‘Literature and Ageing’: Book Review

Jade Elizabeth French reviews Literature and Ageing (Boydell & Brewer, 2020), edited by Elizabeth Barry and Margery Vibe Skagen.

The opening introduction to ‘Literature and Ageing’ offers a range of reasons why ageing, as a literary topic, is slippery, nebulous, contradictory, or, as editors Elizabeth Barry and Margery Vibe Skagen name it, ‘a moving target’ (18). It is this elusive quality that allows the essays in this collection to provide a rich and varied snapshot of ageing experiences and representations across nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century literature. In the introduction, Barry and Skagen suggest that it can seem like the stories of ageing reflected back at us in culture are ‘increasingly negative […] a litany of losses and exclusions’ (18). The experience of growing older – in all its intersections, fluidity and variousness – is often flattened into stories of frailty or biological decline. Even as work is being done by charitable foundations such the Centre for Ageing Better, whose recent free public image library increases awareness around age-related stereotypes, it takes cultural work to embrace this change across a variety of mediums. Literature provides one vantage point from which to discuss various representations of ‘old age’ – although the authors are also keen to extend beyond metaphorical signifiers.The collection is split into eight chapters, with an introduction by the editors and an afterword by age studies trailblazer, Margaret Morganroth Gullette. Various chapters in this volume argue that literature about ageing is also literature about the Anthropocene, postcolonialism and precarity, it is literature about seeking happiness and confronting difficulty, as much as it is also literature about raising awareness. Ageing, throughout the collection, is variously ‘identified with knowledge and with cognitive decline, displaying rigidity and playfulness, as loss and acquisition’ (18). There are many dualities at play.

Approaches to growing older have to be attuned to both individual, lived experiences and shared, generational experiences. Although taking different approaches, Helen Small and David Amigoni pay attention to the ways personal stories are part of wider, social concerns. Small uses quantitative data to explore how people react to the statistical narratives woven around them. Opening with a discussion on Mary Mothersill’s philosophical address on Old Age (1998), Small examines how social or demographic expectations for older people might be challenged by first-person narratives. In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind (2011), the main character lives with Alzheimer’s disease, which both informs and frustrates the plot-driven thriller. In detective genre fiction, keeping a distance from the novel’s subject can seemingly be more important than revealing emotion. However, Small deftly holds the individual and collective, and the rational and emotional as ambivalent points of connection throughout this essay. David Amigoni’s chapter examines how Wendy Mitchell’s memoir Somebody I Used to Know (2018) – an account of young-onset Alzheimer’s – might be framed as a work of self-help. Again, an individual experience speaks to a wider public. Amigoni suggests that ageing has long been a key concern for authors wishing to write about self-improvement. He traces the genre from the nineteenth century to today and draws on authors from the father of self-help Samuel Smiles to television presenter Joan Bakewell. Placing a variety of texts in dialogue allows Amigoni’s essay to explore the multiple ways discourses of ageing and self-help have evolved over time through the lens of labour, skill and gender.

All the essays in this collection are adept at attending to both the intimate and universal in effective ways. However, for Kathleen Woodward, the individuals of Margaret Drabbles’ ‘The Dark Flood’ (2016) are of the neoliberal kind. The main protagonist, Fran, separates herself from family and friends, refusing to even contact her daughter during the isolating flood mentioned in the title. As Woodward puts it: ‘There is no collective affect of solidarity’ (70) in the white, middle-class community the novel is set in. Woodward connects this depressingly individualised future to ecological concerns, drawing on Roy Scranton’s (2015) suggestion that we must collectively confront death in order to confront the damage humanity has done to the planet. Chalking the human life span up against geological time certainly makes human existence – as we currently understand it – feel puny in comparison to centuries beyond our comprehension. Particularly compelling is her call for ‘generational time’ (82) to be deployed in order to affectively invest humans in the effects of climate change. It is time, Woodward suggests, to think about our life spans in relation to the longevity of the Earth.

Intergenerational relationships and ‘generational time’ (82) offer fruitful avenues for discussions in other essays too. Sarah Falcus reads two speculative novels – P.D. James’s Children of Men (1992) and Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo (2014) – as novels concerned with generational disorder and reproductive issues. Tawada’s novel, in particular, chimes with Woodward’s twinning of ageing and Anthropocene, as natural disasters and pollution underpin the central conceit: that in this world, children are born incurably frail and adults outlive the young. The inverted generational relationships ‘rejects the binary of youth and age’ to open up questions of lateness, longevity and both ‘species and planetary vulnerability’ (120). For Falcus ‘the dystopic imagination’ (121) depends on ageing to generate the heady combination of anxiety and hope necessary to engage with the future. Emily Timms’s essay on The Colour of Forgetting (1995) by Merle Collins, also focuses on cyclical, intergenerational forms of knowledge represented by older women. Timms maps a distinct, postcolonial perspective to the ‘problematic hope’ (151) that new generations implicitly usher in change. Instead, it is the embodied knowledge of older women that offer a model of transformational force through the wit, rhetoric and metamorphosis of the Caribbean trickster. Elsewhere in the collection, intergenerational relationships are also read by Jacob Jewusiak as displays of structural power. Jewusiak critiques Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) as a space in which ‘grandpaternalism’ is offered as a non-threatening alternative to colonial ‘paternalism’ in India. In doing so, Jewusiak suggests Kipling deploys care, playfulness and reciprocity to ‘disguise the structural violence of imperialism’ and develop ‘more disturbingly efficient modes of social knowledge and control’ (143). In varying ways, Falcus, Timms and Jewusiak all position relationships between children and grandparents/great-grandparents as generative perspectives from which to challenge the past, the present and (perhaps most crucially) the future.

Philosophical concerns are taken up in the collection by Barry and Peter Svare Valeur. Barry argues for ‘a more expansive sense of selfhood’ (174) within moral philosophy and literary studies. Going beyond a ‘self’ understood through linear narrative, coherence and rationality means embracing multiple endings and a more relational selfhood. Barry asks a series of thought-provoking questions, not least: ‘what survives of personhood in dementia after memory and propositional speech are lost?’, ‘what narrative arc can encompass this condition that is at once highly unpredictable day to day, and nonetheless relentlessly linear in its larger trajectory?’ (186) and can a central character with dementia ‘ever be anything other than the endpoint of the story’? (187). Profound questions in the asking, Barry’s chapter also offers a model of what an expanding sense of self might look like in Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). Valeur takes up another philosophical baton by reading Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) alongside Platonic stoicism to –pleasingly and surprisingly – pose questions about ageing and happiness. Reading against the grain, Valeur suggests this is ‘a play about the potentiality and future of old age’ (241). Krapp becomes a character quite at home as a ‘self’ who is able to exist in the simultaneity of past and present through the unwinding of spools of tape.

Although the collection might primarily interest those in ageing and literary studies, the authors ask questions from which we can all learn. As the introduction reminds us, ageing is ‘an identity we grow into’ (32). It is an identity that is also, in the words of Gullette, ‘shaped by culture’ (2004: 3). In her afterword, Gullette further reminds us that in increasingly urgent times, reading, writing and celebrating work about and by older people needs to maintain a critical perspective and ‘activist urgency’ (250). It is with such urgency that the essays in this collection open up a variety of avenues, disciplines and techniques from which to attend to ageing. The collection demonstrates that paying attention to the combination of ‘literature and ageing’ can prompt complex questions, frame new historic perspectives, and open up new avenues that will continue to challenge and expand understanding about growing older.


Gullette, Margaret. 2004. Aged by Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scranton, Roy. 2015. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

Dr. Jade Elizabeth French recently completed her PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. Her work explores the poetics of ageing in modernist texts. She has seen work published to date in Women: A Cultural Review, Feminist Modernist Studies and The Times Literary Supplement and co-runs the craft platform Decorating Dissidence. Follow Jade on Twitter @_jadefrench.

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