“Old age” was as ambiguous a term for the Victorians as it is for us. Where should one draw the line: between 40.9 and 46, the midway points for average life spans from 1838 to 1900? 50, that modern magic “mid-life crisis” mark? 65, the eventual date of forced retirement and pensions in Britain?
Recently, Call the Midwife and Orange is the New Black, two radically “realistic” television shows, have made concerted efforts to bring the joys and tragedies of aging women to the small screen. (This, of course, stands in contrast to innumerable TV shows, magazine covers, films, and above all advertisements perpetually reinforcing the societal value placed on youthful beauty for women.) More specifically, the stories of Sister Monica Joan (played by Judy Parfitt) and the recently-released Jimmy (played by Golden Girl Patricia Squire), have dramatized the specific plight of the old woman, particularly one who needs and sometimes – fatally – does not receive mental health care. Often senescence, in these shows as in real life, relies upon a network of (primarily) women, sisters and daughters who nurse as much as listen to their elderly (pseudo-) mothers and grandmothers.
Turning to Victorian literature, one is hard-pressed to name a hero – or, more rightly, heroine – already in her “mature years” (a phrase stressed by Judi Dench’s Jean Pargetter from As Time Goes By). All the usual literary suspects are young, their novels unspooling to catalogue the choices and missteps towards adulthood and a fully-realized self: the defining characteristic of the Bildungsroman. Dorothea Brooke, Tess Durbeyfield, Jane Eyre, even the cannier Esther Summerson, Anne Elliot, and Schreiner’s Lyndall: all are under 30. So where are the heroines over 50? The women whose plot does not revolve around the drive toward marriage (at least the first marriage, and therefore procreation)? Where, indeed, are the middle-aged women, spinsters or otherwise, whose primary narrative function is not that of “mother”? Where are the aging women?
Partly, it is a wrong question. Victorian notions of “aging”, for women and for men, were largely centred on a person’s ability to work. Unsurprisingly for the era that brought the globalization of industrial capitalism, nineteenth-century ethics famously highlighted the values of “self-help” and dutiful service to one’s family, country, and faith. Thus, as Karen Chase asserts, the emergence of the word “senescence” in this period follows naturally from the core belief that as long as one’s body could perform its necessary labour, one was not “old”; once the body began to deteriorate, to show signs of mental and physical deterioration (the combination was important) then the line had been crossed: you were “old”. Literature abounds with characters in their forties, fifties, even beyond (particularly in Anthony Trollope’s duty-bound public servants) who – like their historical counterparts in Gladstone (died aged 87), Palmerston (80), the Duke of Wellington (83), and even Queen Victoria herself (81) – hoped to “die in harness”.
Out of this unsurprising field of hardworking elders, Victorian literature does yield a surprising number of older, if less foregrounded, women. To find the neglected heroines who provide examples of fully realized aging characters, one must first bracket off the arguably flat, stereotypical, or merely comic women – old ladies Miss Flite (Bleak House), Mrs. Fairfax (Jane Eyre), even Lady Bracknell (The Importance of Being Earnest). One must also take out the good and bad mothers, whose novelistic importance cannot be overstated yet whose function is maternal. By this I mean that their central aim is the raising and elevating of the next generation: the older women of Gaskell’s Cranford series; Mrs. Thornton and Mrs. Hale, both past their childbearing years but still very much different models of motherhood (North and South); the spiteful Mrs. Reed and the nurturing Miss Temple (Jane Eyre); Mrs. Meyrick, mother to a gaggle of girls who takes in the motherless Mirah Lapidoth (Daniel Deronda); the warped, stagnating non-mother Miss Havisham (Great Expectations); even the outright heroic Lady Glencora Palliser who raises what become The Duke’s Children.
Even beyond these fascinating women, many of whom provide more than cameo appearances or caricatures, there remains a strong cast who appear throughout novels acting in their own right, beyond such networks of feminine support and maternal responsibility. Perhaps the single character who combines the issues I have been describing – the fear and tragedy of aging particular to women, the problem of work and bodily deterioration, the vexed separation of the maternal from the individual – is in the understudied Mrs. Transome of George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1865-6).
As I have written elsewhere, Eliot herself felt a kind of perverse maternity towards this novel, calling it her “youngest born”, after the failure of Romola and the difficulties of the literary market of the 1860s. For most of her time writing Felix Holt, Eliot was forty-five, always thin and now going slightly gray, suffering from her chronic ill health alongside the perpetually ailing George Henry Lewes. She had never had biological children, and though she was affectionately known as “Mutter” to Lewes’s sons, both were long past childhood. These factors, among others, prompted Eliot’s famous remark that, ‘I began [writing] it a young woman,—I ended it an old woman.’ Though the young female protagonist Esther Lyon enacts the more traditional Victorian plot, Eliot was able to play out some of her personal, professional anxieties about being herself a middle-aged female novelist through the aging Mrs. Transome.
Mrs. Transome is a mother who, at least in the novel’s first pages, believes her maternity compatible with her midlife independence now that her adult son Harold is returned home. But, it rapidly becomes clear, Eliot animates the vulnerable, redundant condition of a mother whose son has instead outgrown his need for both her love and her consent. With the return of the once-beloved child comes the bitter reality of a patriarchal society: of a woman’s powerlessness to speak for herself, even after years of keeping the estate afloat (her capability buttressed by the contrasting senility of her despised husband). It is perhaps the driving force of the novel that both Harold and the young, traditional heroine Esther Lyon must realize the “helpless bondage” of “inward care[s]” that bind their respective parents. As Eliot’s narrator moralizes, “It is a fact perhaps kept a little too much in the background, that mothers have a self larger than their maternity” (Felix Holt 94). Having already been a mother, Mrs. Transome hopes before Harold’s return to be a middle-aged woman with just such a “larger” life. Thus being forced into the role as coddled “grandmamma” and impotent dowager by her son, as well as being patronized and dismissed by her former lover, makes male authority for Mrs. Transome “as pleasant… as if it had been cut in her bared arm” (97). Whatever her abilities, patriarchal norms would kill a woman with kindness.
Crucially, Mrs. Transome vehemently denies any suggestion that she is less than mentally competent – that is, because she is physically aging she is mentally on the decline as well –, a key component in the Victorian definition of senescence. Even on their initial reunion, Mrs. Transome resists Harold’s attempts to console his mother with the notion that,
“Ah, you’ve had to worry yourself about things that don’t properly belong to a woman—my father being weakly. We’ll set all that right. You shall have nothing to do now but to be grandmamma on satin cushions.”
“You must excuse me from the satin cushions[,” said Mrs. Transome. “]That is a part of the old woman’s duty I am not prepared for. I am used to be chief bailiff, and to sit in the saddle two or three hours every day. There are two farms on our hands besides the Home Farm.” (20)
Though she is no longer young, Mrs. Transome has no desire to be an “old woman”. Instead, like so many of Eliot’s heroines, Mrs. Transome wants a political role in which to use her intellect and influence in the world. Unlike Dorothea, Maggie Tulliver, or Gwendolen Harleth, however, Mrs. Transome is middle-aged (perhaps more rightly “of mature years”: she is 56 in the first chapter ), having already had the experience of local government beyond her domestic “reign” to prove herself not only within the private but also in the public sphere. Like her male counterparts both within the novel and outside it, her age is no impediment to her ability to perform public service: rather, the problem is her gender.
Moreover, Mrs. Transome feels all the more powerless for being no longer beautiful or desirable. Her past is repeatedly and painfully reinforced by the contrast between her attractive youthful portrait (the “brilliant smiling young woman above the mantelpiece”) and her current aged appearance (“withered and frosted by many winters, and with lips and eyes from which the smile had departed”), a change both caused by and reinforcing her former adulterous lover, Jermyn’s, loss of interest (332). After being blackmailed by Jermyn and ignored by her son, Mrs. Transome joins Eliot’s other narcissistic heroines who sit admiring their own reflections. Yet she sees something widely different from the radiant maiden of Hetty Sorrel or Gwendolen Harleth; rather, she tells her (also aged) lady’s maid Denner, “I undid [my hair] to see what an old hag I am”.
Probably she had ceased to see the reflection in the mirror, for her eyes had the fixed wide-open look that belongs not to examination, but to reverie. Motionless in that way, her clear-cut features keeping distinct record of past beauty, she looked like an image faded, dried, and bleached by uncounted suns, rather than a breathing woman who had numbered the years as they passed, and had a consciousness within her which was the slow deposit of those ceaseless roiling years.[…]
“Denner,” she said, in a low tone, “if I could choose at this moment, I would choose that Harold should never have been born.”
“Nay, my dear,” (Denner had only once before in her life said “my dear” to her mistress), “it was a happiness to you then.”
“I don’t believe I felt the happiness then as I feel the misery now. It is foolish to say people can’t feel much when they are getting old. Not pleasure, perhaps—little comes. But they can feel they are forsaken—why, every fibre in me seems to be a memory that makes a pang. They can feel that all the love in their lives is turned to hatred or contempt.” (311-4)
In this radical reversal of the blooming bride/mother, Mrs. Transome becomes an almost monstrous, certainly adulterous, and unsentimental (hypothetical) infanticide. Though in the climactic long night of the novel Esther becomes a biblical Ruth, going to her would-be mother-in-law in her time of need, here two older women speak together frankly of their feelings about aging and the painful consequences of a long memory. Rather than losing her senses, Mrs. Transome’s pain is all the keener for her ability to remember vividly her now-usurped power, whether her erotic power over her lover or her political power over her economic dependents. The Victorian fantasy of perpetual maternal joy is ruptured by Mrs. Transome’s personal shame at being exposed for her affair and, more importantly, the failure of her “feminine” influence over the masculine world of politics, law, and finance.
Eliot ultimately links her protagonist’s economic (and therefore social) fortunes to her age: though Mrs. Transome begins the novel protesting that she will not enter her dotage on “satin cushions”, with Harold’s return she loses “every little sign of power her lot had left her”, including that “a tenant should stand bareheaded below her as she sat on horseback… to insist that work done without her orders should be undone from beginning to end… to be courtesied and bowed to by all the congregation as she walked up the little barn of a church… to change a laborer’s medicine fetched from the doctor, and substitute a prescription of her own” (28). These privileges are, of course, those of an aristocratic lady rather than a lower-class servant. (Denner, by contrast, declares that her “pleasures” include “knowing one’s not a fool, like half the people one sees about” as well as caring for her husband, watching cats and sunshine, and playing cards .) Though largely paternalistic duties, a significant part of Mrs. Transome’s power is tied to her femininity, to her “imperious” and “majestic” presence, her remembered “bloom”, and her reputation as a “woman of strong feeling” (28, 37). Mrs. Transome becomes a representative of an antiquated aristocratic system, feeling the strain of her outdated and exhausted personal as well as economic value(s).
By the end of the novel, Mrs. Transome has indeed become what she feared: an old, frail, undesired woman, whose pain is past endurance, who “yields” to be cared for by a pseudo-child, and who ultimately fades into the distance until she dies, when there can be finally “silence about the past” (398). The very “power” which gave her pleasure – the realm of her influence beyond her role as mother – evaporates in the presence of a younger male; the only fully happy ending is granted to the younger female protagonist in the tidy, predictable consummation of the marriage plot between Esther and Felix Holt. Yet the tragedy of Mrs. Transome’s story lies, as with many of Eliot’s characters, in her vivid interiority that must struggle against the oppression of external circumstances:
No one said exactly that; but they never said anything like the full truth about her, or divined what was hidden under that outward life—a woman’s keen sensibility and dread, which lay screened behind all her petty habits and narrow notions, as some quivering thing with eyes and throbbing heart may lie crouching behind withered rubbish. (28)
Despite being disdained as “withered rubbish” in the court of public opinion and abandoned by her former friends, Mrs. Transome emerges as an exemplar in Victorian literature of the older woman whose career and desires would not reduce her to exclusively traditional, female roles. Rather, societal pressures – the gendered standards for female sexuality (her past adultery with Jermyn) and female aging (her current post-procreative, “ugly” stage of life) – smother Mrs. Transome’s individuality. In many ways, Felix Holt anticipates Middlemarch, concluding with a conventional, if ambiguous, “happily ever after”, one that must necessarily reassert society’s status quo at the expense of the ambitious and capable female protagonist.
As Kay Heath has argued, many Victorian narratives around aging women rely on “flirtatious matrons, medical prescriptions of sexlessness, and ubiquitous metaphors of withering: all reveal and contribute to entrenched menopausal expectations…. Middle-aged women in novels who fail to live up to its dictates are denigrated, chastised, ridiculed, or even feared for daring to live up to the precepts of sexless [that is, nongendered as well as unerotic] service.” Eliot exploits these precepts about “midlife” in order to expose the especially unfair burden they place upon women, particularly women who would be neither matrons nor men.
In searching for notions and narratives of older women in Victorian literature and culture, much more work could be done to understand the gendered nature of nineteenth-century aging. In many ways, the emphasis in Victorian literature on young heroines arises from our own bias towards young, beautiful, coming-of-age heroines. Beyond the “denigrated, chastised, ridiculed, or even feared” women who defy “midlife” norms, many more heroines exist to be appreciated for the way they struggle against those norms, recognized both by their authors and – increasingly – by their readers. To care for these older women is not simply to pity the loss of their looks or minds, but to recuperate their power as agents in their own stories.
 Teresa Mangum, “Growing Old: Age,” A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, ed. Herbert Tucker (London: Blackwell, 1999), Blackwell Reference Online, accessed 17 June 2015.
 Call the Midwife, executive prod. Pippa Harris and Heidi Thomas, BBC, 2012 –; “Comic Sans,” Orange is the New Black, writ. Sara Hess, dir. Andrew McCarthy, Netflix, 6 June 2014.
 “You Must Remember This,” As Time Goes By, writ. Bob Larbey, dir. Sydney Lotterby, BBC, 11 Jan. 1992.
 Karen Chase, The Victorians & Old Age (Oxford: OUP, 2009): pp.1, 62-112 passim.
 George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical, ed. Fred C. Thomson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). All subsequent citations will refer to this edition and appear parenthetically within the text.
 Sarah Ross, “‘I Will Speak Now’: Sensation, Speech, and Silence in George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical.” MA Dissertation, Durham University (UK). Unpublished, 2013.
 John Cross, George Eliot’s Life (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1885), 2, p. 352.
 Kay Heath, Aging by the Book: The Emergence of Midlife in Victorian Britain (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009): p.80.