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Literary Creativity and the Older Woman Writer

A Collection of Critical Essays

by Núria Casado-Gual (Volume editor) Emma Domínguez-Rué (Volume editor) Brian Worsfold (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 304 Pages

Summary

Literary studies and their associated critical theories offer a refreshing viewpoint from which humanist-oriented studies of ageing may be re-conceptualized, and an integrated view of ageing and gender can be developed. The present volume builds on the work of seminal authors in the field of literary gerontology, while it also elaborates on important theories that age-critics have developed in the broader field of cultural gerontology, to present the experience of ageing, and old age in particular, as a creative phase of the life course that completes the older person’s identity and, specifically, that of the older woman. As a contrast to stereotypical views of ageing women that are still sustained in both gerontological and social domains, the essays in this collection focus on the works of eleven women writers whose careers were or have been prolonged into their old age, and whose later literary creativity reveals fascinating aspects about both the complex, contradictory, and enriching experience of growing older, and especially of doing so as an artist and as a woman.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Re-Discovering the Older Woman
  • Part I: Women and Literary Creativity through the Lifespan
  • “The only thing to do is to carry on, and the storm will blow over.” The Aging Process of Daphne du Maurier’s Writing-Persona in Her Late Short Fiction
  • Mapping the Journey ‘between One’s Origins and One’s Achievements’: Joanna McClelland Glass’ Dramaturgical Creativity
  • Fictionalising Biography Throughout the Life-course: Creative Memory in Penelope Lively’s Making It Up
  • The Cooking of Friendships: Nora Ephron and the Life-Work of “Mediated Intimacy”
  • Part II: Changing Perspectives in the Woman Writer’s Late Literary Production
  • A Brave Old Age: Changes in the Irish Family Trope in Jennifer Johnston’s Later Fiction
  • Erica Jong: From a Youthful Fear of Flying to a More Experienced Landing in Her Late Years
  • “That’s the Spirit!” Putting the Past to Rights in A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarök. The End of the Gods (2011)
  • Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass: Progress towards Wisdom
  • Part III: Late-Style and the Older Woman Writer
  • The Beginning of Lorna Crozier’s Late-Style: A Thematic Change in the Symbol of Snow
  • P.K. Page, Late-Style, and Gerotranscendence: The “Here/There” of Aging
  • Wicked Weldon: The ‘F Word’ and the Older Woman
  • Notes on contributors
  • Series index

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitivity (MINECO) for providing the financial support necessary for this book. We would also like to acknowledge the competent work of our publisher, with a very special mention to Mr Adrian Stähli. Finally, we would like to dedicate this book to our respective families and, especially, to our children Edna and Teo Casado-Sánchez, and Hermann Mrotzek-Domínguez, who were born during the three-year-long project that gave life to this volume, and who remind us that life is a miracle and a precious gift – whatever the age.

The Editors

← 7 | 8 → ← 8 | 9 →

Introduction: Re-Discovering the Older Woman Writer

Since the onset of the so-called ‘longevity revolution’ in the second half of the 20th century, aging has become a field of study that attracts more and more researchers from different disciplines. In particular, the humanistic turn that can be observed in recent gerontological research and that has been materialized in several collections of essays (Cole et al. 2010, and Twigg and Martin 2015, to mention two of the most recent ones) and a number of specialized journals,1 coincides with the broadly-felt need from both the scientific domain and the academic world at large to integrate diverse methodologies and research approaches in a combined effort to improve the quality of life for older people everywhere.

At the same time, social studies and the humanities in general are similarly addressing the meanings and diverse experiences of growing older today. In particular, literary studies and their associated critical theories offer a refreshing and thought-provoking viewpoint from which humanistic-oriented studies of aging may be developed, and through which the experience of aging itself can be re-conceptualized. In this respect, the seminal work that scholars such as Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen (1993), Wayne C. Booth (1996), and Mike Hepworth (2000) started to develop from the late eighties onwards has been expanded by numerous researchers who continue to explore literary representations of aging- and old-age-related topics as a valid form of gerontological research.2 ← 9 | 10 →

As part of the humanistic and, more particularly, of the literary approach to the study of aging, many scholars with an age-oriented focus have warned against the dangers of looking at models of aging without taking into account gender-specific markers that inevitably criss-cross with them. In the particular case of aging women, the interaction between age and gender can result in superimposed forms of marginalization or, in Mary Wilson Carpenter’s words, in manifestations of “sexagism,”3 ranging from Susan Sontag’s seminal definition of the ‘double standard’ that may affect female processes of aging,4 up to far more recent definitions of gender as an important factor in the highly-diversified phenomenon of growing older.5 In general terms, academic explorations of aging and old age have gradually acquired a clearly-feminist accent in the last decades. In contrast to this theoretical tendency, older women continue to be neglected or reduced to stereotypes in the social domain.

The prevalent narrative of decline that associates aging with the demise of (biological) productivity and which, as Margareth Morganroth Gullette reminds us,6 affects especially the image of older women, is counteracted by the growth of studies of creativity and old-age that have been developed by gerontologists,7 sociologists,8 and literary critics9 alike. From their various perspectives, these scholars have regarded maturity and old age as phases that are open to new ventures, or that may be looked at as examples of a postmodern experience in their own ← 10 | 11 → right. At the same time, later-life creativity of different kinds has been associated with positive models of healthy aging, and for this reason it has attracted scholars of various fields. Indeed, the visibility of studies on later-life creativity can help undermine ageist visions of older people, while at the same time revealing new – and sometimes contradictory – facets of the complex phenomenon of aging itself.

This book builds on the scholarly work that has been generated to date in the interdisciplinary and interconnected fields of literary gerontology, studies of age and gender, and studies of aging and creativity. Through current theoretical developments, it particularly provides continuity to the branch of literary gerontology that Wyatt-Brown and Rossen started with their study of the later work of several women writers.10 Considering that literary creativity can offer very rich insights into the experience of growing older and that, at the same time, the figure of the older woman writer remains under-researched, this volume offers close readings of the works of eleven outstanding female authors whose careers have been prolonged into their old age. With a special emphasis on the work of contemporary writers, the chapters of this book present different forms of interaction between old-age, gender, and literary creativity that are manifested in the authors’ (auto)biographical accounts, or in their works, or both. Together, they highlight several aspects about the reality of growing older – and, in particular, of doing so as a woman and as an author living and writing between the 20th and the 21st centuries. At the same time, the different forms that literature may take in later phases of an author’s production are also underlined, thereby contributing to generating a more complete theory of literature that does not ignore ‘age’ as a relevant category, and which renovates its interest in the author after the post-structuralist turn.

Specialists in several literary genres and national literatures have been invited to explore the literary production of a particular woman writer in order to attempt to answer, collectively, some of the following questions: What changes in the writing process of a woman author throughout her life-course and, in particular, in her late-age? Are there any thematic or formal changes in her work that may help define ← 11 | 12 → different phases of creation, especially in the second half of her life-course? How do formal or content-based continuities help define the writer’s identity as an author and as a person? What can we learn about literary creation itself if the age category is applied to our analysis, and especially if it is combined with a gendered perspective? What stands out in the creativity of the older woman and, by extension, of the older person through these literary analyses? In what way can late-life literary creativity help modify stereotypical perceptions of the writers’ identity as women in late-age? Ultimately, what important topics or insights emerge in the late production of an older woman writer which can be extrapolated to our understanding of aging?

The chapters that follow offer stimulating individual case studies that attempt to approach some or all of these questions. In order to consider literature in its broadest sense, a diversity of literary genres is represented through them. Hence, the work of novelists and short-story writers is discussed alongside that of poets, playwrights, script-writers, and authors of literary memoirs. At the same time, different literary traditions from the English-speaking world are made present in the volume, namely, English, Irish, American, and Canadian literatures. Despite their respective cultural specificities, the distinctive literary corpuses that are explored reflect socio-historical and cultural aspects that the aging and aged societies of the Western world have in common. In this respect, they constitute a kaleidoscopic mirror of the experience of growing older – and especially of doing so as a woman and as an artist – in various contemporary social milieux. Beyond their common objectives, the different chapters of the book have been divided into three main blocks, which conform a progression from general lifespan analyses to studies of specific manifestations of late-style creativity in the works of several women writers.

* * *

The first section is entitled “Women and Literary Creativity through the Lifespan.” The essays that make up this section pay special attention to midlife and late-life works within literary oeuvres that span an average of more than forty years.

In “‘The only thing to do is to carry on, and the storm will blow over.’ The Aging Process of Daphne du Maurier’s Writing-Persona in Her Late Short Fiction,” Marta Miquel-Baldellou presents a diachronic ← 12 | 13 → analysis of some of the stories in the three collections of short fiction that the well-known English writer Daphne Du Maurier (1907–1989) published in her aging years. Miquel-Baldellou’s analysis identifies the development of the author’s writing persona with the writer’s own aging process, especially by looking at the way in which different biographical late-life experiences are fictionalized in Du Maurier’s short stories and how, at the same time, these help explain the transformation of the author’s gender and sexual identity through time. Out of the three phases that Miquel-Baldellou distinguishes in Du Maurier’s midlife and late-life creativity, it is the latter that becomes more complex, being “made up of past identities” and giving “way to a more irate writing persona….”

In the second chapter, “Mapping the Journey ‘between One’s Origins and One’s Achievements’: Joanna McClelland Glass’ Dramaturgical Creativity,” dedicated to the remarkable Canadian-American playwright, Joanna McClelland Glass (1936-), Núria Casado-Gual analyzes the thematic, formal, and discursive threads that run through McClelland Glass’ plays with the objective of defining the “developmental map” that is devised by her theatre and which started to flourish when the author was in her early middle-age. Based on a close reading of McClelland Glass’ dramatic work and on interviews with the author, Casado-Gual’s essay enhances the main features of the playwright’s creativity and their connections with the author’s biography. At the same time, her analysis of the playwright’s later plays underscores the combination of a pattern of continuity which “bridges different age-selves” and breaks “the binary between old and young,” with a renovated readiness for experimentation, which offers a dynamic model of late-life creativity that places the author in a constant state of search.

In the third chapter, “Fictionalising Biography Throughout the Life-course: Creative Memory in Penelope Lively’s Making It Up,” Maricel Oró-Piqueras takes into account the complete oeuvre of the British novelist Penelope Lively (1933-) to affirm that she “is the perfect example of a contemporary writer whose literary production has improved and developed as she has aged.” In her essay, Oró-Piqueras explores how the concepts of clock- and personal-time, memory and narrative become entangled in Lively’s novels and how, as shown by her anti-memoir Making It Up, “age and experience have enhanced her creative possibilities” in her later years, elaborating further her favourite topics and narrative techniques. ← 13 | 14 →

In the last chapter in this first section, “The Cooking of Friendships: Nora Ephron and the Life-Work of ‘Mediated Intimacy’,” Josephine Dolan observes the production of the American journalist, scriptwriter, and film producer Nora Ephron (1941–2012), whose career also became more fruitful when she reached, as Dolan ironically puts it, the “ostensible dead-end of valued feminine creativity,” referring to sexist and ageist perceptions of the post-menopausal years. Dolan’s essay explores the complex intersection of class, gender, sexuality, and age in Ephron’s late-life definitions of “old age” and “femininity,” together with the contradiction between the author’s negative views on aging and the creative energy she sustained until the end of her life. Throughout the chapter, the concept of ‘mediated intimacy’ becomes the lens through which Dolan both analyses the success of Ephron’s life-work and the promotion of Ephron as a creative, older woman, and explains the long-lasting impact that the script-writer has had on different generations of women viewers and readers, including Dolan herself.

* * *

The second section is entitled “Changing Perspectives in the Woman Writer’s Late Literary Production.” The essays in this second block focus attention on different tropes and viewpoints that are fictionalized throughout the literary production of three contemporary female authors, who receive significant transformations in the later stage of their production.

The life-course approach that is taken by the first chapter in this section, which is devoted to the Irish writer Jennifer Johnston (1930-), discloses the revision of the “identity theme” in the novelist’s later fictional work. Recognized “as Johnston’s trademark,” this theme is adapted to contemporary times in the writer’s later novels, in which the trope of the dysfunctional family in the Irish context gains prominence. As Carmen Zamorano Llena notes in her essay, Johnston’s pervading theme becomes a metonym whereby the author represents important changes in Irish society that are caused by the country’s aging population. At the same time, Zamorano Llena’s analysis underlines Johnston’s growing creative authority in contemporary Irish writing and explores the extent to which she develops a “braver” voice in her later years.

In the following chapter, “Erica Jong: From a Youthful Fear of Flying to a More Experienced Landing in Her Late Years,” ← 14 | 15 → Ieva Stončikaitė focuses on the tropes of female sexuality, self-development, and motherhood as fictionalized by the popular American author Erica Jong (1942-). In her essay, Stončikaitė examines the changing perceptions of these themes as reproduced through two of Jong’s well-known heroines, Isadora Wing and Sappho, who belong to early and late stages of her fictional production, respectively. Stončikaitė interrogates the connections between these characters and Jong’s own attitudes towards female desire and motherhood, and pays particular attention to the writer’s reassessment of these topics after the age of sixty. According to Stončikaitė, Jong’s case shows “a positive attitude towards growing old by emphasizing the importance of maturity and accumulating life-experiences that render her less constrained to speak her mind about the issues that have always concerned women.”

The third chapter is based on the work of the English author A.S. Byatt (1936-). “That’s the Spirit!” Putting the Past to Rights in A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarök. The End of the Gods” takes an analysis of the English author’s latest novel as a point of departure to interrogate the ways in which Byatt’s late fiction serves as an instrument to relieve her from a personal burden of religious myths and dogmas in the construction of her future Self. Brian Worsfold’s study of Ragnarök, The End of the Gods (2011) brings into focus ideas and thoughts on Byatt’s own experience of aging, and on the narrative strategies she adopts in order to prepare a way forward that liberates her from harmful childhood memories and the mindsets of the past. According to Worsfold, an important part of these strategies is Byatt’s use of the English language itself, which at this stage of the novelist’s life becomes “a vehicle of catharsis.”

In “Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass: Progress towards Wisdom,” the last essay of this section, Marta Cerezo-Moreno analyses the late work of the American novelist Anne Tyler (1941-), in which “the essence of [the writer]’s creative turn” may be observed. Cerezo-Moreno pays particular attention to the representation of the topic of wisdom in Tyler’s later fiction. In her analysis, she examines Tyler’s denial of the notion of old age as a closing chapter. Her later novels, and especially Noah’s Compass, present characters who achieve a new sense of identity through narrative, that is, they become capable of envisioning a future in which personal development is made possible by reading, telling, and also listening to their own stories, and which, therefore, becomes ← 15 | 16 → a process with no end. As Cerezo-Moreno puts it, Tyler’s narrative is “a literary exemplification of the fact that, for life to progress towards wisdom, it should be … a matter of interrogatives rather than a matter of declaratives.” At the same time, Cerezo-Moreno’s analysis of Noah’s Compass illustrates how a writer’s “creative vigour” can be “pushed to the limit at the final stage” of life and, by doing so, “narrative foreclosure” can be challenged through creativity.

* * *

Finally, the last section of the volume, “Late Style in Older Women Writers’ Works,” considers the emergence of the so-called ‘late style’ in the work of some female authors, that is, it analyses the late literary production of the writers considered as a new phase of their creativity.

In the first chapter in this section, “The Beginning of Lorna Crozier’s Late-Style: A Thematic Change in the Symbol of Snow,” Núria Mina-Riera examines the beginning of late-style in poems by Lorna Crozier (1948-) through the evolution of the trope of snow in her work. Mina-Riera’s essay observes how the metaphoric value of this trope changes from Lorna Crozier’s first collection of poetic prose – where it is mostly associated with forgiveness, softness, and void-filling – to her later identification of this symbol with grief. In her analysis, Mina-Riera also reflects upon the dynamic nature of late-style itself. Thus, her study of Lorna Crozier’s work demonstrates how the poet “seems to be pointing at the idea that late-style is a period in the career of artists that is in progress, and therefore not static.” In this sense, late-style is a sign of the dynamism of the experience of aging. As Mina-Riera contends, “Lorna Crozier’s works are examples of the fruitful interaction between creativity and the aging process ….”

In the second chapter “P.K. Page, Late-Style, and Gerotranscendence: The “Here/There” of Aging,” Suzanne Bailey looks at late works of the Canadian poet P.K. Page (1916–2010), which engage in a sophisticated exploration of subjectivity and time, and which include numerous autobiographical poems written in her eighties and nineties. Bailey explores the features that develop in the later poems of the modernist author in the light of the concept of ‘gerotranscendence,’ through which P.K. Page’s formal and thematic strategies can be re-interpreted as she reflects on her own experience of aging and interrogates the subjective aspects of memory and time. Bailey considers P.K. Page’s later ← 16 | 17 → poems as a “phenomenology of old age,” which enables her to detect “some important narrative gestures” in her work and to see how the writer reflects not only “on a life lived, but also on the metaphors and patterns through which we understand experience.”

The last chapter of this section, which closes the collection of critical essays, focuses on the production of Fay Weldon (1931-) by exploring the late-style of this controversial English writer. In “Wicked Weldon: The ‘F Word’ and the Older Woman,” Sarah Falcus concentrates on the author’s work published since the year 2000, and observes the predominance of older protagonists and narrators in it as a strategy that allows the author to highlight “cross-generational female relationships and the position of women within a generational model.” Falcus’ study acknowledges Fay Weldon’s station as part of a growing chorus of older literary and academic voices who are advocating for a new and potentially uncomfortable niche in literary discourse, in this case for the older woman. As Falcus affirms, “as an older woman often writing about older women writing, Weldon is caught in a self-reflexive hall of mirrors that can be liberating rather than confining … Her later novels allow her to explore the lives of older women, but not to suggest that there is one way to be an older woman.”

* * *

In a way, Sarah Falcus’ statement about Weldon proves to be true for the rest of the women writers whose work is discussed in this volume; and the same applies to many of the affirmations about the experience of growing older and of writing as a female author that are made in this book. Even though the sequential structure of this collection intends to underline the different angles through which literary creativity and aging may be connected within a literary corpus, the number of intersections that bind all the chapters – and, thereby, all the women writers and their works – closer together is fascinating, because it is through their mutual reflexivity that, paradoxically, their diversity is enhanced. To name a few of these ‘diverse coincidences,’ the fluidity of the concept of time – and even of space – in later years is made patent in the works by Penelope Lively, Anne Tyler, and P.K. Page. Similarly, the importance of inter-generational dialogue in old age and the need to re-assess it from a feminist perspective is visible in the fiction by Fay Weldon and Nora Ephron, while the revision of family roots and cultural inheritance in ← 17 | 18 → late-life writing reverberates, amongst others, in the works by Johanna McClelland Glass, Lorna Crozier, Jennifer Johnston, and A.S. Byatt. Interesting new insights on the author’s sexuality and other aspects of her private life, past or present, are gained through the literary production of writers like Daphne Du Maurier and Erica Jong, both of whom deconstruct clichés about aging and about the older women in particular. From a stylistic point of view, a common thread that unites the later works of all the writers examined in this volume is the combination of a pattern of continuity with an openness towards experimentation. Far from reproducing narratives of decline, the late work produced by the older women writers analysed in this volume exudes the confidence of the expert writing hand alongside the passion and braveness of an artistic spirit which continues to seek alternative forms of expression.

As shown by these examples, and as we hope to continue demonstrating in the pages that follow, literary gerontology contributes to the field of aging studies by revealing the multifaceted experience of aging and by deconstructing pervading stereotypes of decline and loss of creativity in later years. This is remarkably so in the case of women writers, whose personal and professional lives are inextricably intertwined and clearly influence their creativity. Because of this double dimension in the literary production of female authors, the articles contained in this volume examine the nuances involved in the experience of growing old, not only as women writers, but also as women at large. At the same time, the closeness between biography and creativity that the work of older female authors epitomizes enables a continuous exploration of the connections between aging and narrativity, of which this book is only a part. After all, the literary careers of the writers of our collection may be understood as constant mirrors and expressions of their experience of growing older and, ultimately, as fictionalized, poeticized, or dramatized narratives of their own life-story. The blending of fiction, history, and stories that is found in their characters, biographical episodes, plots, or lines not only enriches the field of literary theory with an ‘aged’ accent, but also surpasses the academic realm to enlighten the readers’ own aging process and the perception of the time they have yet to live. It is with this wish for the readers of this book that we now give space to the voice of eleven remarkable creators, and to the insight, expertise and sensibility of the authors who have studied their works, to whom we express our most sincere gratitude. ← 18 | 19 →

Works Cited

Arber, Sara, and Jay Ginn. Eds. Connecting Gender and Aging: A Sociological Approach. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995.

Booth, Wayne C. The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Cohen, Gene D. “Creativity and Aging.” Thomas R. Cole, Ruth E. Ray, and Robert Kastenbaum. Eds. A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging: What Does It Mean to Grow Old? Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 182–205.

Cohen-Shalev, Amir. Both Worlds at Once: Art in Old Age. Boston, Massachusetts: University Press of America, 2002.

Cole, Thomas R., Ruth E. Ray, and Robert Kastenbaum. Eds. A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging: What Does It Mean to Grow Old? Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010

Dolan, Josephine, and Estella Tincknell. Eds. Aging Femininities: Troubling Representations. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

Biographical notes

Núria Casado-Gual (Volume editor) Emma Domínguez-Rué (Volume editor) Brian Worsfold (Volume editor)

Núria Casado-Gual, Emma Domínguez-Rué, and Brian Worsfold are members of the research group Grup Dedal-Lit of the University of Lleida. Specialists in theatre in English, American Studies, and African literatures, respectively, they have all integrated their fields of expertise into their study of ageing in contemporary literatures in English through their various projects and numerous publications.

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