Why Have Writers Neglected
Elderly Lovers?

On Desire and Longing Later in Life

By  Susan Gubar

I am sick and he is old, but a fierce affection binds us to each other and to this country house, which we will have to leave. When 21 years ago we first made our way down its sloping driveway alongside a meadow with massive trees, I called it Pemberley, but Don thought its brick façade and long windows looked more like the cottage in which Jane Austen herself resided. Eventually, because of its address, it became simply the Inverness.

At that time, Don lived in a subdivision, I in town. Both places were saturated with histories we had no wish to escape or negate, but we wanted a home of our own. Neither of us could have afforded the Inverness alone. With enough space to accommodate his two grown daughters and my younger two as well, it represented our new life together. We marveled at our luck when we found it in the spring of 1994. All the peonies were blooming in a side garden near a small red barn, really more of a shed. Built in the 1960s, the house had been gutted and redesigned by a businesswoman who never moved in, because she was called away by a job in California. She had been much more competent than we could have been about restoring or constructing the gleaming hardwood floors, the white kitchen cabinets, and the nut-brown screened-in back porch with its skylight.

But now it seems too large for just the two of us. The steps from the second-floor bedroom to the basement hurt Don’s knees. I worry that arthritis or his swollen left foot will cause him to stumble while he labors to bring a laundry basket down or up. My weekly job hauling the garbage bin up the driveway all the way to the road gets progressively more taxing, especially in bad weather. Recycling means loading the car with heavy boxes of glass bottles and plastic containers and a long trip to the dump. The rusty garage door creaks; the exterior trim needs painting; the noisy dishwasher should be replaced.

Except for some tall grasses I planted a decade ago, the side garden has gone to ruin. Clogged by weeds, the sliding door of the red shed jammed shut long ago. Given all the trees, a windy day can produce electrical outages, knocking out the furnace, phones, water heater, oven, lights, and (worst of all) the Internet. We feel daunted by leaf-cluttered drains, a rutted driveway, rattling storm windows, successive infestations of mice or ladybugs or wasps.

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The house, positioned between a wooded ravine and a rolling field, remains a pastoral retreat from strip malls, grocery and drug stores, restaurants and the noisy hangouts of the students at the university. The only sounds we hear are birds tapping on feeders in the winter, their songs in summer. But Don’s driving has recently become erratic—in the pauses that punctuate switching lanes or pulling out onto the highway, the weirdly wide turns, the jerky reverses and forwards needed to repark between the lines. Since being driven by me distresses him, we know we should move into town. Yet we shudder at the thought of a unit in a retirement community, a condo apartment, or a 1950s ranch house in what is euphemistically called a “heritage” neighborhood of unsightly bungalows.

Are there stories or novels, movies or poems, plays or memoirs about antique lovers, I wondered. Nothing came to mind except images of dirty old men and lewd widows.

On Thanksgiving in 2014, the Inverness lived up to its promise by hosting family members also arriving to celebrate my 70th birthday. Three of our daughters, two of their husbands, the brother of one of the husbands, and three of our grandsons stayed at the house. None of us had thought I would make it to the biblical span of three score and ten, since my ovarian cancer diagnosis back in 2008 came with a three- to five-year prognosis. Unexpectedly, an experimental drug in a clinical trial was keeping the disease at bay, and we hoped it would continue working at least for a while. Despite all the treatments, I did not feel 70—maybe because the current regimen has eased up considerably. When I can ignore physical disabilities and fatigue, my psychic age hovers, as it did before diagnosis, around 15.

The commotion turned out to overwhelm Don. Seventeen years older than I, he seemed dazed by the noise, the constant cooking and serving and clearing and cleaning, the antics of the infant, the toddler, and the second-grader. During the party the girls organized for my birthday, I found him sitting by a window in a corner of his study, probably counting the days until peace would descend. His withdrawal contrasted with his usual courtesy to guests. So as the house started to empty out, I went to sleep glad that I had boiled the turkey carcass for the soup I knew he would enjoy after the last stragglers left.

The next morning, I woke to find in the bathroom, next to vials of the trial pills, a little tote from Argentum, a local jewelry store. How like him, I thought: not wanting to make a public display of his gift. Touched, I peeked into the velvet case in the box inside and saw the most beautiful ring. Tiny blue gems glittered within a channel setting. Never before had I received such a lovely present. The modest engagement ring I wore before my first marriage had been financed by my grandmother. Don and I had picked out a thin gold band for our wedding—just one, since he would never wear jewelry. How very unlike him, I thought, to buy something so extravagant and apparently without any consultation. What if it doesn’t fit, and how much time would I have to wear it?

I took the small shopping bag down to the kitchen where Don was having breakfast and opened the box more ceremonially: exclaiming over the sapphires, worrying that it might slip from my finger, listening to him admit that he had been unable to sleep after such an audacious purchase, and realizing that the price made him anxious about its falling off and getting lost. I put it back in its velvet case, kissed the white thatch on the darker hair at the back of his head, and took the turkey stock out of the refrigerator, as I considered the sense of an ending that saturates the powerful affections of love in later life.

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*

Are there stories or novels, movies or poems, plays or memoirs about antique lovers, I wondered. Nothing came to mind except images of dirty old men and lewd widows, as if the real lovers throughout the ages were all as youthful as Paris and Helen, Achilles and Patroclus, Romeo and Juliet, or Elizabeth and Darcy. Dorothea’s marriage to the dried-up pedant Casaubon becomes a nightmare from which the plot of Middlemarch happily delivers her.

Decades of teaching and writing about literature prompted me to riffle through the Rolodex in my brain. Yes, the Wife of Bath lustily seeks a sixth husband in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but she tells a tale about a young man horrified at being forced to bed a gross hag. Congreve’s appropriately named Lady Wishfort personifies the narcissistic delusions of a lascivious has-been. A ghastly amalgam of the expectant bride and decrepitude, Miss Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations—a grotesque caricature of a young lover preserved into old age—presides over a moldering feast in her withered wedding dress, a waxwork skeleton.

Nor are amorous older men exempt from derision. The lecherous old debaucher or repulsive stock character senex amans is scorned from antiquity onward or unmasked as impotent. For better or for worse, in mass-market books today the aging couple remains an absence. Despite its title, the best-selling erotic romance Fifty Shades of Grey does not depict a bunch of randy retirees.

From classical times onward, Eros was thought to be the youngest of the gods, and his mortal companions were also in the flower of youth. In Plato’s Symposium, in a conversation about the youthfulness of Eros’s cohorts, one speaker argues that “it is the nature of Love to hate old age, and not to come even within range of it.” Cupid with his bow and arrow always looks like a cherub, a baby or boy, sometimes with and some times without a diaper. He generally takes aim at adolescents and young adults. Seniors are not his presumed targets. So-called senile sexuality—sex beyond the period of procreation—has generally been considered abnormal and sickening. Deemed revolting, it has also been supposed to cause degenerative diseases.

According to the tradition established by Socrates and Plato, the old are viewed as wise and philosophical. According to the tradition handed down by Aristotle, the old remain self-absorbed, caring only about enfeeblement or the past. Both of these antithetical lines of thought typecast seniors as unsexed: they are alleged to have transcended desire or sadly to have lost it. This terrible and terribly influential belief that Eros hates old age seems to be intensified by a lens of ageism that presents people beyond their prime as fearful, garrulous, foolish, solipsistic, or doddering; as useless, isolated, or exploitable—characteristics that crowd out the idea of older people as loving or longing for love. From 5th-century Athens onward, authors have cursed “abhorrent old age, powerless, unsociable, friendless, in which all the worst evils cohabit.”

Of course, adoring and adored grandparents abound in literature, as in life, but their love fosters a younger generation. In literature, as in life, curmudgeonly bachelors and eccentric spinsters gain our admiration by disentangling themselves from the messy confusions of sexual longing, though maybe the esteem is for bachelors more than spinsters. (It does continue to seem sinister to me that the Latin word for old woman is anus.) But if the desires of the antiquated persist, they are mocked. The first-century poet Martial’s verse to “Miss Oldlady” catalogues her “three hairs,” “four teeth,” “breasts that sag like spiderwebs,” and “bony cunt” to conclude in outrage: “you have the gall to want to marry, and madly seek a man / to cuddle up to your ashes. It’s as if a piece of marble / suddenly started itching.”

Do I seem to be rushing through all this material? Yes, I am. Its message is way too familiar. I’m looking for newfound territory, searching for trail markings on an uncleared path.

Given the mental foibles and physical frailties of older people—“senescence” is the term for the condition of deterioration during aging—later life is generally considered a time when desire for others and sometimes for life itself erodes or should erode. “Love,” in the opinion of Montaigne, “is not properly and naturally in its season except in the age nearest to childhood”: “The shorter the possession we give to Love,” he decides, “the better off we are.”

Don and I cannot be the first or the last partners cherishing each other while all too aware that death will soon us part.

If adolescence presages maturity, senescence portends its end as we, like the solitary King Lear, are told to unburden ourselves to crawl toward death. Even in the nightly TV commercials for Cialis, a drug for erectile dysfunction, older lovers are presented in two equal but separate bathtubs—“’Cuz,” my friend Jonathan says, “as you get older, you realize everyone is marooned in their own bathtub”—though the couples in the ads don’t look old, we agree.

Yet Don and I cannot be the first or the last partners cherishing each other while all too aware that death will soon us part. Certainly many, if not most, of our contemporaries live alone; and many want to live alone, relish living alone, savoring their solitude. More power to them, I say. However, the desires of older people for love and companionship have been consistently ridiculed or insistently disregarded in painting, drama, poetry, and fiction. “Literature has neglected the old and their emotions,” the storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer believed. “The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience.”

Is it true that all the novelists have neglected elderly lovers? Singer himself did not, and surely there are other artists aware that the number of older readers must be increasing. The aging couples I know, entranced by the companionability of their relationships, seem freed from the manifold inhibitions challenging the younger lovers I know: fear of pregnancy (or of not getting pregnant), the heavy burdens of responsibility for babies or young children, financial insecurity, and the inexorable demands of taxing professions. If I could track down the poets and novelists, dramatists and filmmakers who neither ignored nor satirized senior couples, what emotions and negotiations would distinguish their characters’ lives?

“The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience.”

For the past few years, my writing has focused on sickness in literature, but now I would procrastinate over the logistics of moving by seeking old lovers: characters either cultivating their relationships despite the ordeals of aging or finding an exhilarating second chance after a confused or lonely midlife. This endeavor to collect imaginative accounts of the longevity of desire would be my holiday from reading about cancer, the subject of the manuscript I had just completed and sent to my editor. There must be literature about Cupid beaming on or cavorting around maturing or aging couples. If such a tradition exists, what does it tell us about the physical and psychological, the sexual and familial challenges of later-life love?

One myth from Ovid immediately sprang to mind, though I only dimly recalled its outlines. Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple, welcome two disguised gods into their rustic cottage and are rewarded for their hospitality by being transformed into intertwined trees. There are two such braided trees at the Inverness, down in a gully outside the kitchen door. And at the front door we had planted a dogwood of white flowering and pink flowering branches, grafts growing from a shared trunk. Studying the myth would reveal its deeper significance, I trusted. But I also realized that myths with their luminous metamorphoses provide a different version of reality from novels and testimonies or, for that matter, lyric poems.

Then I managed to lay my hands on a book memorable for an explicit sex scene staged by a 68-year-old character who had earlier obtained hormonal cream to aid with lubrication since she had not engaged in intercourse for 25 years. Daphne Drummond ties up the object of her dreams, a revolted but inebriated middle-aged man, in Jenny Diski’s comedy of bad manners Happily Ever After. Daphne wants “to reacquaint herself with her desire.” Smelling, touching, and tasting his throat, chest, and abdomen reactivate in her “an old channel”: “desire ran its familiar route from out-there to in-here.”

At the same time, her partner’s disgust at her age and his captivity does “a pas de deux with desire”: “He strained against the bonds that held him in place, no longer in an attempt to escape, but wanting to explore the loose flesh around the neck, to weigh the drooping breasts in the prickling, sweaty palms of his hands, to caress the fallen buttocks and the hanging folds of her belly with his mouth.” The thought that “Daphne’s body was a time machine” arouses him, for “He didn’t fear decay in Daphne when he looked at her and saw what she had been and would be; he was excited by the workings of time that took fresh-faced prettiness as nothing more than raw material for the real face it would become.”

Significantly, Daphne Drummond is “the mad woman in the attic” of Happily Ever After, which is probably why I recalled her. Ever since Sandra Gilbert and I embarked on our first collaborative project, The Madwoman in the Attic, I have been on the look-out for these sorts of figures. Traumatized by horrific childhood abuse—this is a novel obsessed with horrific abuse, let me warn you—Daphne Drummond had withdrawn from the pain of the world to spend two and a half decades engaging in dialogues with God, practicing to become a bag lady at the ripe age of seventy, and plotting to obtain happiness in the “late-flowering love” of a “geriatric courtship,” a “whirlwind autumnal romance.” She never takes off a black velvet hat, trusting that it will season with dust, damp, and spots of grease from her breakfast, because she deems it an “essential part” of the bag lady “equipment” needed in “her very old age.”

That Daphne Drummond’s future will include a motor home of her own and the dumping of her lover for the lure of the open road suggests how influential the feminist goal of autonomy has been for creative writers at the end of the twentieth century. Before that ending, though, Daphne thrums with erotic desire. The sadistic sex scene she stages somewhat demoralized me, but wanting to have, hold, and keep another can and often does involve aggression. And surely we are programmed to find the idea of late-life sex unseemly. It is “non-normative”—that’s the current academic term.

Instead of setting out with preconceived notions, I want to follow the books and movies wherever they lead so they can surprise me with new insights into the different sorts of loving in which older people like me and Don engage. Jenny Diski’s novel gave me hope that I could find earlier and later portrayals of aging women and men less damaged than her madwoman and her madwoman’s alcoholic lover, more satisfied with the geriatric courtships of autumnal romance.

Simone de Beauvoir, a real person but also a character, composed a pioneering book on aging that made the idea of later-life love inconceivable. Yet she had a passionate affair in her forties with a man 17 years younger, and in the last years of her life an intimate relationship with a much younger woman. In later life, Georgia O’Keeffe sustained a close relationship with Juan Hamilton, who was 58 years her junior. Against the objections of his adult children, Frederick Douglass embarked on a late-life second marriage with a white woman some 20 years younger than he. I thought of the interviews of aging couples spliced into When Harry Met Sally, their fond pats and reminiscences of how they met, though they remain at the margins of the movie. I considered the growing number of people over 50 who cohabit with an unmarried partner.

In Love, Again, the journalist Eve Pell interweaves interviews of 15 gay and straight couples—who met and mated after they were 60 or older—with her own experience; she argues that “the process of coupling is as intoxicating at 70 as it was at 16.” Pell calls late-in-life romances “a lagniappe,” a bonus or extra gift. Such romances have played a prominent role in a number of television shows, such as Last Tango in Halifax, River, Transparent, Grace and Frankie, and Downton Abbey. Millions of viewers trusted that Mrs. Hughes and Carson might make a lasting match. Hope springs eternal for older people trying to find partners.

A dating site called Our Time, serving 50-plus men and women, is “the third largest paid dating site in America.” Roger Angell, a longtime editor at the New Yorker, believes that seniors “throng Match.com and OKCupid” because “We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night.” However, “these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret.” Angell clings to few life precepts in his old age, “except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.”

Like Angell’s essay, literature and film will provide me not an idealized view but a multifaceted series of perspectives: a sense not of what late-life love should be, but of what it actually entails in a host of quite different circumstances—and a vocabulary to comprehend its distinctive features. Books and movies may establish a tradition that is minor, but living in the slower tempo of later life often evokes a muted, minor key.

Literature has always served me as a guide; however, I do not want to assemble an exhaustive or exhausting archive. Instead, I will look for honest portraits that clarify the tensions, tussles, and triumphs of my own later-life love affair. And since I am unwilling to limit myself to contemporary fiction and film, I will need to consider the fact that life expectancy varies over historical epochs. At the start of the twentieth century, average life expectancy in the West was not quite fifty years, while at the start of the twenty-first century it reached the late seventies. Stories and novels, poems and plays, memoirs and movies will help guide my efforts to nurture and cherish a partnership that has enriched my existence, and illuminate it as well.

This, then, would become my quest as Don and I decided whether, when, where, or how to move from the Inverness: to see if I could locate works of art that help me draw a multidimensional picture of later-life love—with all its blemishes and disabilities, loyalties and glories. Bibliomemoir: that’s the coinage Joyce Carol Oates created to describe the genre I have in mind, the sort of book that combines “criticism and biography and the intimately confessional tone of autobiography.” I revere Joyce Carol Oates for her wonderful words, but also because she and her late husband, Raymond Smith, were two of the few people who invited Don and me out to dinner during a lonely year we spent at Princeton. Still, her term does not sound euphonious to my ears, so I am thinking about stories—Don’s stories and mine and those spun by creative writers and filmmakers about imagined characters.

The eminent literary historian Harold Bloom, often a curmudgeon about newfangled approaches, believes that the best interpretive reading always involves personal confession: “True criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.” He never invited me to dinner when I lectured in New York or New Haven, but then again I never invited him either—though he did come to Indiana half a century ago. Don met him at the tiny airport then in service and Harold said, “They left me alone in Iowa. Don’t leave me alone.”

When we sat down to eat the turkey noodle soup, I gave Don one end of the wishbone. I cannot remember who cracked the longer prong, but I will never forget the words that followed my request that we reveal our silent wishes to each other.

“I always wish that I will die before you,” I confessed.

After a pause Don said, “I always wish that you will get your wish.” That made us both laugh.

The next day we went to Argentum, where the jeweler explained that the ring could not be exchanged. It was one of a kind. She would attach a tiny bead on the inside of the band to keep it secure on my finger. But surely we ourselves are not one of a kind.

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From Late-Life LoveCourtesy of W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright 2018 by Susan Gubar.

Susan Gubar
Susan Gubar
Susan Gubar was awarded, with Sandra M. Gilbert, the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Critics Circle. She is the author of Memoir of a Debulked Woman and has authored and edited numerous works of criticism. She writes the monthly online New York Times column "Living with Cancer" and lives in Bloomington, Indiana.





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