Since 1991, International Day of Older Persons has taken place on the 1st of October (next week). As a person no longer in middle age – my 60th birthday being firmly in the rear view mirror – it seemed a good time to take a moment and consider the depiction of older people in fiction.
My perception is that those currently in their older years are generally relegated to the smaller supporting roles – the doting grandparent for example – and even when an older person is the central character, the focus is often on looking back over the past. While that can be a glorious reading experience, as it was in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, it is not the story of an older person’s current experience of living and of life.
Something I found especially refreshing about Joanna Cannon’s Three Things about Elsie, is that it’s unashamedly a tale of old age – about physical frailty, the potential loss of mental sharpness, of confusion, about loss and death. And yet I remember it with a smile, with affection, and with enjoyment.
Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman is Barry Walker – grandfather and closet gay, an Antiguan living in Hackney – a character to both adore and want to smack. Yes, bits of the story are told looking backwards, but the bulk is told in the here and now. Irascible, charming, infuriating and a total dandy – Barry is a main character to treasure.
Pere Goriot, Honore de Balzac’s re-working of the King Lear tale is another unflinching portrait of an older person. It’s a long time since I read it, but while it may have been the sad tale of an old man and his daughters, my standout memory of the experience is being absolutely blown away by the beauty of the writing.
Another delightful depiction of an older person is Daniel from Ali Smith’s Autumn. When the book opens, Elizabeth is an adult and Daniel is assumed to be dying. Elizabeth has known Daniel since she was a child and, even then, he was an elderly man. In an amusing twist of thinking, while Daniel is undeniably old, Elizabeth’s mother assumes he is also gay and therefore safe for Elizabeth to spend so much time with as a child. What she doesn’t expect is that he’ll encourage Elizabeth to think, to examine and to question, for Daniel is a mentally vibrant man, even when his body is letting the side down.
I read at least 50 books every year, and despite these examples, there are strikingly few examples of older people in a central role. Yet I cannot recall any single depiction of an older person in a central role which left me feeling meh – so why don’t we see this happening more? As writers, do we shy away from old age with its potential for death? Do younger authors not feel able to accurately capture the experience of old age? Do older authors only want to re-visit their youth? Or is it that readers genuinely do not want to read older characters – unless they’re of the implausibly fit variety? Has there been some form of reaction against the proliferation of Miss Marple tales from the pen of Agatha Christie, and multiple episodes of Angela Lansbury playing Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote?
One reason I love the tales I’ve mentioned is there’s none of that nonsense you find when old film or TV stars play the action hero, despite being past (long past) their ability to physically do so. Yet the latter type of tale abounds, whereas beautifully observed tales of older people depicting a genuine experience of old age are rare things – and dare I say it, all the more beautiful for it.
© Debra Carey, 2020