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De-gendering the “grannies.”

Elise Brault-Dreux

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  • 1 “And a girl should say: / It must be wonderful to live and grow old. Look at my mother, how rich an (...)

1On August 2nd 1929, Lawrence writes to Orioli about his own mother-in-law: “Truly old and elderly women are ghastly, ghastly, eating up all life with hoggish greed, to keep themselves alive” (Letters VII 399). This is unquestionably a reaction to the behaviour of Frieda’s mother at a particular moment and therefore cannot be taken as Lawrence’s general idea about elder women – and such a general idea does not seem to exist anyway in his writing. But starting from this typically Lawrencian declaration, my purpose is to look at specific examples when Lawrence de-genders the elderly women. If, in some parts of Lawrence’s oeuvre, the old woman is positively introduced as a wise figure,1 even powerfully feminine, elsewhere she somehow happens to be reduced to an elderly person, regardless of her femininity, of her gender.

  • 2 My translation.

2The first question that must be addressed is how to define “old” age. Though a rational synthetic answer is impossible – for some will define it as a biological phenomenon only, while other theorists will go as far as to say that it is a social construct – one may attempt to define it as a stage in one’s lifespan that is at once a biological, psychological, social and cultural. Simone de Beauvoir, in her substantial study, Old Age (La vieillesse 1970 ), writes: “Old age is something that happens to people when they get old; the variety of experience attached to it cannot be summed up either in a concept or even in a notion” (De Beauvoir 343).2 And it is also sometimes reduced to a social status given to someone who has reached a certain age, though he or she may not physically nor mentally feel old. Even the question of its beginning remains unclear, especially as we, nowadays, look back at texts which are a century old. Evidence concerning this blurred limit shows up in Lawrence’s work where the “old” women’s age greatly varies: if Granny in The Virgin and the Gipsy is, at the beginning of the novella, expectedly “old” as she is “nearly ninety” (The Virgin 14), both Lydia Lensky as a grandmother, in The Rainbow, and Walter’s mother in “Odour of Chrysanthemums” are sixty-year-old “old” women; and in his essay “Women are so cocksure,” for instance, Lawrence condemns to “oldness” modern women as soon as they reach fifty – “it is then that the play is over” (Phoenix 168).

3The question of aging women in Lawrence also inevitably needs to be contextualized in relation to social changes in the early twentieth century when the number of elder people increased thanks to improved medical treatments and far better living conditions. The elderly were now socially visible. And indeed this is true also of literature, in which, but for a few exceptions, the old woman had so far remained marginal, a witch or an old crone. Among the fundamental transformations of their status, we can mention the introduction in 1908 of the first pension act for everyone above seventy years old though, quite ironically, in 1911, in England, women’s life expectancy was sixty-three (so hardly anyone benefited from the newly-introduced pension entitlement and in 1921, sixty-eight (though back statistics were not really accurate). In any case, as Pat Thane puts it, “in twentieth-century Britain, for the first time in history, it became normal to grow old” (Botelho 207, my emphasis). Physiologically, old age could not be ignored. And socially, it started to be taken into account. And yet there seemed to remain a gap between the normality of this experience and, on the other hand, the way it was culturally apprehended and represented (or rather not represented) in literature. The aged person – and especially the old woman – is rarely centre-staged. She is often ostracized, exiled in a domestic sphere. Simone De Beauvoir aptly renders this ambiguous state of “normal” biological evolution and “anomalous” social status when she defines female old age as a “normal anomaly” (De Beauvoir 349). And this anomaly is experienced by women differently than by men. For while there is no “rite of passage” proper from mature to old age – ageing being a progressive process – unlike men, women go through the crisis of the menopause, a critical turning point which irretrievably deprives them of their reproductive abilities and may make them feel somewhat anomalous.

4Their femininity, already waning with their declining physical appearance, too commonly associated with beauty and sexual desirability, now needs to be (if it can) experienced differently. Female agedness is then stereotypically read (especially a century ago) as an anomalous contradiction to the ideal image of a “normal” femininity, that is one presumed to be that of fertile, erotically appealing young flesh that has a role in the society. The aged woman, on the contrary, is stereotypically dependent, a “relative” being who lives with or close to her family and who is economically powerless and socially unusable. Some critics, such as Catherine Silver, have even pointed out that the elder woman perceives herself and is perceived as just old, no longer a woman. She writes: “Gender categorisation becomes less salient than age as a way to self-define and as a basis to stereotype elder people” (Silver 387). We might assume then that there is a sort of converging perception of old people, regardless of their gender. This is the idea defended by Stephen Katz too, when he argues that the “convergence between older masculinized women and feminized men was evident in sexology and gerontology in the early 20th century” (Calasanti, ed., 78).

5Now is this de-gendering of elder women visible in Lawrence’s ways of outlining and referring to some of his senescent women? To what extent does he present to his readers women whose femininity withdraws behind the features of old age? How is femininity treated as an experience of the past which has gradually or suddenly disappeared? We will have to keep in mind that these “grannies” are depicted from the double distance of a younger male author who never reached old age.

Remembrance of femininity past.

  • 3 “Her bedroom was her city of refuge” (R 254).

6After the death of her second husband, Lydia Lensky (or Brangwen), sixty years old (R 254), withdraws from the frenzied immediate world. She yearns for a pause, a break from the surrounding, too lively, activity. “Unsettled” (R 252) by her sudden widowhood, she strives to find some peace in “loitering” aimlessly (R 253) and in “watching the scant world go by” (R 253). Such deliberate passivity goes along with a domestic exile3 in which time is reduced to immediacy and expectations are non-existent. She cannot even keep up with the pace of her own sons’ lives, as is suggested in this free indirect speech passage:

Of her sons, she was almost afraid. She could see the sombre passion and desire and dissatisfaction in them, and she wanted not to see it any more. Even Fred, with his blue eyes and his heavy jaw, troubled her. There was no peace. He wanted something, he wanted love, passion, and he could not find them. But why must he trouble her? Why must he come to her with his seething and suffering and dissatisfactions? She was too old.

Tom was more restrained, reserved. He kept his body very still. But he troubled her even more. […] And how could age save youth? Youth must go to youth. Always the storm! Could she not lie in peace, these years, in the quiet, apart from life? No, always the swell must heave upon her and break against the barriers. Always she must be embroiled in the seethe and rage and passion, endless, endless, going on for ever. And she wanted to draw away. She wanted at last her own innocence and peace. She did not want her sons to force upon her any more the old brutal story of desire and offerings and deep, deep-hidden rage of unsatisfied men against women. She wanted to be beyond it all, to know the peace and innocence of age (R 253, my emphases).

7She wants to be cut off from the turmoil of adult love; she yearns to be left untouched by the confusion and passionate appetite which are the driving forces of younger age. The blunt effect of the short basic answer “She was too old” sounds as the final expression both of her exhaustion and of her deliberate renunciation to her motherly role: she is now too old to save these young men. She therefore wishes to return to a pre-maternal, pre-adult stage, to be carried again by the peace of childish innocence – before she was a woman.

  • 4 “The fact of having given birth, of being pregnant, has visible physicality that forces others to u (...)

Her femininity only surfaces as a thing of the past, when Ursula, allured by Lydia’s two wedding rings, triggers Lydia’s memory back to her two marriages. Her rings, material traces of her past condition as a wife, thus initiate Lydia’s remembrance of herself as Lensky’s submissive “girl-bride” (R 256). With mixed nostalgia, she sees herself again as a young slave to the mature “clever surgeon” (R 256). Reading her then condition in the light of her second, more mature, marriage, she sees her young self as Lensky’s mere object, as a receptacle for his kisses: “In her idea, the man kissed, and the woman examined in her soul the kisses she had received” (R 257). But her poor sexual experience with him, translated in the fact that “He had lain with her, but he had never known her” (R 258), as well as her unsatisfactory maternal experience (but for Anna, their children were dead), were reversed when she met Tom Brangwen, who “served her” (R 258). From a submissive unfulfilled and slaving girl-bride, she became a loved wife – a woman. But as she tells the story of her life to Ursula, in the domestic enclosure of her bedroom, these “sayings and stories” acquire a “mystic significance” (R 260). Her girlhood, womanhood, attractiveness, fecundity, are now the frozen mental pictures of a past which has lost touch with immediate reality and has become material for mystic stories. Lydia now is “too old,” reduced to her status of a grandmother (which, socially, is no official status and biologically is only a remote one4), after having more or less de-gendered herself confining her status of a wife to mystic stories and refusing to struggle with her status as a mother. Her femininity belongs to an unreal past.

8While Lydia’s (de-gendered) aged condition is thus pictured by Lawrence as an aspiration to peace and quiet – a sort of rehearsal before death – on other occasions he focusses on specific moments of crisis which reveal the intrinsic violence of female senescence, a violence which brings the elder woman outside her femininity.

Crisis into senescence.

9In 1949, in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir insists that the social status of women depends on their physiological evolution, women being still much caught in their “female functions” (De Beauvoir 1949, 456). She apprehends a woman’s life as a succession of three crises: puberty, sexual initiation and menopause, which deprives the still young woman of her fertility and is often too quickly socially associated with a loss of erotic appeal.

10This very discontinuity (De Beauvoir 1949, 464) or even “mutilation” (De Beauvoir 1949, 457), in her physiological and, as a consequence, her social life, substantially alters the woman’s apprehension of time. While men’s ageing occurs on a time continuum, women’s menopause is a “rite of passage,” a sudden rupture which may resonate with the sense of an ending. For De Beauvoir, the woman then “becomes a different being, a-sexual but complete: she now is an old woman” (De Beauvoir 1949, 466).

11Other, more psychoanalytic, approaches have considered the menopause not just as a crisis but as a “symbolic loss of femininity and a deep narcissistic wound” (Silver 383). Stephen Katz comments on this definitive loss of procreative abilities by associating it to the end of femininity:

Since the 19th century, medical science had determined that […] menopause initiated a physical process requiring adjustment on the part of the individual since the end of a woman’s reproductive capacity was considered not only the end of her sexual life but the end of her sexuality, period, with little hope that she might continue to be a sexual being into old age. (Calasanti Ed. 81)

12Lawrence, renowned for his capacity to glorify the female body, actually likewise deprives some of his elder female characters of erotic appeal. None of the bodies I have mentioned here, that of Lydia Lensky, of Walter’s mother or that of Granny show any remnant of sexuality or erotic features. He does not focalize on their feminine hair, face, lips, breasts, etc, except to highlight their decay. They are grannies, old, a-sexual beings who have taken the definite step into senescence.

13Though he does not make any mention of menopause, as it remains quite taboo (especially among men), Lawrence nonetheless stages other moments of crisis in female lives, different in nature though equal in their intensity and again directly associated with loss.

14In “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” Lawrence stages the elder woman’s loss of her adult son. This sudden dispossession takes on dimensions that are at the same time psychological, biological and social. Her old age is primarily introduced through her physical appearance: she “was about sixty years old, pale, with blue eyes and her face all wrinkled and lamentable” (“Odour” 293). And in losing Walter, she loses her being a mother and the fruit of her thus past motherhood is erased, cancelled. And in this moment of shock, her femininity is considerably depreciated.

15When she enters the house where her daughter-in-law is worryingly expecting news from her husband, the elder woman instantly shows signs of physical weakness as she “seats herself on the sofa” (“Odour” 293). But this apparent withdrawal is quickly subverted into a pathetically expressed self-centredness – quite characteristic of old age. Already overburdened with the past, she egoistically considers herself as the only victim of the immediate situation: “ ‘There is no end to my troubles, there isn’t. The things I’ve gone through, I’m sure it’s enough –’ She wept without wiping her eyes, the tears running” (“Odour” 293-4), and then the tears hyperbolically run like “a fountain.”

16Throughout the passage she is, it seems, partly focalized by her daughter-in-law’s subjective eyes, the eyes of a strong younger woman who stands the shock of the news and thus appears as a foil for the collapsing grandmother. After she reminds Lizzie of the exclusive nature of the tie that linked her – as a mother – to her son : “But he wasn’t your son, Lizzie, an’ it makes a difference” (“Odour” 295)), the pathos of the elder woman is magnified as she universalizes her own condition to that of all elder mothers: “But it’s trouble from beginning to end; you’re never too old for trouble, never too old for that” (“Odour” 295). Thus expressed, she sets herself among the “old” and there seeks to draw more comforting sympathy by arousing a quite common kind of pathos which relies on elder people’s devotion and exhaustion.

17When the news of Walter’s death is confirmed, she becomes aware that she is suddenly deprived of the living evidence of her past fecundity: “The mother felt the lie was given to her womb; she was denied” (“Odour” 299). She feels betrayed and abandoned. And in the midst of this crisis, the old woman behaves in a regressive way. She repeatedly rocks herself like a helpless baby, seeking a sort of anaesthetic state. And the whole description of her pathetic collapse strikes the reader as peculiarly noisy. Her “moaning,” “wail[ing] aloud,” (which Lizzie perceives as a “monotonous irritating sound” (295)) “cry[ing]” (296), “whimpering” (299) sound like a child before language acquisition. Thus appearing at once pre-articulate, pre-pubescent (in her childlike jealousy towards Lizzie, when she wants to wipe Walter) and post-fecund, the old woman’s whole nature as a woman is significantly jeopardized and she uncontrollably sheds revealing tears before her son’s corpse: “The old tears fell in succession as drops from wet leaves; the mother was not weeping, merely her tears flowed” (“Odour” 299). The striking predetermination of “tears” by “old” suggests that her whole being is actually senescent, in its ultimate process of drying up and decrepitude. With this loss, and its blatantly expressed effects, she has violently stepped beyond femininity, beyond motherhood and sexual attractiveness, into a de-gendered, helpless agedness.

18In his partly autobiographical poem, “Monologue of a Mother,” which Lawrence wrote at a rather young age, he likewise pictures a mother who is losing her son (who is leaving her and not dying), this time through internal focalization. The I’s physical passivity, self-inflicted animal-like features and obsession with imminent death, help the reader imagine that we are dealing with a senescent being confronted to the experience of loss.

19Like Walter’s mother, she curls up, “fold[s her] hands” (l.2), and like Lydia, she withdraws into an enclosed domestic setting. The end of her life is near, as she pathetically and repeatedly suggests, notably with the dramatic image of her existence unfolding “scene after scene” (l.4). Her past weighs heavily on her present as she is watching her “dead days fusing together in dross” (l.3): life is behind her. In the next two stanzas, she glorifies her son, who flees from her despite her love for him. At that point, she is still a mother, though no feminine feature stands out.

20In this poem, Lawrence overplays the pathos conveyed by the elder woman’s discourse. She draws attention to her physical decrepitude, speaking of “my faded eyes” (l.19) – where “faded” indicates an accomplished irretrievable process –, she is “toothless” (l.21) and both physically and affectively paralysed before her son’s departure: “my heart stands still” (l.24). Her femininity thus disappearing behind this corpse-like self-portrait is further negated when she animalizes her own self into a submissive repulsive dog: “my faded eyes / like a cringing dog at his heels offend him now (ll.19-20). She is then a “toothless hound” (l.21). Thus pathetically picturing herself as a pariah and an a-sexual – de-gendered – animal (not even a female - a “bitch”), she abases herself lower than humanity before her son, whose irritation she evokes “he chafes at my crouching persistence” (l.22). With this “crouching persistence,” she summarizes her purpose to appear as an extremely weak being, unable to stand, to live, but also to die, to give up. She persists in an extreme condition of de-gendered, dehumanized senescence.

21At the end of the poem, she attempts to make her discourse performative by hastily and repeatedly appealing to “my son” – but in vain. In the last stanza, Lawrence stages her metapoetic death with the complete disappearance of the pronoun “I.”

22Her condition – though entirely controlled by the poet – could be diagnosed as a case of involutional melancholia, since, interestingly, it corresponds to the definition of the pathology given by Simone de Beauvoir:

  • 5 My translation.

Women especially are affected by it […]. It is an intense state of depression, experienced with intense psychological pain, and characterized as the slowing down, the inhibition of psychical and physical functions. For Freud, it comes close to mourning. The person who suffers from melancholia, though (s)he hasn’t lost anyone, behaves as though (s)he had lost something. (S)he complains about the loss of his / her ego. I am nothing; I cannot do anything, (s)he keeps repeating. (De Beauvoir 1970, 602-3)5

23In this poem, the mother is rehearsing her upcoming death which, she explains in seeking to arouse her son’s and the reader’s pathos, finds its cause in the shock of her son’s departure. He thus deprives her of her motherhood and tears her womb and whole being apart. She cannot be a woman if she loses her status as a mother (and we learn l.27 that she has already lost her status as a wife): her femininity is relative and depends on her son (and used to depend on her husband). Without this dependence, she reduces herself to a “cringing dog.”

24Yet the examples of this pathetic mother and of Walter’s mother are definitely not enough to hastily and wrongly conclude that according to Lawrence femininity in old age entirely depends on motherhood. Granny in The Virgin and the Gipsy, who is still a mother, even an overpowering one, actually strikes the reader as an obvious counterexample.

De-gendering Granny.

25Catherine Silver, in an article on ageing women, remarks:

Gender structure makes a difference in the way the aging body is understood. Older women’s bodies are more likely to be perceived as deformed, ridiculous looking, and desexualized. They become frightening, “crones,” and “witch like,” as imagined in children’s books and fairy tales. The language that described older women is indicative of a deep seated, unconscious fear and of a rejection of the ageing female body, with its connotations of danger and contamination that need to be kept separate and isolated. (Silver 385)

  • 6 As Judith Ruderman argues in her analysis of the novella (Ruderman 156).

26This very stereotypical summary of the aged woman’s image immediately resonates with the portrait made of Granny, mainly focalized by Yvette’s younger eyes. Granny is one of Lawrence’s devouring mothers, a Magna Mater, a caricature6 of the “old crone,” whose authority surpasses that of many men. She reigns like a queen over her family, relieved by her daughter-in-law’s departure which gave her back her son .

27At one point, Yvette’s gaze on Granny comprehends the elder woman’s peculiar status and personality:

And it was then that Yvette, looking round, suddenly saw the stony, implacable will-to-power in the old and motherly-seeming Granny. She sat there bulging backwards in her chair, impassive, her reddish, pendulous old face rather mottled, almost unconscious, but implacable, her face like a mask that hid something stony, relentless. It was the static inertia of her unsavoury power. (The Virgin 19, my emphasis)

  • 7 As in his poem (from Pansies), “Elderly Discontented Women” which starts: “Elderly discontented wom (...)
  • 8 « Les montages, la routine, ne peuvent opérer que si le monde extérieur est exactement réglé et ne (...)

28And towards the end of the novella, mention is again made of her “obscene will” (The Virgin 95). Granny puts forth a rigid will to dominate and her potential femininity is a mere “mask” as she is only “motherly-seeming.” At home, she incarnates puritan moral rigor and values as is revealed when, on learning that Yvette sees the unmarried Eastwood couple, the Rector tells his daughter: “You have to choose between clean people and reverence for your Granny’s blameless old age, and people who are unclean in their minds and bodies” (The Virgin 93). And soon after, Yvette daren’t tell her father that she thinks Granny imperfect, for he might have think it a good reason to take his daughter to a lunatic asylum (The Virgin 96). So, in the family circle, Granny’s grand age and status stand as icons of perfection and superior moral virtue. She has succeeded in building a fortress for herself in order to reign on her throne. And this fortress is strengthened by her habits and routines in the domestic, stuffy exile in the overheated living room (The Virgin 12-3). Her routines, of taking “Horlicks” before going to bed, of sleeping with her submissive daughter, or of having regular company to listen to her,7 is what De Beauvoir includes in old people’s “defensive behaviours” against diverse types of anxieties regarding the external, always renewing world.8 The elderly, she argues, fearing that they might not be able to accommodate to the changes, fashion habits, get used to these artificial routines in order to ensure for themselves what De Beauvoir defines as “ontological safety” (De Beauvoir 1970, 570).

29So, thus briefly pictured, Granny appears as an extreme egoist (“the family was her own extended ego” (The Virgin 7)), a rigorous being who asserts her will-to-power and protects herself by defensive habits. All these characteristics make her over-feminine (in the sense of “beyond” femininity and not a superior femininity), de-gendered, as she strives to stand above her feminine nature – no mention is made of her potentially past sexual or erotic allure – and above other women too (her daughter, grand-daughters, and former daughter-in-law). But this “over”-femininity, for the most acquired by her status as elder, ironically fails and collapses precisely because of her old age. She is not credible as a family queen, being too weakened by her ageing body: “For the moment she was hibernating in her oldness, her agedness” (The Virgin 19). The juxtaposition of similar terms, both given substance by the suffix “ness,” suggests both the exceptionality and irretrievable process of Granny’s old age, so peculiar that language can only approach it asymptotically. Mention is later made of her “parasitic agedness” (The Virgin 44) – her palpable agedness uncontrollably consumes everything around her, as well as her own self. So what appears as an almost masculine over-femininity is meanwhile eaten up by “her oldness, her agedness,” to the point where it actually subverts her overpowering image into the portrait of an under-feminine, or even a de-feminine, repulsive, de-sexualized old crone. In the reader’s mind and in that of Yvette, her ageing biology predominates over her “blameless old age” (or “majesty of age” (The Virgin 49)).

  • 9 And this again finds an echo in “Elderly Discontented Women”: “Elderly discontented women are so fu (...)

30Yvette’s focalization on Granny highlights defects only: she is hairless (“her white hair was scanty, it was altogether a little indecent” (The Virgin 15)), “lipless” (95), and the proportions of her body have come undone. Time has eroded these three usually eroticized features. Her deafness and blindness (sometimes dramatized, The Virgin 14)) cut her from feminine pleasure. When Yvette comes down dressed up, Granny cannot see the garments: “ ‘Come and let me feel your dresses, do!’ said Granny. ‘Are they your best? It is a shame I can’t see them’ ” (The Virgin 58). She is physically excluded from feminine preoccupations – for she no longer is a woman. Her “protuberant stomach” (The Virgin 10) is another revelatory sign of her de-genderisation. Her huge and deformed belly, gradually fattened by age and her excessive appetite (a physical de-metaphorisation of her will-to-power9), reads as a grotesque subversive version of the younger pregnant woman’s womb: it stands on her as a sort of fat prosthesis for her lost fertility. And instead of giving birth, she now takes in food and lets out gas : “She was perfectly complacent, sitting in her ancient obesity, and after meals, getting the wind from her stomach, pressing her bosom with her hand as she ‘rifted’ in gross physical complacency” (The Virgin 15). Her voracity, usually a male characteristic, corresponds to a return to the “oral phase” at old age (and echoes Lawrence’s reference to his mother-in-law’s “hoggish greed”). Kathleen Woodward explains: “Taking things into the body is a way to fill up the primal cavity and to restore the sense of libidinal well-being that has been lost” (Woodward 178). But with Granny, hardly anything libidinal seems to be restored. She is caught in physical inertia in an a-libidinal monstrous body. Her a-sexuality and de-gendered nature is fleetingly and accurately pointed out, when she is compared to an “awful old prelate” (The Virgin 102): she is thus masculinized in a figure who is itself de-eroticized.

31The apex of her monstrous and reviling repulsiveness comes in a lengthy description, in the writing of which, one might assume, Lawrence may have taken a sort of insane pleasure:

It was Granny whom she came to detest with all her soul. That obese old woman, sitting there in her blindness like some great red-blotched fungus, her neck swallowed between her heaped-up shoulders and her rolling, ancient chins, so that she was neckless as a double potato, her Yvette really hated, with that pure, sheer hatred which is almost a joy. Her hate was so clear, that while she was feeling strong, she enjoyed it.

The old woman sat with her big, reddened face pressed a little back, her lace cap perched on her thin white hair, her stub nose still assertive, and her old mouth shut like a trap. This motherly old soul, her mouth gave her away. It always had been one of the compressed sort. But in her great age, it had gone like a toad’s, lipless, the jaw pressing up like the lower jaw of a trap. The look Yvette most hated was the look of that lower jaw pressing relentlessly up, with an ancient prognathous thrust, so that the snub nose in turn was forced to press upwards, and the whole face was pressed a little back, beneath the big, wall-like forehead. The will, the ancient, toad-like, obscene will in the old woman, was fearful, once you saw it: a toad-like self-will that was godless, and less than human! It belonged to the old, enduring race of toads, or tortoises. And it made one feel that Granny would never die. She would live on like these higher reptiles, in a state of semi-coma for ever. (The Virgin 95-6, my emphases)

32In Yvette’s resentful eyes, Granny combines all the repulsive a-feminine attributes. She seems to be eternal, but in a manner not unlike the Sybil who failed to ask for eternal youth, she slowly and relentlessly grows old. Her life takes the magnified proportion of a whole race whose evolution runs throughout several centuries. Thus animalized and partly fossilized, she has become a persisting de-gendered beast who incarnates a sort of gender anomy. Only her death will ironically briefly resuscitate her femininity as, glinting on her floating corpse, her wedding ring, as with Lydia, fleetingly reminds the reader that she had been a wife for a while in the past.

33To a much lesser extent, on several occasions in 1929, Lawrence gave voice to his own resentfulness towards his aging mother-in-law, evoking, as the main reason, her reluctance to accept her aged condition and looming death (as for instance in the letter to Orioli quoted in the introduction). In several letters addressed to Ada, he gives vent to his annoyance:

Frieda’s mother really rather awful now. She’s 78, and suddenly is in an awful state, thinking her time to die may be coming on. So she fights in the ugliest fashion, greedy and horrible, to get everything that will keep her alive […]. It’s the most ghastly state of almost insane selfishness I ever saw – and all comes of her hideous terror of having to die at the age of seventy-eight! May god preserve me from ever sinking so low. I never felt so cruelly humiliated. (Letters VII 397)

  • 10 And, still on that same day, to Nancy Pearn: “She is 78, and insanely only thinks of clutching at l (...)

34To Orioli (written the same day, August 2nd 1929), he wrote thus : “[Elderly women] don’t mind who else dies. I know my mother-in-law would secretly gloat, if I died at 43 and she lived on 78. She would feel an ugly triumph. It is the kind of thing which does kill one” (Letters VII 399).10 These letters have an obvious resonance with his poem “Old People” (published in Pansies, 1928): “they bear everybody a grim and grisly grudge / because of their own fifty or sixty or seventy or eighty summers. / As if it’s my fault that the old girl is seventy-seven!” (ll.5-7, CP 502). Lawrence is clearly upset by what he interprets as his mother-in-law’s egoism, as he is all too aware of his own failing health. Knowing that he may not personally experience old age, he cannot stand the idea that a senescent woman, for whom death should, according to him, be natural, might be repelled by the idea of death. There surfaces in his words a sort of jealous competition between the elder woman and the younger man, disregarding their gender. Though Lawrence associates the old woman’s behaviour with a feminine, inappropriately excessive appetite for life (reminiscent of Granny’s appetite) and thus with an unwillingness to accept death, in the end, they both run the same race. Yet, interestingly, in his fiction, in his letters and in the aforementioned poem, Lawrence seems to suggest that the reluctance to die, the efforts at hanging on, sometimes more or less pathetically and always in a manner which is egoistic, is a feminine feature – as though men were braver before death than women (but his own example suggests it is not that simple).

35On the whole, Lawrence, like the bulk of the authors who chose to include elder women in their fiction, tends to resort to clichés in his depictions of the “grannies.” In the examples analysed in this article, Lawrence, with varying degrees of benevolence, gives the reader a portrayal of old women who are exhausted, weakened, physically and affectively dependent, rather self-centred, withdrawn into domestic exile and self-protective routines, turning to pathos and worried by death. These banal features are those commonly foregrounded in the representation of aged women. For De Beauvoir, this quite common return to clichés reveals that old age is a “trans-historical reality” (De Beauvoir 1970, 343) – that is, a sort of blunt truth which can hardly be seen from too many different (original) angles. Of course, Lawrence knows how to draw a certain dramatized poetry out of it all and to focus on precise details and make the old woman, though decaying, as lively and as present on the page as any other younger characters. Yet, like others, he seems to be caught in this “trans-historical [blunt] reality.”

36And yet, there is one particular scene, much less stereotypical this time, that deserves our attention at this point. Constance Chatterley, aged only twenty-seven, before meeting Mellors and experiencing the intense pleasure of the flesh, looks at herself in a mirror and sees an old woman:

She was old, old at twenty-seven, with no gleam and sparkle in the flesh. Old through neglect and denial […]. The front of her body made her miserable. It was already beginning to slacken with a slack sort of thinness, almost withered, going old before it had ever really lived. She thought of the child she might somehow bear. Was she fit, anyhow? (LCL 71)

  • 11 Simone de Beauvoir counts frustration as one of the most common features of old age (De Beauvoir 19 (...)
  • 12 Simone de Beauvoir points out the same link between not being, touch and feelings of derealization: (...)

37The physical frustration11 she is going through at this stage makes her feel old and decrepit. According to Kathleen Woodward, “the loss of the affectionate touch of others, can contribute to a sense of our derealisation” (Woodward 171).12 And indeed, thus untouched, she experiences a sort of premature biological withering, which actually leads her to question the very liability of her reproductive capacities.

  • 13 “In western culture aging is represented primarily in terms of the visual, in terms of the surface (...)

38Constance’s utterly subjective experience strikes us as functioning in a reverse logical process when compared to the aforementioned cases, mostly seen by way of an external focalization.13 While Lydia, Walter’s mother and Granny are de-gendered, de-sexualized, precisely because they are old (they are untouched – in a process of derealisation – because of their senescence), Constance’s body appears old because it is de-sexualized, de-eroticized.

39These mirrored processes weave an explicit interdependence between sexuality, genderisation and age, in the sense that they persistently appear as mutually exclusive. The old woman’s age cancels her femininity. And when her femininity (sexuality) withdraws, as is the case with Constance, age is the first element that is convoked – as though a-sexuality was age. This schematic and over-simplistic balance has led Lawrence -and a majority of writers according to De Beauvoir- to depict women who are (again quoting De Beauvoir) “normally anomalous” – “anomalous” for deprived and “normally,” because they go through a natural, normal process. And I want to propose that it is precisely this normality of old age that explains the writers’ very use of clichés.

40Yet if I have I tried to draw attention to elder women’s de-gendering, I want to insist that they are not depicted as old hermaphrodites. Though in the introduction I did indeed propose that there was a converging mental representation of aged men and women, Lawrence’s women remain women, albeit de-sexualized and de-gendered women.

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Beauvoir, Simone de. La Vieillesse, Gallimard, 1970.

--- Le Deuxième Sexe II. Gallimard, 1949, renouvelé en 1976.

Botelho, Lynn and Thane, Pat, eds. Women and Ageing in British Society Since 1500. London, NY: Longman, 2001.

Calasanti, Toni M. and Slevin, Kathleen F, eds. Age matters: realigning feminist thinking. London: Routledge, 2006.

Chivers, Sally. From Old Woman to Older Women – Contemporary Culture and Women’s Narratives. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2003.

Lawrence, D.H. Complete Poems [CP] (1964). Coll., ed., with an Intro. by Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London, Penguin, 1993.

--- Lady Chatterley’s Lover [LCL]. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1994.

--- The Letters of D.H. Lawrence volume VII (1928-30), eds. Keith Sagar and James T. Boulton, 1993.

--- “Odour of Chrysanthemums” in The Complete Short Stories, Volume II. New York: Viking Press, 1966.

--- The Rainbow [R]. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2007

--- The Virgin and the Gipsy. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

--- “Women are so Cocksure”, Phoenix The Posthumous Papers, [P] ed. Edward McDonald. Harmondsworth, Mddsx: Penguin books, 1980.

Ruderman, Judith. D.H. Lawrence and the devouring mother – The search for a patriarchal ideal of leadership. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984.

Silver, Catherine. “Gendered identities in old age Toward (de)gendering,” Journal of Aging Studies 17, New York, N.Y., 2003 (pp.379-397).

Woodward, Kathleen. Aging and its Discontents – Freud and Other Fictions. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.

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1 “And a girl should say: / It must be wonderful to live and grow old. Look at my mother, how rich and still she is!” (“Beautiful Old Age”, CP 503).

2 My translation.

3 “Her bedroom was her city of refuge” (R 254).

4 “The fact of having given birth, of being pregnant, has visible physicality that forces others to understand (and frequently repress acknowledging) women who become mothers as sexual and mutable. Though women who become grandmothers likely have faced the complications of what Adrienne Rich calls ripening, grandmotherhood does not in itself signify fertility the way that motherhood does. And, although old women so frequently confront countless discouraging cultural readings of physical change, no physical changes are directly related to the role of the grandmother. Becoming a grandmother does not signify sexuality as becoming a mother can, partly because of social reluctance to conceive of old people as sexual” (Chivers 39).

5 My translation.

6 As Judith Ruderman argues in her analysis of the novella (Ruderman 156).

7 As in his poem (from Pansies), “Elderly Discontented Women” which starts: “Elderly discontented women ask for intimate companionship, / by which they mean more talk, talk, talk / especially about themselves and their own feelings” (ll.1-3, CP 502).

8 « Les montages, la routine, ne peuvent opérer que si le monde extérieur est exactement réglé et ne suscite aucun problème : chaque chose doit être à sa place, chaque événement se produire à son heure. C’est en partie pour cela que le moindre désordre irrite le vieillard d’une manière qui peut paraitre maladive » (De Beauvoir 1970, 568).

9 And this again finds an echo in “Elderly Discontented Women”: “Elderly discontented women are so full of themselves / they have high-blood pressure and almost burst” (ll.4-5, CP 502).

10 And, still on that same day, to Nancy Pearn: “She is 78, and insanely only thinks of clutching at life to live till she’s 100. It’s too awful” (Letters VII 402).

11 Simone de Beauvoir counts frustration as one of the most common features of old age (De Beauvoir 1970, 440).

12 Simone de Beauvoir points out the same link between not being, touch and feelings of derealization: « il y a une dimension de la vie qui disparaît quand manque le contact charnel avec le monde » (De Beauvoir 1970, 428).

13 “In western culture aging is represented primarily in terms of the visual, in terms of the surface of the body. Hence the emphasis in literature on the way the body looks, and hence the endemic cultural practice of checking ourselves and others for physical signs of aging. […] Unfortunately, this view of the body as a specular body has achieved widespread currency at the expense of other dimensions of the body. Yet we commonly talk about how our bodies feel” (Woodward 169).

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Elise Brault-Dreux, « De-gendering the “grannies.” »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 49 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2019, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Elise Brault-Dreux

Elise Brault-Dreuxis a lecturer at Valenciennes University, where she teaches English literature and language. She has published several articles on D.H. Lawrence's work, T.S. Eliot's and Katherine Mansfield's poetry. Her book on D.H. Lawrence's poetry was published in France in 2014. It is entitled Le 'je' et ses masques dans la poésie de D.H. Lawrence (The I and its masks in Lawrence’s poetry).

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