Fiction and Social Gerontology: The Novelist Stanley Middleton on Aging

Article excerpt

Stanley Middleton is an English novelist who was born in 1919. He published his first novel in 1958, and his most recent, Love in The Provinces, in 2002. At the current count he has published forty novels and is still writing. Not all of these are about aging and old age, but there is a significant number in which older people are the central characters and the experience of growing older is a core theme. This article for the most part concerns a selection from diese stories of aging and focuses, from a gerontological perspective, on Middleton's contribution as a creative artist to our understanding of what it means to grow old (Hepworth, 2000). This discussion of imagined age identity begins with a summary of the typical characteristics of Middleton's fiction.

His novels first came to my attention during the early 1970s when I was working with Mike Featherstone on the social construction of middle age as an identifiable period in the life course (Hepworth and Featherstone, 1982). This was a time when interest in the "midlife crisis" was gradually emerging, and there were signs of an intensification of age-consciousness around this issue. As part of my sociological research I was looking in particular for evidence of this changing social climate in contemporary fiction that was related in some way to the subject. Somewhere I read a review of Holiday (1975), Middleton's fourteenth novel and joint-winner of the Booker Prize, and became instantly stimulated by his sensitive observations of the minutiae of everyday social interaction and its contribution to individual self-awareness. It is important to stress that the central character of Holiday is not an older person but someone who is going through a personal crisis in his marriage. In order to come to terms with his life, he has returned on his own to Ae seaside town he visited with his parents as a child. In other words, it is a kind of "life review" during the course of which age awareness is fostered in the character Edwin Fisher partly through encounters with much older people.

In common with most of Middleton's main characters, Fisher is a middle-class professional man-in this case a teacher. He is still relatively young-not yet middle-aged-and his story introduced me to Middleton's preoccupation in all his fiction with the quality of human relationships. Middleton himself has observed that all his novels are about people who are going through some sort of crisis. These include a number of the problems associated with later life such as illness, bereavement, retirement, the onset of mental confusion, and the need for residential care. In his stories it is not the plot as such that is of interest but the observation of the relationships of the characters and the changes in self-awareness that these reflexively produce. For someone like myself with an interest in the ways in which the experience of ageing is shaped by everyday social interaction there are fascinating affinities between Middleton's imagined scenarios and the reports of gerontologists who have studied the social construction of aging in conversations and varying social contexts such as residential accommodation and clubs for older people. I became so engaged by the subtlety of his descriptions of interpersonal relationships that I went on to read more of his novels and have continued to pursue this interest up to the present day.

How MIDDLETON'S WORLD RELATES TO GERONTOLOGY

What are the characteristic features of Middleton's world and how do they relate to gerontology?

In a nutshell, Middleton has often been described as a "master of the mundane" (Gerard, 1999, p. 60). For the critic Gerard and many other commentators, references to the "mundane" mean that the core of Middleton's fiction is the correspondence he manages to contrive on the printed page with the reality of everyday lived experience. It is the "ordinariness" of existence where life is not lived on a grand scale but within small-scale settings such as families and friendship groups in which intimacy is a significant issue. …