The invisibility of middle-aged women in fiction – Sarah Long

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By Sarah Long

Very soon, half of us in the UK will be over the age of fifty. You could have fooled me. Pick up a book or watch a film, and it’s all about young people, their struggles to find love and meaning in their lives, their indignation at what someone has done to hurt their feelings. There is no starring role for us oldies, the great silent majority who don’t get a say in these things.

Never mind coming-of-age stories, where are the coming of middle-age stories? If you’re trying to think of a book with a heroine who is past the first flush of youth, it can be a challenge. Jane Austen’s bossy matriarchs come to mind, obsessed with finding husbands for their daughters. Or else the lonely spinster type preferred by Anita Brookner, hunkering down, depressed, in a basement flat. Barbara Pym gives us a marginally jollier version, or as jolly as you can be with half a can of baked beans for your supper.

The characters in my novel Invisible Women feel unnoticed by the outside world for two reasons. Firstly, because they have crossed the fifty threshold, into the abyss of middle age. They no longer turn heads. Apart from Sandra, who makes it a point of honour to showcase her slim figure in cougar-style leggings and spends more on her hair than is at all decent.

Secondly, because they have focused their energies on home and hearth for the past two decades. At the age of thirty, they were pioneering, confident, outward-facing women. Now, not so much. When they took a step back from the working world in order to raise their families, they also put themselves on hold to a certain degree.

They also feel they have become invisible to their husbands. Sandra’s husband is more interested in his own delicate state of mind than anything she has to offer, but is forceful in letting her know that any failure of hers in the smooth running of the home can really set him back. No wonder she finds the hunky plumber more appealing.

Harriet’s husband is mostly on a plane while she looks after his ailing mother, but cannot hide his regret at her decline into dowdiness. Tessa’s husband is so in love with his own brand-building expertise that he fails to notice that she is being lured away by an insistent ex-lover. As the story unfolds, my middle-aged lovelies prove that they are, after all, very visible indeed. You are only as invisible as you choose to be.

Sarah Long worked in publishing before giving it all up to move to Paris with her husband and three children. She is the author of And What Do You Do? and The Next Best Thing. Following several years of the Parisian experience, she now lives in London. Invisible Women by Sarah Long is published by Bonnier Zaffre.

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