I have heard the mermaids singing

My post today is inspired by Elena’s topic yesterday about digging deeper into Prinnyland and it’s also something that’s been on my mind for a time. With no exceptions, everyone who wrote to me about Dedication said how much they liked the older hero/heroine—people seemed to love the idea of a pair of lovers who’d been around the block. And it got me thinking about how fiction treats the, ahem, older generation. The pic here is of the Wife of Bath. I’m not sure how old she was, but the average age during Chaucer’s time, thanks to warfare, the plague, and other rigors of medieval life, was in the early twenties. Aargh. Imagine a world where major decisions were made by fratboys.

First to Emma, where Mr. Woodhouse is described as being not old in years, but embracing the role of elderly hypochondriac with passion. Emma is twenty-one. So is my daughter. Mr. Woodhouse could be younger than me. Oh. My. God. (as we say in blogland). Now certainly, for women at that time, if by a certain age you hadn’t snapped up a husband, you threw in the towel, grabbed an unbecoming spinster’s cap and descended into middle age—just like Miss Bates. And, as I’ve mentioned before, Miss Bates could be the same age, or younger, than Mr. Knightley, who because he is male and rich is far above her on the status scale. Mr. Knightley’s single state is admired, not despised, because it’s seen as an act of generosity toward the nephew who will inherit his estate.

In Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford Miss Matty is described as an old lady. She is fifty-five. No comment. Again, she’s damned by gender, income and circumstances.

So how do older people fare in romance? As you’ve gathered by now I’m not that well read in the genre. I appreciate that we don’t want to read about sagging flesh, wrinkles, gray hair etc. etc. But Sean Connery gets just, well, hotter as he ages (note extraneous pic of Mr. Connery in his prime). I once pointed out to someone in a critique group that her heroine’s wise, loving, cookie-baking, homely mom came of age during Woodstock. (Was there a special ingredient in the cookies to provide the appropriate feelgood warmth of category romance?)

A big hand to my friend Stephanie Feagan whose heroine (named Pink) has a 50-something mom who sports sexy black bras and has trouble with her A/C—the A/C repairman visits. A lot.

Prinnyland, as I remember it, is full of gracious, loving matriarchs who obsess with planning their offsprings’ lavish weddings—strange in an age where most weddings took place in the drawing room and took about ten minutes as far as I can tell. Fathers are too often dead, or if alive, embarrassing (if not to the heroine, certainly to the reader) buffoons, who invariably have screwed up the family finances or have expensive and eccentric hobbies. There also seem to be far too many Lady Bracknell knock-offs. Please, set me straight. Tell me about the many, many exceptions. Where are the hot, older men? And hot, older women?

Oh, and my next book has a subplot featuring the hero’s widowed mom and her wild fling. Her eldest son is thirty. Do the math.


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8 Responses to I have heard the mermaids singing

  1. Cara King says:

    Wow, you give us lots to think about, talk about, and debate!

    A couple observations:

    — Emma did have an older sister. 🙂

    — What makes an old person old? If Mr. Woodhouse is, say, fifty, and he has arthritis, a touchy digestive system, a tendency to gout (perhaps explaining his dietary restrictions?), never got over the loss of his wife, feels the cold much more than he did when he was twenty — that could give us much of his character, I think. Fifty-year-olds nowadays who get arthritis are given anti-inflammatories, they rarely get gout, they’re sometimes widowed at fifty but not usually, and again, digestive problems are generally treated by yet another pill, or operation.

    Anyway, I think physical state can lead to behavior. Contrary to all the saintly ill-or-dying people in Victorian novels, I’ve always observed that pain makes people grumpy and unhappy. And querulous.

    So, anyway, that’s my opinion about Mr. Woodhouse.

    I agree, Miss Bates probably hasn’t reached forty yet. Mr. Knightley’s single state is indeed admired, but Emma’s is fine too, as Emma points out to Harriet! I think one problem was that there must have been relatively few women like Emma — wealthy enough to be comfortable for life without marriage, and without mother or mother-in-law to keep her second place in the household… But there must have been far more men like Mr. Knightley, who had enough money from whatever source to be respectable and comfortable without marrying…

    It does bother me that both in period literature, and in modern book and film, a man of forty, fifty, or even sixty is often seen as eligible, and a woman starts having trouble when she reaches a much younger age. When I was a film reviewer, I stretched the patience of my editor by spending half of every Woody Allen review I wrote complaining how yet again the character played by Woody Allen was paired up with a very young thing. 🙂

    Okay, I have more to say (great subject)! But I have to go take a break… 🙂


  2. Todd says:

    I think there are a fair number of books out there with older hero and heroine. An example that leaps to mind is “Fast Women” by Jennifer Crusie. And probably an even larger number in which there is a secondary romance of an older couple–I can think of several examples, including at least two more by Crusie. While I thought “The Bridges of Madison County” was a deeply mediocre book, its hero and heroine were both forty or so and it was a huge hit.

    Of course, as a percentage these are pretty small. Most romances–and indeed, most fiction of any kind, including almost all “great literature” as well as popular entertainment–feature protagonists in their twenties and thirties. Why? Presumably because that’s what people want to read. The double standard for men and women in fiction unfortunately reflects a similar double standard in life. Just read the personal ads. “53-year-old-man seeks woman 25 to 55.” It’s almost always the same.

    It’s nice that there are some books out there that are exceptions. And if one chooses to decry popular taste–well, that’s an ancient and honorable tradition as well. 🙂


  3. Janie says:

    That’s a great post. I remember when I started writing romance, everyone was older. Now, EVERYONE and I mean everyone is YOUNGER.

    I turned 52, but it’s difficult to think of myself as old.

    Both my parents are still truckin’ though sick these days. 87 and 84. So I got years I hope.

    You have to take into account that in *Emma’s* day, 55 was probably like 80 today! I hope.

  4. Cara King says:

    Okay, I’m back. To address more of Janet’s questions.

    1. First, about the moms in Prinnyland obsessively planning lavish weddings for their offspring — well, I’ve read decades worth of Regencies, so I think I can say with some authority that this is a pretty rare error in traditionals.

    2. True, fathers are often dead, and if not, they generally aren’t much use — because this is fiction. This is archetypal. Jane Eyre would not have had the problems or adventures she had if her parents were still around. Jane Austen’s characters are similar — parents are neglectful (P&P, Per, MP), or incompetent (P&P, S&S, Emma) or missing (Emma, S&S, Per) or distant (NA, MP).

    This also terribly common in children’s fiction, of course — the parents/guardians are dead (Harry Potter, Snow White) or distant (Wizard of Oz).

    Plus, of course, this was a reality of Regency life. Not exactly rare for a twenty-year-old to have one or more dead parent. (And, if you think about it, it even happens nowadays.)

    3. As to older protagonists in Regencies and romances in general — Todd and I had a big discussion about this last night. The conclusions we reached were

    (a) there is and always has been a tendency in pretty much all genres of fiction and drama etc to prefer telling stories about young people, so it’s not only a tendency of romance fiction, though it’s a stronger tendency in romance, because of (b).

    (b) Some romance novels are about older characters (and have been for a long time), but because readers seem to really like imagining the protagonists having babies after the book ends, heroine’s upper age limit has usually been limited by the generally perceived age of menopause. I can think of a bunch of thirty-five year old heroines, and a decent handful of forty-year-olds, but that’s about as old as I’ve mostly seen heroines. Heroes can be older, for both societal and biological reasons, though I don’t think I can recall seeing one past the age of fifty. (Though I don’t read a lot of single title mainstream romance — I suspect older characters of both genders are more common there.)

    As for the Woodstock era grandmother? Well, I think there were far more girls in sororities having bake sales in the 60’s than there were at Woodstock. 🙂


  5. Lois says:

    Oh dear lord, I love Sean Connery in the 90s and today movies. Sigh.

    Okay, drooling out of the way. . . 😉 I haven’t thought much about the age stuff. I’m 29 and have been reading Romances not to mention Regencies for just a couple years, so for the most part, I would identify with the 20 somethings. But I certainly have loved ones that the heroine is a little 30 something. But it’s possible in the next few years, I might want more older heroines, but then at the same time, I am very aware that we’re talking about a time where women didn’t wait until they were 30+ to get married and have kids, so I probably really wouldn’t care about that. But as I get older, it just might be nice to see the occasional 30 something heroine.

    DId that make any sense? LOL 🙂


  6. Todd says:

    BTW, Janet, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is pretty much my favorite poem. So, good choice there! 🙂


  7. Elena Greene says:

    Yes, interesting stuff.

    Lady Dearing was in her early thirties, but the heroines of my earlier books were younger and made mistakes that (I hope) make sense for their ages. With an older heroine the problems have to be different and probably more complex, because (unless she has more hair than wit, which would not be attractive in a heroine) she should have learned something along the way. So I suspect an older heroine would be harder to write.

    Still, knowing some of the real history, I wonder why older women are usually portrayed either as doting mothers or censorious matriarchs–rarely sexy in their own right. I just read a biography of Countess Lieven who certainly got around. Some of the other patronesses of Almack’s did too. (I hear a collective gasp from devotees of Prinnyworld where all the patronesses were paragons of propriety.)

    OTOH these women were having extramarital affairs and most did not consider leaving their husbands over them. It’d be a different task to create a true romance for an experienced older woman.

    I’ve got one in the idea file.


  8. I don’t have any problem with older heroes and heroines but I really prefer young romance. Men are in their prime in their thirties and women in their late teens/early twenties. I like that fantasy of beautiful people falling in love.

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