The Aesthetics of Senescence: Aging, Population and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel
by Andrea Charise
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Michelle Shaw
Early on in the writing of this book, the author Andrea Charise, suggested developing a particular seminar for her advanced undergraduates. “Called ‘Reading Older Age’, its goal was to introduce students to representations of age and aging in a variety of literary genres,” in order to “better understand how such portrayals contribute to our perceptions of fleshly temporality.” At the start of the seminar, her students, all in their early twenties, described aging, not surprisingly, in terms of decline, “the naturalized assumption that old age is inextricably bound to illness, incapacity, lack and diminishment.” But as the semester progressed, with the students reading a variety of books ranging from Shakespeare’s King Lear to David Markson’s The Last Novel, she was intrigued to discover that her students began to perceive aging through a far more complex lens.
In The Aesthetics of Senescence, which was shaped by her doctoral studies at the University of Toronto, Charise “explores how the invention of population in the early 19th century impacted broader cultural conceptualizations of older age.” She examines the works of a wide range of authors including William Godwin, Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. Charise says she chose to focus on texts that exemplify what she sees as “especially interesting or provocative moments in the nineteenth-century imagination of older age, precisely because they re-present (sic) the profound multivocality of aging and older age at the moment of their textual production.”
I was particularly fascinated by how certain authors were influenced in their work by their relationships with significant thinkers of that time: George Eliot’s views on aging and the aging body for instance were significantly informed by the views of her partner, philosopher George Henry Lewes who published an influential and widely read treatise in 1859 called The Physiology of Common Life.
The Aesthetics of Senescence is not light reading. But its depth of research and perceptive examination provides a thought-provoking and fascinating analysis of aging through the lens of nineteenth-century British literature.
Andrea Charise is an assistant professor in the Department of English and the Interdisciplinary Center for Health & Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough. An award-winning educator and researcher of literary studies, she has twenty years of work experience as a medical researcher, primarily in geriatrics.
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