Old women do not get a good press in literature. In fairytales and novels, age in women is typically equated with malevolence, weakness or madness. Even when beauty and strength are unnaturally preserved for thousands of years, as in H Rider Haggard’s classic adventure She, old women tend to be wicked.
In a year when the power of older women is finally being celebrated in Victoria Smith’s magnificent nonfiction book Hags, and when many older women remain active, well-educated and more financially independent than many of their grandchildren, where are the older literary heroines who, as in Jenny Joseph’s famous poem, Warning, “wear purple”? Today’s women of 80-plus are not Miss Havisham. Their generation danced to the Rolling Stones, travel widely, have careers and even, like Martha Stewart, wear bikinis.
My own new novel The Three Graces concerns three very different octogenarian friends. Their adventures as they sort out their errant grandchildren, help a Black migrant and a Russian oligarch, and support each other, are part of lives that do not stop with wrinkles. Set in contemporary Tuscany, the novel riffs on A Room With a View and Enchanted April, but its chief purpose is to put strong, challenging, intellectually active elderly women like my own 95-year-old mother centre stage. Who are their antecedents?
1. Great-great-grandmother Irene in The Princess and the Goblins by George MacDonald
This Victorian children’s classic has the little princess Irene discovering a mysterious old woman hidden in her castle attic, “frail as a cobweb” and spinning by moonlight. She is Irene’s great-great-grandmother and namesake, and guides our heroine to save her beloved Curdie, imprisoned in goblin-haunted mines. The 200-year-old enchantress can transform into a beautiful young one with torrents of ankle-length golden hair when the mood takes her. “Why should old age be sickness and frailty?” she asks, effortlessly breaking off a gigantic emerald from the mine floor with her fingers. Why indeed.
2. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple
First appearing in The Murder in the Vicarage (1930), Jane Marple is the heroine of 12 detective novels and transforms from a seemingly fluffy “old pussy” to “the most frightening woman I have ever met,” as the home secretary says, in Nemesis. Her frailty is deceptive: she always gets a murderer through a combination of remorseless logic and human observation.
3. Matty in the Crooked Heart trilogy by Lissa Evans
Few contemporary novelists have Miss Marple’s boldness, but Matty, first encountered in Old Baggage as a cantankerous old suffragist trying to educate future feminists in 1930s Hampstead, has it in spades. “It is never too late to be who you might have been,” she says, whacking bag-snatchers with a wooden club and changing lives in one of the funniest and most affecting series of recent years.
4. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)
Mrs Palfrey “would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag”. Taylor’s elegant masterpiece is set in a London hotel that is the ante-chamber to death but which sees a poignant romance in which a young writer is passed off as our heroine’s grandson. The widowed Mrs Palfrey is stubbornly determined to be herself.
5. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Strout’s 2008 Pulitzer prize-winning collection of 13 interlinked short stories concerns the lives of the residents of the fictional small town of Crosby, Maine. They are held together by the central, larger-than-life character of the retired schoolteacher Olive. Lonely, greedy for life and uncomfortably honest, she is what Austen’s Emma might have become in old age. “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else,” she remarks. Olive was such a hit with readers that she went on to feature in three more books and a TV adaptation starring Frances McDormand.
6. Marian in TheHearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1974)
Carrington is better known as a surrealist artist than as the author of this superbly weird novel. Marian Leatherby is a 92-year-old woman who lives with her son and his family. Her friend Carmella gives her a hearing trumpet that allows Marian to eavesdrop on faraway conversation, and she overhears her family’s plot to institutionalise her. “People under 70 and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats,” Marian observes, embarking on a fairytale quest through an apocalyptic landscape.
7. Janina in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009) Carrington’s novel inspired Tokarczuk’s novel, brilliantly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Eccentric, warm-hearted, scholarly and rude, Janina is convinced she knows why dead bodies keep turning up around her village in Poland and rages that “for people my age the places that they truly loved and to which they once belonged are no longer there.” Both thriller and eco-fable, the novel is illuminated by her blazing rage.
8. Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene (1969)
This is equally flamboyant, and unlike the author’s doomy Catholic fiction, pure fun thanks to its irrepressible elderly heroine. Its bank manager narrator Henry has led a quiet, respectable life until he meets the septuagenarian Aunt Augusta. She persuades him to accompany her across Europe, and her account of her decidedly racy life leads him to become less prim. “I have never planned anything illegal in my life,” Aunt Augusta tells him. “How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?”
9. Granny Weatherwax in the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett
Similarly captivating is T the witch who intended to be “wicked” but became good because she realised that she need to balance out her sister Lily in the Discworld series. “The trouble is, you see, that if you do know right from wrong, you can’t choose wrong. You just can’t do it and live,” she realises. First appearing in Equal Rites (1987), she is a major character in seven novels, possessing a stern moral compass concerning the human condition that earns her pages on the internet with titles such as What Would Granny Weatherwax Do? Fierce and gloriously entertaining, she protects the Disc from malign supernatural forces and her death in The Shepherd’s Crown leaves the world a better place than she originally found it.
10. Maud in An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten (2018)
A short story collection that reads like a Swedish Miss Marple crossed with Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. Maud is the flinty homicidal octogenarian who plots the demise of anyone who crosses her. Victims include a pretentious celebrity who moves into the apartment block where, through a legal quirk, Maud lives rent-free. She relies on the invisibility of age while systematically eliminating irritating people. The results are the blackest kind of Scandi-noir comedy, and remind us that while old women can be active, benign, stylish and intelligent, they can also be dangerous.