The Parameters of Women’s Ageing in Victorian Literature, Gerontology and Culture

  • Sara Eileen Zadrozny

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Critics have acknowledged the Victorian tendency to portray women as ageing more quickly than their male counterparts. They have not, however, fully explored the origins of this notion. This thesis argues that the growth of nineteenth-century medical practice, with its claims to visual diagnostic authority, helped to promote the idea that women enter old age first.
    Building on Peter Stearns’s research into female ageing in France, I argue that Victorian doctors made medical claims about women’s bodies in a way that reflected their own training in the misogyny of Greek classical philosophy. I demonstrate that Victorians authors, doctors and society did not simply borrow these ancient medical beliefs but combined them with a ‘flexible’ attitude towards the outward signs of women’s ageing. As such, the Victorians read the physical signs of female ageing as predestined and as physical evidence of past misdemeanours. This thesis shows how premature female ageing may be traced across a broad range of Victorian texts by male and female authors.
    I show too, how parts of the body – skin, hair, hands and flesh - are used to represent ageing in the whole woman. Chapter one examines older women’s skin in Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Dombey and Son (1848), Catherine Gore’s Cecil, Or the Adventures of a Coxcomb (1841) and Percy Fitzgerald’s “A Terrible Old Lady” (1862). Chapter two looks at ageing women’s hair in Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855–1857), Sketches by Boz (1836), Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1866), Hal Godfrey ’s The Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore (1897), Paul Féval’s Vampire City (1867) and Thomas Hardy “The Son’s Veto” (1891). In chapter three, older working- class women’s hands are examined in Ella Hepworth Dixon “The Sweet o' the Year” (1896), Thomas Hardy’s “The Withered Arm” (1888) and Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849). Chapter four analyses ageing women’s flesh in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Little Dorrit (1857), George’s Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne” (1896). Finally, I argue that negative and contradictory ideas about female ageing continue to influence contemporary society as part of a legacy from Victorian medicine, fiction and culture.
    Date of Award23 May 2023
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Portsmouth
    SupervisorCharlotte Boyce (Supervisor), Paraic Finnerty (Supervisor) & Mark Frost (Supervisor)

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