‘Roundtable: Old Age and the Victorians,’ Issue 16.1 (April 2011)

Dorothea finds Casaubon dead, from a painting by W. L. Taylor
Dorothea finds Casaubon dead, from a painting by W. L. Taylor

Karen Chase’s The Victorians and Old Age (2009) and Devoney Looser’s Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850 (2008) are the first major expressions within Victorian studies of the scholarly interest in old age that began with Simone de Beauvoir’s La Vieillesse (1970) and has greatly increased in prominence over the past two decades, thanks to the growth of cross-disciplinary interest in all life stages.

The responses to these two books in this roundtable discussion recognize the importance of age studies as a context for Chase’s and Looser’s work, but they also foreground many of the wider questions raised by their examinations of what it meant to be old in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Is the category of age of a kind with those other types of social distinction and discrimination that we have, for some decades now, been collectively alert to: class, race, gender? How should we weigh old age’s effects (its power to confer authority, but also its liability to weaken it) against the comparable effects of economic and educational privilege? Does the appearance of these two books indicate, as Beauvoir’s translated title runs, a ‘coming of age’ for Victorian age studies? Or are more modest claims requisite for a field where so much practical and conceptual work has still to be done?

(the above is excerpted from Helen Small’s introduction to the forum)

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