I’ve recently been working on a personal writing project that involves a number of female characters of a rather advanced age. To inspire myself, I’ve been plunging into a few books in which old ladies figure prominently, in order to see how one goes about writing about them. Old ladies may seem like a little bit bland, as far as subjects go, but I’ve found they can be really instructive, interesting characters, with lots of good stuff hidden away if you know where to look. And, of course, there’s nothing like going to the masters to see how it’s done.
It’s struck me that some authors are very good at writing about old age, while others are really good at doing children. Think of how pitch-perfect Briony is in the first part of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, as the little girl who sees things and interprets them in her fantasizing, childish mind. The scenes in which Briony interacts with her cousins, the flirty Lola and the twins Pierrot and Jackson, are particularly sharp and witty. A writer who consistently inserts children, usually little girls, in her stories is Elizabeth Bowen. There’s nothing adorable, or even vaguely witty, about her children however; they’re usually eerily quite and observant, and lie on the fringe of the action. With their budding, confused reactions to the world around them, they serve as foils of innocence to the adult characters and their deceits and manipulations.
As for the writers who are good at depicting old age, Alice Munro comes to mind, probably because she’s become a charming old lady herself. Another one is Margaret Atwood, whose careful descriptions of the narrator’s failing, aging body in The Blind Assassin feel so painfully real. The main advantage of writing about an older character is having all these layers to access, because the character has lived through so much. The writer can then delve into the past, these memories and experiences, peeling away the layers in order to reveal meaning. The Blind Assassin, with its layered, russian-doll style storytelling, works in exactly that way. Another book I love about an aging woman is Love, Again by Doris Lessing, which tells the story of a widow in her sixties who falls in love (and the deep, sensual stirrings that involves) all over again. It’s a very beautiful, intense book, which depicts the emotional strain of infatuation and longing vividly, although the story fell away a bit at the end. Lessing is, of course, a fascinating old lady herself, unassuming and frank to the point of bluntness. You’ve only got to see this video of her being told she’s just won the Nobel Prize for literature, in 2008, to see just how charmingly honest she can be. “One can only get as excited as one can get.”
One of the old lady novels I read recently is a British classic: Memento Mori, but Muriel Spark. The novel begins most wonderfully with a group of elderly people in London receiving mysterious phone calls. “Remember you must die,” says the voice, and then hangs up. It doesn’t take much else to get the elders fussing and plotting, blackmailing each other and toying with their testaments. What makes the novel interesting is how they all remember or find out about old secrets that had better remain in their dusty cupboards. The novel’s action revolves around the phone calls themselves, but all the reading pleasure comes out of this gossip passed over and picked at by all the characters. Memento Mori provides a fast-paced, hilarious read, full of insane characters that come to life on the page in all their flawed glory. There are no mild, sweet old ladies letting themselves quietly crumble away here. These women are fighters: “Being over seventy,” one of them remarks, “is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as one a battlefield.”
The second book I turned to was Reading in Bed, by Sue Gee, which isn’t really about old women so much as about older women — bright, modern, well-read professionals somewhere in that healthy, comfortable place between middle and old age. Except lots of not so good things are happening to Georgia and Dido, the two friends at the center of the book. One copes with the death of a husband, her narcissistic 20 year old daughter, and a demented old relative out in Sussex; the other with possibly fatal health problems, a husband showing dangerous signs of infidelity, and a daughter in law who refuses to fit in with her “perfect” family. Lots of drama here. So much drama you never really get attached to the characters because so many terrible, moral-quaking things are being thrown at them from all sides. Sue Gee’s prose could saved the book from being disappointing — it’s loud and full of voice, the narrator oddly present and carefully colloquial — except the intrusions become a little bit annoying halfway through, as if the narrator is constantly trying to convince the reader to sympathize for the characters by constantly pitying them. Poor Georgia. Poor Dido. All in all, I think the whole thing didn’t hold together properly because it sounded too soft and desperate. In the end, the story blew away rather uninterestedly. Just like so many things in real life, actually — except novel can’t be too much like real life, or else they wouldn’t be interesting.