The coming of age novel is one of our most popular and powerful literary genres. From The History of Tom Jones to Twilight, The Catcher in the Rye to Carrie, we never tire of watching tender little Homo Sapiens get plunged into the boiling cauldron of life, and no wonder. Stories are based on conflict, and innocence v experience is the oldest and darkest fist-fight of them all.
But bildungsroman aren’t restricted to the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The German word simply means ‘novel of formation’, and the male mid-life crisis novel, a study of that second, mirror-adolescence from adulthood to old age, is a rich contemporary theme. Ian McEwan’s 2005 James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner Saturday and his 2010 success Solar; Howard Jacobson’s 2010 Booker-winning The Finkler Question; and Julian Barnes’ 2011 winner The Sense of An Ending all focus on men who watch their careers and sex lives shrivel from over the burgeoning curve of their guts.
So it makes sense that novels addressing the menopause should be rife. After all, although men and women both have to reorient their identities as they age, the physical, emotional and symbolic power of the female ‘change’ is unique. However, although there are plenty of fine literary books about women at ‘that time of life’ - Anne Tyler, Margaret Drabble and Elizabeth Buchan are three mistresses of the art – they seem strangely wary of focusing on the process itself. And the few menopause-specific novels out there - US author Nancy's Thayer's chick-lit series The Hot Flash Club, Anne Kleinberg's 2011 Menopause in Manhattan - can hardly be set against the male-centric prize-winners above.
Non-fiction writers aren’t so shy; Jane Shilling’s 2012 memoir The Stranger In The Mirror is an intimate exploration of her shifting self-image, while Marie de Hennezel’s bestselling The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting is a life-affirming rallying call. So why are novelists so reluctant to anatomise the menopause?
It was a question raised by John Sutherland at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival. In a session on sex and marriage in literature, Sutherland admitted that when he read Elaine Showalter’s introduction to the 1991 Penguin Classic edition of Mrs Dalloway, and discovered that Woolf intended the novel as an exploration of the menopause, it was a rewarding revelation.
When Woolf says of her heroine that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street” or that “often now this body she wore […[, this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all”, it seems incredible that we could ever miss the allusions. And that’s without understanding contemporary attitudes to the menopause, which further enrich and complicate Woolf’s themes of generational conflict, madness and suicide.
Consider too Mrs Bennett, the laughing stock of that other perennial set text, Pride and Prejudice. Like Mrs Dalloway, Mrs Bennett is portrayed as frivolous, fragile and painfully self-conscious, but if we see her as a woman in the first flush of menopause, our derisive dismissal of her character becomes more subtle and sympathetic. Those famous nerves – her husband’s nemeses - become the symptoms of a woman struggling to with deep biological shifts. Her obsession with her daughters’ sexual ripeness – akin to Clarissa’s ambivalent relationship with her 18-year old Elizabeth - becomes a poignant parallel to her own fertility, once rampant to a character-defining degree and now presumably defunct. Her energy and ambition in the face of her feminine redundancy make her admirable, as well as exasperating.
It is understandable that such interpretations might not have previously entered the compass of a male academic born in 1938. But I studied both novels for my A-Levels in 1999 and I‘d never been exposed to those ideas before I heard Sutherland speak. A bizarre Victorian squeamishness seems to have followed the canon into the modern curriculum. My teachers of literature were as uninterested in the menopause as modern authors who, theoretically unbound by the social taboos, still seem unwilling to put it centre stage.
Last year’s study by the Associated Press found that women read almost twice the number of books as men, and account for a clear majority of the fiction market. A full-on menopause Wetlands might have a limited audience, but a deep literary exploration of this iconic and inevitable life event could be a huge commercial hit. Is the lack of it evidence of a lingering social stigma? Does the lack of interest come from authors, publishers or readers? Or have I missed a wealth of unabashed menopause bildungsroman? Set me straight!