Everyone knows the speech made by Jaques in As You Like It about the Seven Ages of Man. But here it is again:
"....................................................At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
That is a horrific vision of old age, which I last heard delivered by an excellent female Jaques - Emma Pallant - in the courtyard of the Bodleian in Oxford as part of a Globe touring production.
But as a writer of historical fiction, I want to know WHEN this horrendous state of affairs might apply in any given period. We all know that life expectancy was lower in the past than today but how can we find out what it was?
My last novel featured Michelangelo Buonarotti, who lived till nearly 89 but how common was that in sixteenth century Italy? If you consult that oracle of accuracy, Wikipedia, you will find some quite specific statistics but they have to be modified, to take account of infant mortality. If you lived till the age of 21 in England, you could then add as follows, provided you were a male aristocrat:
- 1200-1300 A.D.: 43 years (to age 64)
- 1300-1400 A.D.: 24 years (to age 45) (due to the impact of the Black Death)
- 1400-1500 A.D.: 48 years (to age 69)
- 1500-1550 A.D.: 50 years (to age 71).
Yes, the bubonic plague was the scourge of the late 14th century but Blanche was a Duchess! Living in a castle! She didn't even get her 45 years but the history of the English monarchy would have been very different if she had. Still she is commemorated in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess - probably.
If your life expectancy - in any period - was between 30 and 40 years, your definition of terms like "young", "old", "middle-aged" etc. would be very different from if it lay between 80 and 90. We can see how this alters in our own lifetimes too, with every newspaper article that tells us our life expectancy goes up by two years every year.
In my last post, about my first History teacher, I mentioned how the Head of History at my secondary school appeared old to eleven year old me, but I bet I am older now than she was then. My opinion was based partly on her snow white hair - even though my own mother was completely white-haired by the age of 30 (the Lassiter gene).
Miss Wren wouldn't have used hair dye - only "fast" women did that in the 50s. But in the 21st century we are always being fed slogans like "60 is the new 40." A Miss Wren in 2011 might be quite different.
My point is that as well as the absolute age or potential age of anyone in the past there is also the relative perception of their age by people younger or older than them. As novelists we must be sensitive to these issues.
We are also used to women in particular being defined by their age in the media. Whether it is P.D. James or Diana Athill being "wonderful for their age" (instead of just wonderful) or giving women Guardian columns when they reach a certain temporal milestone (Joan Bakewell, Michele Hanson) or applying a double standard to women older than their male sexual partners (using words like "cougar", "toyboy" etc.) it is clear that the Seven Ages of Women are different from those Shakespeare assigned the "All the world's a stage" casting too.
Here is one I rather like:
alternative version for 21st century women