Why We Like Middle-Aged Heroines: Bridget Jones, Louise Bickford, and Julie de Carneilhan

Helen fielding bridget jones mad about the boyOne day a friend in her fifties, feeling confident and beautiful, walked along the beach wearing a bikini.  A young man came up behind her and then blanched when he saw her face.

“That’s when I knew I was middle-aged,” she said.

Many of us have moments like this, but we secretly remain confident, loving our crow’s feet, our gray hair, and our bodies.

And so a lot of us are laughing aloud at the moxie of Bridget in Helen Fielding’s new novel, Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy.

Bridget, 51, now a widow and a single mother, is attempting to get out of the house and meet men.  It is a jungle in clubs and on Twitter and she makes many faux pas.   She tells “Leatherjacketman,” a man she meets at a club, that she hasn’t had sex in four and a half years.  And when she is on a date with a younger man, he takes away her phone so she won’t tweet the whole date.

Reviewers hate this book, and why it should be reviewed in the first place–it’s light, it’s charming, it’s not literature–I do not know.  It is not a comedy in the class of, say, Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Weissport, a retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  If reviewers expect Bridget to be a role model, they are not good readers.

Jen Chaney at The Washington Post says,

While parenthood and profound loss may have forced Bridget to grow up in some ways, she hasn’t grown up much. And that’s one of this novel’s key problems. Readers may expect a middle-aged woman who has dealt with such loss to have lowered her narcissism levels a tad. Not Bridget Jones . . . or, pardon me, ­@JonesyBJ.

Bridget is middle-aged, not dead.

Bridget is still in what I call the flirt zone, and that, too, is a problem for some reviewers.  One of Bridget’s suitors is 21 years younger, and of course we know it won’t last.  But, as Bridget points out, younger men like older women because they’re “refreshingly not looking to them to be bread-winners and not thinking about babies any more.”

And Bridget says of the fifties:

It used to be the age of Germaine Greer’s ‘Invisible Woman,’ branded as non-viable, post-menopausal sitcom fodder. But now with the Talitha school of branding combined with Kim Cattrall, Julianne and Demi Moore, etc., is all starting to change!

Well, Ashton left Demi…but I like Bridget’s viewpoint.

Reading about middle-aged women is empowering for those of us who are middle-aged.   Though women are believed not to age as well as men, that is probably a power thing:  we’re still doing everything we’ve always done, just as middle-aged men are.  And,  frankly, we  want to read about people our age now and then.  Young men and women can be…well…boring…if very sweet.

I have enjoyed other novels about aging women.

monica dickens 1 the winds of heavenIn Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, Louise Bickford, a 57-year-old widow, spends part of each year living with each of her three daughters.  (Thank God I didn’t reproduce, though I’ll probably regret it in old age.)   She spends the winter at a hotel owned by a friend who doesn’t want her.

In London, which seems unbearably exciting and sophisticated to Louise, she waits in a tea room for her daughter, wishing she were more attractive.

“Louise was always much concerned with how people were thinking of her and summing her up; not knowing that a small, middle-aged woman with stubby features and hair no longer brown and not yet grey usually goes unnoticed.”

But she does attract Gordon, a fat mystery writer, whom she meets in a tea room.  She has read his books.  They become good friends.

And Louise gradually finds herself.  This is a charming comedy-drama, not great literature, but entertaining.

Of course Colette’s Julie de Carneilhan is great literature, not a pop novel.  Julie, the beautiful heroine, in her early forties, still regrets her divorce from her second husband, Herbert.  Her brother tells her that people will talk if she goes out partying with her younger boyfriend, Coco, while Herbert is very ill.

Julie asks, “Am I expected to put on mourning in advance for a man who was unfaithful to me for eight years and has been married again for another three?”

She is bitter but deeply cares for Herbert, and has a revelation when she visits him.  This is a graceful, lyrical novel about the consequences of divorce.

I’m always interested in “middle-aged” literature.  So what are your favorite books about middle age and old age?  (And I don’t mean that book about menopause that recommends we have an orgasm a day to stay healthy.  I’m still laughing about that.)

Mrs. Miniver, Middle Age, & Matron Clothes

Greer Garson as Mrs. Miniver

Greer Garson as Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver suddenly understood why she was enjoying the forties so much better than she had enjoyed the thirties: it was the difference between August and October, between the heaviness of late summer and the sparkle of early autumn, between the ending of an old phase and the beginning of a fresh one.

I very much enjoyed reading Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a collection of charming columns she wrote in the 1930s for the London Times.  Mrs. Miniver is a fictional character based on Struther.  In 1939 the columns were published as a novel (you can read the entire book at this website.)

As a housewife/cook/bicycling blogger, I think it would be lovely to be Mrs. Miniver.  In the very first chapter, when she is musing about being in her forties, she comes home to a fire in the fireplace and tea laid out on the table by the servant:   “…there were honey sandwiches, brandy-snaps, and small ratafia biscuits; and there would, she knew, be crumpets.”

"Red-dressed Woman in a Green Room" by Róbert Berény

“Red-dressed Woman in a Green Room” by Róbert Berény

Perhaps it is easier to examine the vicissitudes of life wisely if one has servants.  She loves her three children but is not trapped by them (her oldest son is at Eton), one of her greatest problems is getting used to a new car, she endearingly buys an expensive green lizard engagement diary instead of a new hat, and she does not need romance:  she describes marriage as two crescents bound at the points, with a leaf-shaped space in the middle “for privacy or understanding, essential in a happy marriage.”

The forties…  All gone!  Mrs. Miniver had better circumstances. The fifties have been better for me.  The forties were a time of heartbreak, of working for an unstable boss, and coping with an early menopause.  For almost a year I actually missed menstruating.  Tampons.  The stain of blood on a white skirt on the bus.  (A whispered “Miss!  Your period.”)  Then there were hot flashes.   There was blushing. I refused to support the pharmaceutical companies by taking hormones (which was brilliant, since they were shown to cause cancer).

Finally, in my  fifties, I began to feel the “sparkle of early autumn” Mrs. Miniver writes about.  There is a confidence in one’s fifties, a cessation of trying too hard to please, and a willingness to try new things.

Of course you miss your younger body.

But you can, if you want, let go of:

  • dyeing your hair blond
  • baking eggplant parmesan in a small kitchen where every surface is covered with ingredients and you must move into the dining room to put it all together–probably in tears!
  • saying “Have a nice day!” to the guy who plays his drums late at night
  • pretending you will bicycle 100 miles with your husband/boyfriend/girlfriend (35 is my limit)
  • saying you’ll read James Joyce’s Ulysses
  • wanting a large leather hobo bag that costs $1,495 (throw out your TV!  That’s where you saw it.)

You will, on the other hand, need more makeup and a better wardrobe.

The Loved and Envied enid bagnold beautiful coverIs aging the last frontier for women in literature?  Certainly many honest, bold writers have written about sexuality in middle- and old age. Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, a novel about a woman’s coping with midlife, is one of my favorite books.  Her novel Love Again is about love at the wrong time of life:  a 65-year-old theater manager and writer, who hasn’t had sex in 20 years or missed it, falls in love with a flirtatious American actor in his twenties.  Erica Jong is the author of the memoir, Fear of Fifty.  Virginia Woolf writes about the 50ish Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.  Elizabeth von Arnim’s Mr. Skeffington is a coming-of-middle-age story about a beautiful woman turning 50.  Enid Bagnold’s The Loved and Envied tells the story of a group of friends who are dealing with aging.  May Sarton published diaries on aging.

And of course there are many more.

Which writers do you recommend on aging?  And what are your thoughts on different decades of life?

BOOKS & MATRONS. I was recently treated with respect at Barnes and Noble.  Why?  Because I wore MATRON CLOTHES.

Some of you may remember that I bought “matron clothes” for my mother’s funeral in August.  I rushed into a department store, took a jumble of suitable tops into the dressing room, and bought the first five that fit. In my feminine top over stretchy jeans, I was  promptly served my latte at B&N in about 30 seconds.  When I bought a book, the clerk did not a smile–that would have been going too far–but there was courtesy.

The moral?  Dress up!