March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (1)

When a member suggested that we devote a meeting to “women of a certain age”, it felt inspired. There are, after all, so many women of a certain age in Austen – or, are there? As it turned out, there were various viewpoints among the members about the definition of the phrase, resulting in a couple struggling to find many at all. It resulted in a more fascinating meeting than we had, perhaps, expected.

For this reason, I’ve decided to cover this meeting over two posts. This post will focus on definitions and the ideas of members who looked at the topic more generally, while the second post will look at the specific characters that other members explored.

So, who are “women of a certain age”?

The Oxford English dictionary (OED) describes “a certain age” as a time “when one is no longer young, but which politeness forbids to be specified too minutely: usually, referring to some age between forty and sixty (mostly said of women).” 

Interestingly, Australian journalist Julia Baird wrote an article in 2015 titled “What does women of ‘a certain age’ even mean?” She quotes writer William Safire who sourced the origin of the phrase in English to Connoisseur magazine in 1754: “I could not help wishing that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.” She also writes that ‘the distinctly odd poet Byron referred to such women – usually thought to be spinsters – in 1817: “She was not old, nor young, nor at the years/Which certain people call a certain age,/Which yet the most uncertain age appears.” But in 1822, he nastily called women of “a certain age”, “certainly aged”.’

The closest we found Austen herself coming to considering this age was through Elizabeth Elliot who, in the opening chapter of Persuasion, feared that, at the age of 29, she was reaching “the years of danger”.

However, some members didn’t see this phrase as age-defined, seeing it, instead, in terms of behaviour and role.

Our remote member sent in her ideas. She didn’t accept dictionary definitions as relevant, because she felt that whenever she’s seen the phrase used “it was not the transliteration but the translation that mattered. The inference, the sly knowing look, the wink, from one man to another”. She has never seen it used ‘politely’, and it’s always been used by a male. “Think”, she wrote, “of old Charles Boyer movies. Or Maurice Chevalier. A sort of ‘watch out’ scenario”.  So, for her, the term applies to an unmarried woman past her youth who CAN BE SEEN to be actively presenting herself as still young enough to marry. In other words, she wrote, the key is the DEGREE of her effort, AGE is less important than ATTITUDE. A “woman of a certain age” she felt “must have the faintest whiff of the predator”. Consequently, you would not, she wrote, see Miss Bates as a woman of a certain age (which, of course, surprised the member who had chosen just this character as her example!)

Of the characters she felt relevant to her definition, she thought Jane Austen was sympathetic to Anne Elliot, Miss Taylor, Charlotte Lucas, Mary Crawford and to a lesser degree Élizabeth Elliot, but was scathing of Miss Steele, Miss Bingley, Mrs Elton and Mrs Clay. And, she added, Austen definitely raised her eyebrows at the worldly wise femme fatale Lady Susan.

Another dissenting member was thinking of women in their 60s upwards. She initially thought about Mrs Dashwood, Aunt Gardiner, Mrs Bennett and couple of others, but she then realised they were too young.  Even Mrs Dashwood, with oldish daughters, is only 40. Even “the delicious Mrs Thorpe” had to be excluded by her calculations. So, she rethought …

A third member focused on the idea that “older women always get to drive the plot”. She noted that older women are expected to behave a certain way, they are not expected to marry. So, her focus was on the role they played, rather than on specifically defining these women in terms of age, which resulted in her including older and younger women in her thinking.

For the rest of us, our concept of women of a certain age aligned closely with the OED. They are older than young, but younger that old, so, more or less middle-aged. By this understanding Miss Bates would be a woman of a certain age, but not Mrs Bates. These members found many women of a certain age, but most chose just one to focus on: Mrs Norris, Mrs Jennings, Miss Bates and Mrs Smith. These will be covered in the next post.

Introducing women of a certain age

One member was interested in how women of a certain age are introduced in the novels. After re-defining her original older-age definition, she came up with 21 women meeting the criterion. Unfortunately, she did not have time to finish her research and analysis. However, her initial findings included that several of these characters are first introduced to us through others, like Emma’s Mrs Churchill and Sense and sensibility’s Mrs Ferrars. Similarly, Pride and prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Burgh’s character is given to us long before we meet her. Northanger Abbey’s Mrs Allen, on the other hand, is given a long intro by the author, before we see her with, or hear about her from, others.

Other women she was researching included Sense and sensibility’s Mrs Dashwood, Mrs Jennings and, Mrs John Dashwood; Emma’s Mrs Bates; and Persuasion’s Lady Russell and Mrs Croft.

This seemed like an interesting line of enquiry which we hope she will continue.

Childless women of a certain age

Another member decided that rather than choosing an individual character, she’d look at a subset, those women of a certain age who are childless. In Jane Austen’s time, women were expected to marry and have children, but clearly – given Jane’s own life – that did not always happen. Women who did not have children could, though, take on the role of a mother in other ways, the two main ones being:

  • Adopt children of economically challenged relations: the Knights adopted Jane Austen’s brother Edward, just like Mrs Churchill does Frank in Emma
  • “Babysit” or mother the children of relations (during “lyings in”, when mothers were nursing or ill, for widowers): Jane and her sister Cassandra did this, as Anne does in Persuasion.

One commentator commented that in Austen’s family, “barren” women were among the most powerful people in the family, Mrs. Knight and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, because they were the family’s richest persons.  

Austen, as we know from her letters, appreciated the challenges of motherhood, and of childbearing in particular. In Letter 151, Austen wrote to Fanny of her Aunt Sophia who had just had her 18th, “I wd recommend to her and Mr D. the simple regimen of separate rooms.” And in letter 151 to Fanny, she says that Anna Lefroy “has not a chance of escape; … Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. – I am very sorry for her. – Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many children. – Mrs Benn has a thirteenth–.”

When we look at married or widowed women in Austen there are a quite a few who are childless, including several “younger” childless women, like Mrs Grant (MP), Mrs Smith (Persuasion), and the newly marrieds, Mrs Elton (Emma) and Charlotte Lucas (P&P). We don’t know why they don’t have children, or whether some still will. But, given the lack of contraception at the time, for those who don’t, it’s unlikely to have been an active choice but more low fertility.

From the “women in a certain age” category, there are a surprising number of childless married or widowed women: Mrs Phillips (P&P), regarding whom children are never mentioned; Mrs Norris (MP); Lady Russell and Mrs Croft (Persuasion); and Mrs Allen (NA). Unmarried childless women of a certain age, on the other hand, are fewer, with Miss Bates (Emma) being the most obvious.

Blogger Eliza Shearer looks at some childless women, categorising them:

  • Childless or child-free (and happy): Mrs Croft
  • Moral authority (in place of parents): Lady Russell and Mrs Norris
  • Fill a void: Mrs Grant (married to a much older man) acts as “parent” to younger half-sister Mary Crawford

She doesn’t discuss Mrs Allen, Miss Bates, for example, and, by our definition, Mrs Grant is not yet “a certain age”. However, Shearer concludes that Austen

certainly sees through the accepted narrative of what women without children should feel or behave like. Austen does not allow her pen to pigeonhole her characters because of a biological issue, making them sad or happy or mean or caring just because they have or don’t have children. Instead, she paints them as exactly what they are, individuals with their aspirations, desires, hates and fears”. In other words, the gamut of humanity.

Hazel Jones argues that

none of the childless married women in Jane Austen’s fiction voices any regrets about a lack of offspring. Mrs Smith must have experienced nothing but relief that she had escaped a greater weakening of her health. Mrs Allen spends her time and money on clothes instead, and Mrs Croft, the happiest married woman in all of Jane Austen’s fiction is able to accompany her husband wherever he goes. It is not easy to imagine Mrs Norris as a sexual being at all …

Again, our age-related definition would not have Anne’s friend Mrs Smith as yet, being of a certain age, but our next post will include a member’s argument for her being included in this category.

Chamberlain argues that if Austen is “more interested in the “happily” than the “ever after,” perhaps it’s because—in a time before reliable birth control—she resisted the new child-centred focus of marriage”. Chamberlain quotes the childless Crofts as an example, arguing that Austen “was far less sanguine than her contemporaries … about the ability of happy marriages to produce happily married children. After all, her most content and companionate marriage—that of the Crofts, in her final novel, Persuasion—is notably childless. Admiral and Mrs. Croft spend their days helping each other drive around the countryside in a carriage that Austen rather firmly describes as meant for only two.”

Both Jones and Chamberlain single out Mrs Croft/the Crofts as the happiest marriage in Austen, but there is another example of happily married couple, one with children, Pride and prejudice’s Gardiners.

The main point, we found – and this will be discussed more in the next post – is that Austen did not stereotype her women characters by age or childlessness. Mrs Norris is a thoroughly unlikable woman of a certain age while Mrs Croft is the exact opposite. Lady Russell is different again. She meddles – as does Mrs Norris – but from a generous place and she shows herself open to change. Mrs Allen is different again to all of these. And so on … watch out for our next post.

Sources

  • Chamberlain, Shannon. “What Jane Austen thought marriage couldn’t do”, in The Atlantic Monthly, October 2019
  • Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and marriage. London: Continuum, 2009
  • Shearer, Eliza. “Childlessness in Jane Austen”, in Eliza Shearer blog, 17 April 2018

One Response to March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (1)

  1. […] noted in the first post in this two-part series, our March meeting was devoted to discussing “women of a certain age”. The first post […]

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