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Monday musings on Australian literature: Older women protagonists

January 21, 2019

This post was inspired by Book Word’s “older women in fiction” project, which involves her reading and posting reviews for books with older women protagonists as well as encouraging others to read these books and sharing them with her. She has quite a list on the page I’ve linked above, and is adding to it all the time. As I write, the list was updated in December 2018.

Now, her list does include a few Australian books, which I was thrilled to see, but I thought I would share my own list. It’s not a complete one – that would be impossible – but it’s intended to be indicative of what’s out there.

Of course, the big question is how do we define “older” women? Book Word uses 60+ as her definition. I think that’s a fair enough definition, so will use it too. However, I’ve had to guess at times, because in most cases, even if the age has been given I haven’t necessarily specifically noted it. Forgive me if a couple of the women below are not quite 60 yet!

My list is in alphabetical order by author (with links being to my posts). I have all of the books I list, except for Maria’s war, but some before blogging.

Older women protagonists

  • Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the river: Seventy-year-old Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home reconnects with the community she left, while also reflecting on the decisions she’d made.
  • Thea Astley, Coda: Kathleen, who’s “losing her nouns” describes herself as a “feral grandmother” and she’s not about to be pushed around by her selfish children.
  • Carmel Bird, Family skeleton: I’m not sure that Margaret O’Day’s age is given, but she’s a grandmother so let’s assume she’s in our ballpark. This book satirises middle-class family life, as Margaret works desperately to “save” the family’s image.
  • John Clanchy, Sisters: Three late middle-aged sisters get together at the request of the eldest who has more than one secret to share.
  • Brooke Davis, Lost and found: Seven-year-old Millie is joined by 82-year-old Agatha Pantha and 87-year-old Karl the Touch Typist on a wacky journey in which they all discover what it means to be human, no matter what your age.
  • Glenda Guest, A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline: Sixty-something Cassie has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and before she loses her mind altogether she wants to revisit her past, and make amends if amends are indeed needed.
  • Marion Halligan, The fog garden: Writer Claire’s age is not given, and she might still be in her 50s, but her husband of 30 or so years has died and she’s confronting her grief, life as an older woman without a partner, and the opinions of others.
  • Elizabeth Jolley, Orchard thieves: An unnamed seventy-something grandmother watches over her somewhat fractious family, remembering her youthful passions and quietly hoping to impart some of the wisdom of her age.
  • Eleanor Limprecht, The passengers: Eighty-something war bride Sarah journeys to the USA, with her grand-daughter, to reconnect with her past as well as putting right some lies.
  • Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stones: Sixty-something Ro is dying of cancer, and we look back at the decisions she made, the causes that drove her and, most of all, the community of friends she has built.
  • Fiona McFarlane, Night guest: Ruth, in her mid-seventies, lives alone, having been recently widowed – until her sons arrange for a carer.
  • Amy Witting, Maria’s war: Living in a retirement home, Lithuanian migrant Maria remembers the past, and the traumas of her war experiences.

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A few observations. The themes and subject matter are generally what you’d expect – illness (dementia and cancer being the main ones) and resolving/atoning for/amending the past. That pull is interesting, isn’t it, to reflect on and put right (with yourself and/or with others) the things you did, the hurts you inflicted, the decisions you made. Several of the stories use the journey motif to convey their characters’ mental or psychological journeys to self-discovery. And … only one of the authors (in my list anyhow) is male.

Finally, I struggled to find Australian books written before the 1980s that feature older women protagonists. There must be some, but, on the evidence I have here, I can only think that the second wave of feminism has resulted in a recognition of the importance of all stories.

And now, you know what I’m going to ask! Can you add some books to the list – Aussie if you’re Aussie, or your own nationality if you’re not?

55 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2019 12:25 am

    Remnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon, is a wonderful SF book with an older (70’s) female protagonist.

    • January 22, 2019 8:30 am

      Thanks Jeanne… I’ve not heard of Elizabeth Moon.

      • January 22, 2019 9:09 am

        I had never heard of her either, before reading this book. I’ve looked at a few other things she’s written, but they can’t possibly equal Remnant Population. It is a stellar SF novel. (heh, “stellar”)

  2. January 22, 2019 1:02 am

    Patrick White’s An Aunt’s Story. A propos, I have Olive Kitteridge to listen to on the way home. I brought along so many second rate US crime fiction, that I needed on old favourite re-listen to balance them out.

  3. January 22, 2019 1:04 am

    Jolley, The Newspaper of Claremont Street

    • January 22, 2019 8:36 am

      Thanks Bill. Yes, I thought of that very early, but I’m not sure that she’s 60+? Do you know whether she is? I didn’t check. Jolley does well with middle-aged characters.

  4. January 22, 2019 1:46 am

    Yay for older women protagonists! I never paid much attention to how few there are until I hit middle age. Funny how life works that way sometimes.

    • January 22, 2019 8:39 am

      Yay, indeed, Stefanie. And yes, it’s interesting how aware we think we are but, really, how blinkered we still are.

  5. January 22, 2019 1:52 am

    The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is one of my favourite Irish novels with an older woman protagonist.

  6. January 22, 2019 5:12 am

    Reading novels with older women protagonists is one of my pleasures and I’ve made a note of several on your list. I especially like All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at Goodreads’ “The 25+ Club – Books Starring Older Female Protagonists.” “Older” = age 25 or older!

    • January 22, 2019 8:45 am

      Oh, Grier, I’d cry at that. It’s one thing to be oblivious but that’s taking it to another whole level, isn’t it!?

      Thanks for your suggestions. I’ve read a couple of those, but done time ago. Quartet in Autumn was excellent.

  7. January 22, 2019 7:30 am

    All I can think of in Australian books here are The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White, as well as John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat – yes, a picture storybook, but a great, great one.

    • January 22, 2019 8:48 am

      Oh Carmel, John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat is a great one. If I’d remembered it I’d have put it in, picture book or no. It’s a delightful story.

      And I’m kicking myself re The aunt’s story. How could I have forgotten that? But, you always do forget something when you do these lists.

      • January 22, 2019 4:18 pm

        Your lists don’t need to be exhaustive – you have readers who are happy to add some details.

        • January 22, 2019 4:53 pm

          Haha Carmel… Yes, I know… It’s impossible, and readers, me included, love to help build these lists don’t we?!

  8. January 22, 2019 9:09 am

    *Snap* You must be psychic, Sue: I am currently reading Modern Interiors (1991) by Andrea Goldsmith because Andrea has a new book coming out later this year and I wanted to read one of her older ones before reading the new. It features a newly widowed Philippa who – far from concerns about illness, dementia or ferreting about in the past, is enjoying a new lease on life and upsetting her children by spending ‘their’ inheritance.
    Others that come to mind is Half Wild by Pip Smith, about a transgender woman remembering her life’s journey; A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay about how an older woman’s life intersects with the new owners of her home; Swimming by Enza Gandolfo about how childlessness need not define a life; A New England Affair by Steven Carroll (TS Eliot’s lover now aged 74 looks back on her life); and The Beachcomber’s Wife by Adrian Mitchell (the suppressed voice of a writer’s wife). (All reviewed on my blog, of course!)

    • January 22, 2019 9:54 am

      Thanks Lisa. I knew you’d have some! I’ve read Modern interiors, but when it came out. I meant to check it. The one I’ve reviewed of hers, Reunion, is mostly middle-aged people.

      • January 22, 2019 10:35 am

        I’ve had MI for ages, picked it up in an Op Shop. I love Goldsmith’s books, she always raises such interesting issues:)

        • January 22, 2019 10:59 am

          I don’t have a copy of it, as it was one my reading group got from the CAE when we used that service. So many of the books from the early days in my reading group that I want to look at again we got through that service and I don’t have them. Stamps foot!

  9. January 22, 2019 9:19 am

    PS It breaks the 60+ barrier, but people aged earlier in the 19th century, and a character at 49 was more than middle-aged. In Ultima Thule, Book 3 of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, Richard becomes financially ruined and he slides into senility and dementia, and his wife Polly comes into her own, taking up work as a postmistress to support the family. The book IMO is as much about her as it is about him.

    • January 22, 2019 9:58 am

      Yes, good point Lisa, our 60 being the new 40 and all that! Hmmm then if we say their 40 is our 60 things get very confused so I think I’ll just leave it at good point!!

  10. January 22, 2019 10:08 am

    Great post, thank you. Often think of this older women protagonist lacking in novels and glad to see highlighted (as I get older!) Two books come to mind: Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (recently made into a major TV series) is narrated by an older woman looking back on her enslavement and rebellion in Antigua – really feisty and brilliant character. (I actually reviewed it some years ago on my blog) also Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name narrated by Aminata Diallo an older women also looking back on her life and enslavement. Just thinking of the brilliant Margaret The First by Danielle Dutton – but not sure if she is an older woman looking back? The older character who stays with me is in Eleanor Dark’s Waterway – she’s at a wedding feeling unwell and knows the marriage will not go well but can’t say anything to the bride (her great/niece) wonderful meditative passage on not being able to pass on knowledge/experience to the next generation.

    • January 22, 2019 10:30 am

      Thanks Emma for all these. I know of Levy’s book. But haven’t heard of that Dark… An earlier Australian one too
      sounds good. I actually wondered about your Floating garden but that character is more middle aged isn’t she?

      • January 22, 2019 2:10 pm

        Realised after I sent that comment that some of those books I mentioned aren’t Australian… Waterway is my favourite by Eleanor Dark and captures politics, family and class so well (and a historical fiction writer’s doubts as she potters about the state library). It’s set in one day like Mrs Dalloway and Gail Jones’ Five Bells, and raises ideas and consequences of colonial history. Yes re Floating Garden she’s more in her 50s, or so I envisaged. There’s a short story with an older woman published Griffith Review a while ago – her interest is in genealogy and mortality, environment and colonialism. So this whole topic interests me – we need more Aust books with older women in them.

        • January 22, 2019 3:03 pm

          Thanks Emma… That’s ok, I am taking non-Auusie books too, and you did include Dark after all!

          I had a few books in mind that rurned out to be more 50s… As I guessed yours was. I think of it every time I see the harbour bridge I must say! Anyhow, there’s a subtle difference in those books I think, and I might even do a post on them, but there are so many more of them!

  11. Sara Dowse permalink
    January 22, 2019 11:16 am

    Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel – a magnificent Canadian novel by one of that country’s finest authors. Also Mavis Gallant’s characters and some of Carol Shields’. Marilynne Robinson’s Home. Also Lila in the trilogy, which I haven’t yet read. The characters in As The Lonely Fly grow older if they don’t start out that way. When you think of it, there are a lot of older women characters around but perhaps like their inspirations, to the wider world they may have become invisible.

    • January 22, 2019 2:57 pm

      Thanks Sara. Those are some great books. I’ve read The stone angel, but I have still to read Mavis Gallant.

      I think there are more older women characters around now than before – so maybe a bit less invisible than in the past, all through the work of modern writers?

      You’re right about As the lonely fly. I guess I was focussing on those that took the older woman as their starring point?

      • January 22, 2019 3:06 pm

        I’ve been carting Waterway around with me for ages, with a recommendation like that I’d better read it.

  12. January 22, 2019 4:51 pm

    I’m reading The Newspaper of Claremont St now amongst other things. I feel the protaganist is over 60. How about Aunts Up The Cross. The elderly aunts aren’t the main protaganist but certainly are a big part of story. Most over 60 women I read are travel writers so not really novels. I will need to think about this more. Really enjoyed reading this.

    • January 22, 2019 4:57 pm

      Thanks Pam… I wasn’t sure… But was pretty confident about her Orchard thieves, but will add her to the list. Anyhow, I hope you are enjoying it. It’s a huge favourite of mine.

      I thought of Aunt’s up the cross, but that’s non-fiction and I decided to keep this to fiction. I’m glad you mentioned it though for those reading here.

      • ian darling permalink
        January 22, 2019 11:26 pm

        I remember the underrated Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel Have the Men Had Enough? A superb and compassionate treatment of dementia.

        • January 23, 2019 8:32 am

          Oh, I haven’t heard of her or it at all Ian. Thanks for that.

      • January 23, 2019 9:27 am

        Yes, of course it’s non-fiction! I got caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment šŸ¤ šŸ§

        • January 23, 2019 12:06 pm

          Easy to do… It had crosser my mind too so I’m not surprised.

  13. January 23, 2019 9:55 am

    Just thought of Zoe Morrison’s Music and Freedom. Was going to say Amy Bloom’s wonderful White Houses but a friend just reminded me they’re in their 50s – but the narrator Hick is ‘looking back’ when older – which seems to be a bit of a theme. (And thank you for your comments – cheered me up!)

    • January 23, 2019 12:08 pm

      Oh, I haven’t read that one… Yes looking back is a bit of a theme isn’t it? Glad my comments cheered you up. They were sincere!

  14. January 23, 2019 3:57 pm

    The protagonist/narrator of Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing is in her 80s when the novel begins – though, again, much of the novel is on her life when younger.

    • January 23, 2019 7:54 pm

      This one is on my radar Annette, but I haven’t read — I think if the starting point is the older woman then it counts, but I guess I’d need to read it myself to pass final judgement!!

      Thanks.

  15. January 24, 2019 2:04 am

    You sold me on “Karl the Touch Typist” LOL!

    I can’t think of any books with older women off the top of my head. However, I love the Netflix show Grace and Frankie, whose four main actors are all late 70s to early 80s (on the show and in real life). They are wonderfully rich roles for the title characters, played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Neither illness nor atonement are the main focus, which I appreciate because it demonstrates (and emphasizes) that getting old isn’t mainly about regret and dying. If you have the show in Australia, I highly recommend it. There’s also the film Harold and Maud! I was assigned to watch that by my gerontology teacher back when I was in college.

    • January 24, 2019 5:49 am

      It’s a hoot of a book Melanie… A bit sweet but the wacky humour makes it work.

      I don’t know that Netflix show though I think I’ve seen some reference to Fonda and Tomlin being in something. Sounds great.

  16. January 24, 2019 2:38 pm

    The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village by Joanna Nell. Very good!

  17. January 27, 2019 10:50 pm

    This is a very insightful post. Older women are such an underrepresented group when it comes to main characters in books. I struggle to think of examples of books that I have read that would fit the category. There are a few, but just a few. Your above list sounds intriguing.

    • January 27, 2019 10:56 pm

      Thanks very much Brian … there are so many books to read, so many unrepresented groups too besides older women. It’s impossible to cover them all well isn’t it?

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