Monday musings on Australian literature: Older women protagonists

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?