothers and daughters—always searching for female fictional limitations and possibilities. As I aged, my focus turned from the girl and the mother to the grandmother, or the woman my age, and I began to look for plots that might help me map a possible future beyond the familiar fairy tale where the old woman is stereotyped as either the wicked witch or the fairy godmother. In my forties, I had noticed that I was the age of all those dead mothers littering my favorite novels by women, the heroines always the adult daughter. In my sixties, I noticed once again the unseemly collusion of fictional portrayals with social stereotypes, the ways novels and short stories would caricature old women and confine them in plots like fictional shut-ins.
Those characters were not present, not still engaged with the messy currency of living. I kept running into the same old stories in which the older women are simply beside the point. From the formative nineteenth-century women’s novels of my girlhood to contemporary fiction, older women are almost never the ones whose story matters; the older woman or grandmother is either absent or important only as she affects the (younger) heroine. Think, for example, of “Little Red Riding Hood,” in which the granddaughter is the focus and the old woman is read as lacking desire and therefore vitality. Even in the various contemporary feminist revisions in which the wolf tells his version of the tale, the grandmother is still food for the wolf, and the fodder that generates the story. The story is never, really, about her.
And so, I began a serious search for fictional stories that have old lady protagonists who are not simply marginal. I found old women to be plentiful in detective fiction, and I enjoyed novels in which Miss Marple or Mrs. Pollifax is able to solve criminal mysteries precisely because her physical appearance as an old lady renders her invisible. But I wanted to read realistic fiction in which I could see through the eyes of an old woman, not simply appreciate her as an excellent plot device or character, just as I had so often viewed the world through the eyes of younger women. I searched for stories that get inside the heads of old women. I wanted to gather examples of good aging, of wise or surprising women over sixty and into their nineties, like beads on a string, a secular rosary to help fend off the fear of becoming elderly in a society whose mainstream vision of aging women is marked by fear, loathing, refusal, or reduction. I wanted to read the novels in which fictional older women prepare for the journey of aging, inhabit the territory, and become increasingly their truest selves.
As I read books touted to be focused on an older woman, however, I saw that she mostly remained a shallow cipher. And when she was central, the novel often fell into a category that I began to term “Deathbed Bookends”—opening and closing with her aged consciousness, the focus of the book being her memory of a youthful (usually romantic) past. In a cultural climate of advertising that urges us to postpone the inevitable by purchasing products or relying on plastic surgery to maintain the appearance of youthful bodies, perhaps it is natural that fictional old women are portrayed at the end of their lives remembering their youth rather than looking inward or outward at their present situations. Writers and readers may also have difficulty imagining new adventures for older women because youthful romance is such a familiar plot for women. However, I wanted to find stories about women’s firsthand experience in the present time of life, not ones where they are stuck in the past.
Many novels explicitly about older protagonists disappointed me; the women not only bore little resemblance to me or my acquaintances in their sixties, but also were nothing like the many vibrant old women I have known throughout my life. My mother, aunties, and grandmothers enjoyed new experiences in spite of arthritic hands or swollen ankles. Grandma welcomed visitors until she died at 102. My mother stayed in touch through handwritten letters with family and friends all over the world. Elderly teachers took up painting or creative writing after retirement, and acquaintances in their eighties were raising great-grandchildren. I began to realize that by teaching novels in which the old women are trapped in memories of youthful romance, I was subtly colluding in a distortion of actual old women’s possibilities. To discover whether the old women I have known were entirely unusual, I began research in nonfiction, including psychological and sociological texts, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and journals, all of which shored up my sense that actual old women have infinitely more plots than I had found in fiction. So, what was going wrong? Why were our stories not being written or published?
The lack of good fictional role models for aging women appears to be wrapped up in a larger problem of how we think about old age. In her short book of essays, The Last Gift of Time, scholar and mother Carolyn Heilbrun writes about the way that fictions about elderly protagonists end up devoting most of their pages to recounting or revisiting the women’s pasts. She expresses her own surprise at discovering that she actually enjoyed her sixties. I wonder to what extent the difficulty for writers to imagine life in the present through the eyes of an old woman mirrors the same difficulty in modern life, where independence, speed, and productivity are highly valued and culture fails to imagine dependence, slowness, and wisdom as possible gifts.
In her famous essay on fiction and the role of the modern novel, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Virginia Woolf claims that the task of the novelist is to catch in words the old lady in the railway carriage. This book is the result of my searching contemporary fiction by women for glimpses of those elusive old ladies who, a century after Woolf’s call for them, remain nearly invisible. Like Woolf’s Mrs. Brown, an old woman may sit in the carriage. Or she may sit quietly on the bench of a London park, like the invisible women of Doris Lessing’s novel The Diary of a Good Neighbour. She may sit quietly reading on an airplane, in a meeting, in the waiting rooms of public institutions. What does she notice? What does she make of the snippets of conversation she overhears? What is the interplay of present observations and memories in her mind? Does she enjoy the sun on her skin? Does she relish her flexibility after that recent hip replacement? Is she composing a melody or a poem as she pulls the needle through her embroidery? Woolf wrote that she never managed to tell the truth about the body, and I think most readers assume she meant the sexualized body. However, increasingly I think that fiction has often focused exclusively on the sexualized body rather than the embodied person as a whole. I looked and continue to look for stories of older women in which they notice not only their desire but also their strength, the beauty they apprehend through their sight and hearing, the life-giving breath that sustains them.
This is a book that champions older women’s stories. It is a curated conversation that challenges the limiting outcomes we seem to hold for aging women. Our society is unkind to aging people across the board. However, we allow for the possibility that old men may have richly complex interior lives, imagine them able to create art and have erotic potential, political capacity, business acumen; we do not see their sexuality as a punch line or imagine their personhood to be only in service of others. In this work, I have chosen fiction in which the protagonist reads as “old” and in which she is the main character even if the narrator may be younger. I include novels and short stories from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that portray the complexity of older women’s lives and the varieties of activism, creative pursuits, motherhood, friendship, labor, love, and sexual pleasure that they experience. The Book of Old Ladies seeks out the strong characters and vital plots that already exist, while critiquing the stereotypes and limitations that still abound. I look forward to a future in which we can read about more older women protagonists from an expanded selection of writers with different cultural identities and life experiences. I hope The Book of Old Ladies inspires new fiction and leads to discovery of the novels I have not yet read, and I hope my discussion of the stories in this book will make you want to pick them up and begin your own search for models of aging that defy the restrictive plots that do not represent women’s true possibilities.
Photograph of Ruth Saxton by Kirsten Saxton.
Excerpted from the introduction to The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction by Ruth O. Saxton. Copyright © 2020 by Ruth O. Saxton. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of She Writes Press.