Kay Heath


On her book Aging by the Book: The Emergence of Midlife in Victorian Britain

Cover Interview of January 12, 2010

The wide angle

I became interested in writing about age as a “non-traditional” graduate student in my early forties. Not just self-conscious about being older than my classmates, I also couldn’t help but notice that sometimes I was older even than the professor. As we discussed race, class, and gender as key aspects of identity, I began thinking about age. My fellow grad students were finding life partners and wondering whether to have babies, but I was parenting teenagers and dating after the end of a twenty-year marriage. My life stage seemed just as important as my middle-class, white femaleness. I became fascinated with the ways midlife was portrayed—and overlooked—in the texts we were reading. I began researching this topic and found midlife anxiety in a wide variety of nineteenth-century publications: conduct books, medical texts, and advertisements, but especially in novels.

When did midlife occur for Victorians, and why were they so anxious about it? Though average life expectancy in 1801 was thirty-six and by 1901 had increased only about fifteen years, adults knew they might live into their eighties and beyond. The 1871 census defines middle age as thirty to fifty for both sexes, but novels demonstrate a clear gender difference: fictional women begin middle age at thirty while men remain “young” a decade longer.

Midlife anxiety developed due to a number of changes in a more industrial, commercial, and scientific Britain. Darwin’s theories created a sense that life is brief and time is short. Many people moved to the city from farms, their lives no longer determined by cycles of daylight and seasons but scheduled around clocks and railway timetables. Physicians began to specialize in the elderly and diagnosed aging in terms of disease. Degeneration theory, a belief that modern life was causing evolution to turn backward, became popular at the end of the century. Eminent authority Max Nordau warned that “the vertigo and whirl of our frenzied life” lead to accelerated and earlier aging.

Changing ideas about gender also increased age anxiety. Early in the century, masculinity was understood in terms of gentlemanliness. Manly men in Jane Austen’s fiction, for example, are gentlemen. As middle- and working-class men got the vote, however, labor gained new respect. Professions and trades became an important aspect of identity, and manliness was earned, rather than inherited and cultivated. The rise of organized sports put new emphasis on youthful muscularity, and Britain’s growing empire required tough adventurers. Pension plans were invented, suggesting that men could age out of the ability to work, and the new science of sexology studied how virility wanes with age. As the masculine ideal transformed from upper-class gentleman to hard-working, physically fit man of business and builder of empire, aging men were hard-pressed to compete.

Victorian novels are filled with male age anxiety. Dickens’s men in their forties and fifties often worry about whether their “time of love has gone by.” In Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, midlife gentleman Roger Carbury struggles in a corrupt industrialized nation and loses the girl to a younger man. Both George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Trollope’s final novel, An Old Man’s Love, serve as cautionary tales about the inadequacies of fifty-year-old suitors. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray goes a step further, equating aging with evil, as Dorian’s sins appear on a painting in terms of grotesquely advanced age.

Older women had long been devalued in Britain, but Victorians added a new twist. With the rise of gynecology, female sexuality was considered delicate and pathological in comparison to the male norm. At menopause, women were devalued even more for losing fertility. Physician J. Braxton Hicks (now known for the uterine contractions named after him), argued that a post-menopausal woman enters “the neutral man-woman state,” and, “losing sexuality,” she becomes “useful.” Midlife women were urged to exchange sexuality for service as they helped the next generation find mates.

This expectation is evident in many Victorian novels. For example, Dickens portrays amorous forty-ish matrons like Mrs. Nickleby and Miss Sparsit, and the lovelorn fifty-year-old Miss Havisham as absolutely outside any possibility for romance.  They are either comic or abusive for dwelling on their own amorous lives instead of helping arrange marriages for younger women. In contrast, Charlotte Brontë’s Mrs. Pryor is the ideal matron—reluctant to appear attractive and eager to assist her daughter’s romance. Widows who remarry can be exceptions to this rule, however, especially in Trollope’s novels that empower midlife women. In Can You Forgive Her?, the Widow Greenow is satirized for husband-hunting in her forties; by the end, however, she’s a beautiful, sexy woman who admires “a well-made man” and remarries for love.