During a global pandemic, with millions of lives lost—and with those losses often shamefully minimized in the popular press on the basis of age—the work of age studies scholars proves itself once again so crucially needed. Thus far, age (particularly youth and old age) has structured popular conversations about COVID-19 far more often than class or race, with intersectionality in those categories of identity proving difficult to communicate to a wider public. It’s not yet entirely clear whether the pandemic emphasis on age (in coverage on everything from fatalities to vaccinations) has been entirely well placed. What is clear is that this framing based on age has given scholars in our still-emerging interdisciplinary field an opportunity to join wider conversations. It’s one that we ought not let go to waste.
It’s true that scholarship about the nineteenth century may not seem as needed or relevant as it did in the “before times,” before the pandemic. In an era of crisis, the present and the future may seem more worthy of attention than the supposedly well-grasped past. But the fact is that the nineteenth-century texts that even those of us who have been trained in this period think we know are frequently made strange and new when we bring age to the fore. It’s what Crossley and Culley rightly describe in their excellent introduction to this special issue of Age, Culture, Humanities as being alive to the sense of cultural urgency of age in the long nineteenth century.
The six essays in this special issue take works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s literature, and art as foundational evidence for original arguments. Some of these texts are shown to have broken new ground and to have made innovation and positive changes possible where the category of age was concerned. Others quashed them. We learn in these pages that some nineteenth-century authors, critics, or readers fell in line with then-dominant cultural dictates about age and aging. Others struggled to define their lives and works against the grain. Unsurprisingly, then, the topics and problems discussed in these essays may prove uplifting or depressing by turns. All of these essays, however, have the capacity to inspire us to further research, writing, and action.
It’s both true and a truism that literary and cultural histories, like history more generally, are shaped by the “victors.” As we know, the victorious were rarely those who belonged to marginalized groups, including the old. Famed late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century poet, Anna Seward, understood this all too well. She knew she’d be judged going forward by a group of largely male tastemakers, even after she’d died. Francesca Blanch-Serrat’s essay on Seward is a tour de force for its exploration of the ways the then-celebrated poet and letter writer tried to ensure her continued high literary reputation with instructions about how to publish her work after her death. Seward arranged all of these papers, and made all of these plans, only to have them carried out differently and to have her attempt at a positive legacy fail. Blanch-Serrat, in calling Seward’s efforts an attempt at “self-canonization,” does not mean to accuse the author of overrating her talents. Instead, the essay shows what Seward was up against in getting a fair hearing for her continued relevance.
Blanch-Serrat charts the ways in which Seward’s younger male editor Sir Walter Scott and publisher Archibald Constable thwarted Seward’s carefully laid plans for posthumous publication. These men’s changes to her carefully curated texts also led to negative reviews. Seward, by leaving this work in the hands of younger men who’d survive her, thought she was cannily waiting for the moment in which she might finally break free of accusations of immodesty. But, as Blanch-Serrat shows, “age and gender played an instrumental part in the critical dismissal of Seward’s posthumous career.” The ways in which literary history was, and continues to be, shaped by sexism and ageism must continue to be uncovered and told. Seward, like so many others, hasn’t yet had the afterlife that her literary achievements deserve.
The nuances of age and other categories of identity in the nineteenth century must be studied together to advance our scholarship. In her essay, June Oh takes on old age and social class. She compels us to recognize that “anti-aging” products have a long history and may even have sometime proved progressive forces in an industrializing economy. She investigates Jane Austen’s Persuasion and its mentions of an actual nineteenth-century lotion, Gowland’s Lotion. Oh argues that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British skin care industry served to create new ways for individuals to exert agency over the aging process.
We don’t tend to think of commercial anti-aging products as liberatory, and they certainly weren’t entirely so. What Oh’s work shows us is that, in Austen’s novel, products like Gowland’s Lotion fueled what she calls a movement toward the democratization of the body. Persuasion’s heroine’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, is a baronet and a snob. Yet, his beliefs about the preservation and restoration of blooming skin, seen as something that might be controlled by widely available products, are surprisingly “disruptive to the existing social distinctions of class.” The question that Oh’s conclusion raises is the extent to which the pendulum has swung in the other direction. How, or perhaps when, do commercial treatments (whether “anti-aging” or lifesaving) prove disruptive to, or reinforcing of, social distinctions based on class? The distance from Gowland’s Lotion to today’s Regeneron REGN-COV2 may seem a gulf, but tracing that shift is important as we confront anew questions of aging, curative products, and access based on class.
In her article on the late Victorian fairy tales by Margaret Collier Galletti di Cadilhac, scholar Claudia Capancioni asks us to consider the process of growing up as a question of life geography and national geography. She does so through an analysis of Collier’s Prince Peerless: A Fairy Folk Story Book (1886). Capancioni’s reading considers how intercultural encounters might be productively compared to the visiting of fairylands, especially those encounters that go beyond national borders. Capancioni’s argument that Collier’s fairy tales serve as an “essential interlocutor for children to grow up understanding the value of being other, of cultural differences, interaction, and negotiation” seems just as pressing now as it did 150 years ago.
Today’s transnational tales of growing up may be explored through reflecting on the work of trailblazers like Collier. Her example ought to have all of us thinking differently about YouTube, TikTok, and other spaces in which young adult narratives circulate widely across national boundaries. How do these spaces serve “to mediate changes into adulthood that are challenging and in equal measure exciting and daunting,” as Capancioni puts it? Collier’s work also raises the question of whether the age of the author of transnational tales designed for young readers matters—or how it matters. What might we learn from Collier’s efforts, if we examine them alongside today’s digital stories, which are more often constructed by “authors” far closer to their viewers/readers in age? How are these texts offering new geographies of encounter which, like Collier’s fairy tales, bring with them new exciting and daunting challenges?
Similar questions arise in response to David McAllister’s work on Charles Dickens and the stories and anxieties of mid-life, particularly for men. Considering the fascinating fact that Dickens himself used newly developing products to darken the color of his hair and beard in order to hide the grays, McAllister takes us through several works of Dickens’s fiction to look at them with fresh eyes. His splendid readings may make today’s readers wonder how this period led to the rise of the “silver fox,” as the graying, attractive older man has since been stereotyped. McAllister shows that gray hairs and lines on the face were a Victorian sign of declining masculine potency. In Dickens, these signs are often linked to male characters’ psychological anxiety. From there, they variously point to middle age as a potentially liberatory life stage or as a period of regrettable loss.
On the day on which I first had the pleasure of reading McAllister’s essay, I drove past a billboard with an attractive white man’s smooth face. He had dark brown hair and close-cropped beard and a smile. His face was being used to sell Botox, although it was marketed to men on the billboard with the phrase “Brotox.” Injections to lessen the appearance of wrinkles are being sold as reinvigorating manliness and bonding among youth-seeking, middle-aged men. This is a fascinating corollary to the issues that McAllister’s essay, and Dickens’s novels, raise. McAllister points out that Dickens’s fiction has the potential to help us to reimagine midlife more positively, as a stage in which new social bonds may be forged, free from “the determining and contingent circumstances of youth.” The twenty-first century may yet have lessons to learn from the Victorians about masculinity and mid-life.
Victorian men innovated in art by attending to women’s aging, too, as Caitlin Doley shows in her essay on James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871). Doley examines how critics have struggled over this image, calling it everything from an adoring son’s homage to his mother, to an anti-sentimental image of detached reconciliation. What Doley argues is that stunningly few art critics, in studying this painting, have paid much attention to the advanced age of the sitter—Whistler’s mother. Her age may be acknowledged, Doley argues, but rarely studied and scrutinized. Once we do scrutinize, as Doley shows us, we see that Whistler’s art from this period, and his very technique of applying paint thinly rather than thickly, arguably shifted as a result of trying to capture his mother in old age. He took this technique with him as he moved forward.
Doley’s conclusion, that “age can have a distinct impact on creative techniques and practices” as well as on “the finished appearances of visual works of art” is important in that it goes beyond naming the age of the painter or the sitter, to ask about the ways in which capturing old age might produce artistic innovation. We are accustomed to thinking about “late style,” perhaps, as controversial as that category has rightly become in artistic and literary critical analysis (McMullan and Smiles). What Doley is asking us to attend to is something different. She offers her essay as a case study to argue for expanding the ways in which we engage in “close visual analysis of artworks that interrelate with age.” Age studies is all too often mistaken as limited in scope. It’s said to be little more in its method than what Andrea Charise has caricatured as “spot the old person” (Charise xiii). Doley shows us new ways not only to spot, but to better understand the creation and meaning of, images of figures depicted in late life.
The work of G. Carney and L. Hannan on G. Stanley Hall’s Senescence (1922) proves more harrowing. They bring a feminist perspective to a masculinist text, in order to reread its complicated messages. Carney and Hannan show us that Hall’s Senescence deserves to be better unpacked by critics, as it is often cited as the first major work to consider aging as a field worthy of study in its own right. They argue that Hall was attempting to write a book of scientific research, rationality, and objective reasoning, but that his book “fails to convince” in his “pitch for a productive old age,” through his use of science, the personal, and the divine.
As we learn more about the nineteenth century’s pioneering studies of aging, the supposed “first-ness” of Hall’sSenescence seems likely to fall. Earlier texts, using different keywords for old age, ignited the field of age studies. These include books about longevity and even senility, some of which have been collected in the eight-volume collection, The History of Old Age in England, 1600-1800 (Botelho and Ottaway). In the Victorian era, you regularly see the use of what now may seem redundant phrases, such as “senile dementia.” That’s because senile used merely to mean old age. It’s the same sort of linguistic difference that led scholars to overstate the extent to which the Victorians invented “midlife,” when, in fact, the term “middle period” was widely used across the eighteenth century and meant much the same thing (Looser).
Nevertheless, Carney and Hannan show us that Hall’s book deserves scrutiny, as much for its limitations as for its supposed innovations. It is especially troubling for its gendered arguments and its rigid focus on loss, decline, and losing the will to live. For instance, Senescence presents suicide as an acceptable solution to encountering old age. Its effects may have had a long tail. One might read Hall’s arguments alongside May Sarton’s pioneering novel As We Are Now(1973). Of course, Sarton’s novel cannot be accused, as Hall’s should be, of endorsing the notion that “there is nothing to be achieved, enjoyed, or celebrated past the age of 40, much less past the age of 60,” as Carney and Hannan put it. But Hall channeled arguments that would come to be culturally dominant and that continue to warp ideas about what the stages and transitions of late life can, or should, look like. Carney and Hannan lead us toward better questions about what it means to study, experience, and imagine old age, then and now.
The past, of course, still has its lessons for us. These lessons are most clearly felt in the work that demonstrates the constructedness of age and the ways that its categories have been imagined. So much of the force of nineteenth-century age and aging, and the transformations it wrought, remains with us. Even when it doesn’t, studying its contours has great value. It compels us to step back from our own time, in order to ask how we, too, may be describing age in limiting terms.
Each of these essays opens up opportunities for more and better work and, with any luck, lives that are better and more variously lived. If we wanted to use the terms that the nineteenth century itself might have invoked to express identity across the life course we’d call it the cradle to the grave. That phrase itself, no doubt, deserves to be investigated and unpacked, perhaps by the very well-established and emerging scholars whose fine work is collected in this special issue.
Whatever else we might say about progress—and no doubt there has been some—the thorny problems of age and aging in the long nineteenth century remain with us. We see them reflected in today’s newspapers, magazines, films, television, and social media. Contemporary conversations about age and aging certainly deserve study in their own right, but they also deserve to be situated in history. That’s why more of us who care about age studies and about the nineteenth century ought to heed the call of editors Crossley and Culley. They ask us to consciously adopt an inclusive tone and an open, flexible consideration of age. We might do so not only in our research addressed to other scholars but in taking the next step to transform our original findings and arguments about the past into stories to share with a wider public.
Botelho, Lynn, and Susannah R. Ottaway, eds. The History of Old Age in England, 1600-1800. 8 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008-2009.
Charise, Andrea. The Aesthetics of Senescence: Aging, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel. State University of New York Press, 2020.
McMullan, Gordon and Sam Smiles, eds. Late Style and its Discontents: Essays in Art, Literature, and Music. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Looser, Devoney. Review of The Emergence of Midlife in Victorian Britain by Kay Heath. Age Culture, Humanities, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 266-69. http://ageculturehumanities.org/WP/aging-by-the-book-the-emergence-of-midlife-in-victorian-britain-kay-heath-albany-state-university-of-new-york-press-2009-pp-xii-247-75-00-hardcover-24-95-paperback-and-electronic/. Accessed 10 April 2020.
About the Author
Devoney Looser is Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University. She has authored or edited nine books, including The Making of Jane Austen and The Daily Jane Austen: A Year in Quotes, as well as a series of video lessons on Jane Austen for The Great Courses. She has published essays in the Atlantic, the New York Times, Salon, the TLS, and the Washington Post. With the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship and NEH Public Scholar Award, Looser has completed a biography, Sister Novelists: Jane and Anna Maria Porter, to be published in 2022 by Bloomsbury.