- Aging By the Book: The Emergence of Midlife in Victorian Britain by Kay Heath
by Kay Heath. pp. 260. New York: SUNY Press, 2009. $82.96 cloth.
A number of excellent books have examined Victorian childhood; books on Victorian aging have not been as plentiful. Kay Heath’s Aging By the Book: The Emergence of Midlife in Victorian Britain works to fill this void, offering insightful perspectives on the later stages of life.
Heath approaches mid-life as a constructed concept, shaped by gender, class, and race, and presents the Victorian period as having made distinct contributions to our modern understanding of the aging process. Heath theorizes, “an anxiety about early signs of senescence that gained enough cultural authority in the nineteenth century to generate a new term, the word ‘midlife’ first appearing in an English-language dictionary in 1895” (1). Heath [End Page 220] stresses that mid-life is important because of its liminal qualities, yet she resists conflating mid-life and old age. Focusing primarily on the difficulties mid-life introduces into the Victorian marriage plot, she demonstrates how Victorians defined middle age and its complexities.
In her introduction, Heath draws upon critical aging theories to trace a distinct difference between Victorians and their predecessors in the way they viewed middle age. While differences centred upon reproduction traditionally placed women in mid-life earlier than men, Heath points out that throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, men and women often felt at the peak of their social power between the ages of thirty and fifty, despite shorter life expectancies. Heath suggests that as people lived longer, anxieties about aging appeared earlier. Moreover, she attributes what would now be identified as “mid-life crises” to specific Victorian phenomena, such as the rise of Muscular Christianity, fears of degeneration, the standardization of time, debates over women’s rights, and changes in industrialism and marketing. The breadth of Heath’s analysis is impressive, and she convincingly shows how diverse factors converged to formulate an understanding of mid-life that continues to resonate today.
Heath’s second chapter, “No Longer the Man He Was,” explores the male mid-life marriage plot, specifically the one in which a middle-aged man pursues a younger woman. Citing novels by Frances Trollope, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens, Heath expands her discussion of the effects of Muscular Christianity and degeneration to claim that after 1850, men grew more worried about the relationship between age and virility. Heath reasons that Hubert, from The Widow Barnaby (1839), and Rochester, from Jane Eyre (1847), convey a middle-aged masculinity that proves superior to that of younger rivals, while several of Dickens’s older male characters from novels published after 1850 (Dr. Strong, Jarndyce, and Bounderby) reveal deep concerns about the prospects of aging male suitors. Following this pattern through George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72) and Anthony Trollope’s An Old Man’s Love (1882), Heath identifies “a pattern of increasing liability for midlife males, that somewhere in his forties, a man crosses a threshold when his marriageability is called into question, a decline ideology that increased through the century” (72).
In the next two chapters, Heath shifts readers’ attention to middle-aged women. “‘The Neutral Man-Woman’: Female Desexualization at Midlife” and “Marriageable at Midlife: The Remarrying Widows of Frances Trollope and Anthony Trollope” examine fiction’s role in establishing the middle years for women as a period of “sexless service,” as well as narratives that challenge such notions. The model for sexless service demands that menopausal women necessarily lose power in a society centred on new marriages and reproduction. Widows and spinsters were only valuable for their ability to facilitate the marriages of younger women, and those women who refused to let go of their youth and romance were ridiculed (for example, Dickens’s Mrs. Nickleby, Mrs. Skewton, Miss Sparsit, and Miss Havisham) or depicted [End Page 221] as frightful (for example, H. Rider Haggard’s eponymous She). Although Heath explains how this message prevailed, she also reveals how both Frances and Anthony Trollope defy the paradigm with Martha Barnaby and...