- What Happened When Women Aged?
What happened when Enlightenment-era women aged? Did they recede into the background of life and society, fearful of the vitriolic slur “mutton dressed as lamb”? Did they continue to socialize and flirt? Or, heaven forbid, fall in love? Did they fight publicly, as well as privately, for their continued relevance in late life? As Devoney Looser and Joan Hinde Stewart tell us, the answer is “yes, to all of the above.” The world of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England and France was complex and often contradictory, especially about the role and place of women. It should therefore come as no surprise to find that some aging women had a strong sense of self-worth and identity, and that they fought to maintain it. Yet this does surprise, in part because old age and aging in the past are understudied and often misunderstood. Looser and Stewart bring welcomed and insightful voices to the interdisciplinary study of aging in the past, joining Pat Thane, Susannah Ottaway, and myself in history, as well as Kay Heath, Karen Chase, and Theresa Mangum in literature. Collectively, these two volumes establish that women did not cease to expect full and meaningful lives in old age, be the object of such expectations romantic love or a place in the literary canon. The surprise is in how they set about to achieve their goals.
Looser and Stewart offer distinct yet overlapping investigations of how older women in England and France used the written word, both printed and [End Page 73] manuscript, to create and maintain their identities and to exercise their agency. In most cases, the self-identity created and defended by these women flew in the face of eighteenth-century constructions of a female old age that was religious, socially retiring, and asexual. These women wanted a continued public regard and profile, as well as to be romantic and sometimes sexual individuals. “Letters”—both private epistles and published works—were the mechanism by which they worked.
Looser’s Women Writers and Old Age is a fascinating and important study of aging female authors and their relationship to their late-life literary reputations. Set within the greater context of Britain’s first generation of widely published female authors, her study focuses clearly and with insight on the latter years of six: Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Catharine Macaulay, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Jane Porter. Although Jane Austen is technically middle aged, Looser also includes her here because of her spinster status and her treatment of old maids in several novels, relating these to English society’s conception of old maids as old women. Looser’s observation that “older female writers were judged more harshly than older male writers” (2) is not surprising, but her conclusion that “living to an advanced age may have had a negative effect on a woman writer’s posthumous reputation” (7) is both startling and convincing. What fascinates is how these women responded to the period’s rampant ageism and sexism.
Looser’s first chapter examines Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, two of Britain’s best-known authors. Both published in old age, yet are remembered only for their earlier writings. And both, it appears, did not defend their later work, realizing that they had a great deal of credibility to lose by breaking the social code of the silent old woman. The historian Catharine Macaulay, in chapter two, “saw her aging body mirroring her allegedly outmoded history, as she fought in the final year of her life to recapture the respect she had once enjoyed” (52). Macauley did not, as Looser so aptly puts it, “go away quietly” (74). But neither did her efforts succeed. Looser’s exploration of Jane Austen’s works in chapter three demonstrates that older people were mocked and ridiculed even by their peers. The much-commented-upon life of Hester...