"Women's Time": Women, Age, and Intergenerational Relations in Doris Lessing's the Diaries of Jane Somers
Wallace, Diana, Studies in the Literary Imagination
Old age exposes the failure of our entire civilization.--Simone de Beauvoir, Old Age (543)
In Western society, obsessed with youth and youthfulness, old age is Other--but it is also that which we must become. In this it differs radically from gender, race, and even class as categories of otherness. Old age is, in Simone de Beauvoir's phrase, a "forbidden subject" in Western culture. "Society," she writes in her monumental study Old Age, "looks upon old age as a kind of shameful secret that it is unseemly to mention" (1). As her language suggests, in the twentieth century old age and mortality replaced sexuality as that which cannot be spoken about. Indeed, Old Age (originally published as La Vieillesse, 1970, and translated in the US as The Coming of Age, 1972, itself a somewhat euphemistic title) was, as Kathleen Woodward has remarked, "ignored by mainstream readers, feminists, and even scholars of Beauvoir herself" (xi). Even within feminism ageism has proven difficult to confront.
The anxiety that attends the process of aging is correspondingly intense. For women, so often judged on their appearance, the onset of aging can be acutely painful. We also need to consider in relation to this women's enforced position as men's Other within Western culture. As Beauvoir famously put it: "He is the Subject, he is the Absolute--she is the Other" (Second Sex 16). The old woman is doubly Othered by gender and age. She is the hag, the crone, the old maid, the evil stepmother, the wicked witch of folklore and fairytale. "Lastly," as Beauvoir remarks, "the old woman looks like death" (Old Age 150).
Yet the process of aging is often an experience that leads the aging woman back to the first Other in a child's life, the mother. Looking at her mother's face, a woman sees not only where she came from but where she is going, her past and her future. The place of her birth thus becomes a memento mori of the most intimate kind. The aging maternal body is also a reminder that, as Beauvoir suggested, "it is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life" (539). For many, as the phrase "second childhood" implies, old age is a period of increasing dependence on others for basic bodily functions which suggests a circular rather than linear life pattern, culminating in a return to "ma(t)ter."
Doris Lessing, now herself in her eighties, is one of only a handful of women writers who have addressed the "forbidden subject" of women's old age in any depth. (1) Lessing is still probably best known for The Golden Notebook (1962), a book which broke taboos about female experiences, such as menstruation, and anticipated second-wave feminism. Published over two decades later, Lessing's The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984) is similarly taboo-breaking in its depiction of old age. An impassioned protest against the way our society treats the old, the book's radical nature was, however, initially obscured by the fact that it was first published as two books--The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could ...--under the pseudonym "Jane Somers." This ruse and Lessing's reasons for it initially attracted more attention than its actual content. (2) Lessing's text, however, offers a highly suggestive exploration of the aging process and its complex relations with identity, femininity, the body and decay, and abjection.
The diaries are written in the first person by Jane Somers, usually called Janna, "a handsome, middle-aged widow with a very good job in the magazine world" (17). Janna is forced to reassess her life when she befriends Maudie Fowler, an old lady of over ninety whom she meets by accident. Using the immediacy and realism of the diary format, the book documents the poverty and loneliness to which many old people, particularly working-class women like Maudie, are abandoned. Janna's fury after Maudie's death--'Tm so angry I could die of it" (261), she says--is an expression of moral outrage at the failure of our civilization to care for the old.
As the Diaries make clear, the experience of aging is specific to culture," history, and gender. Other cultural possibilities are hinted at, for instance, by the Asian shopkeeper who tells Janna that his own people would never abandon their old as Maudie has been abandoned by her family. Lessing's text reflects specific anxieties during the early 1980s over the social and economic implications of the "greying" of the population. Demographic shifts in longevity in Britain meant that it had become the norm for people, especially women, to live into old age. Life expectancy for women had gone from 68 in 1921 to 80.4 in 1981 (Thane 208), and the percentage of the population aged 65 and over had gone from 7.4 in 1931 to 15.1 in 1981 (209). Family structures had also changed and the number of old women who lived on their own had nearly quadrupled from 11% in 1921 to 42% in 1981 (Wall 142). Old women were more likely to suffer from poverty because they were already disadvantaged by their gender. These demographic shifts account for "the recent upsurge of interest in the elderly" in, for instance, sociology noted by Janet Ford and Ruth Sinclair in 1987 (161). Ahead of the game as usual, Lessing is addressing a specific historical phenomenon: the fact that we can almost all now expect to enter that stage of Otherness that is old age. Moreover, especially for women, "old age" can encompass as many as 30 years after the official retirement age of 60. Old, poor, and living alone, Maudie represents this increasing number of elderly and their dependency on the social services of the welfare state: Meals on Wheels, the social worker, the Home Help, and the semi-professional "Good Neighbour."
As I suggested, Lessing's use of a pseudonym initially diverted attention from the content of the book, but it is in itself illuminating. In the preface to the 1984 edition published under her own name, Lessing claims that she used a pseudonym for several reasons: because she wanted to escape the labels which had become attached to her name, to cheer up young writers by exposing the flawed nature of the publishing industry, and to take a kind of revenge on reviewers who hated her science fiction Canopus series. But, as so often with a mask, the pseudonym proved a liberating mechanism, legitimating the expression of previously unacknowledged material: "as Jane Somers," she admitted, "I wrote in ways that Doris Lessing cannot" (6).
The account given in the preface hints at the problematic nature of the book's subject matter in profound ways. First, the pseudonymously submitted manuscript was rejected by several publishers, and Lessing reports that Granada, for instance, turned it down because "it was too depressing to publish" (7). This vividly illustrates Beauvoir's assertion that old age is a "forbidden …
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Publication information: Article title: "Women's Time": Women, Age, and Intergenerational Relations in Doris Lessing's the Diaries of Jane Somers. Contributors: Wallace, Diana - Author. Journal title: Studies in the Literary Imagination. Volume: 39. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2006. Page number: 43+. © 2007 Georgia State University, Department of English. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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