"Past her flourishing time": The older woman in Restoration and eighteenth-century English literature

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Tassie Gwilliam - Committee Chair


In the literature of Restoration and eighteenth-century England, the older woman appears for the most part in a distinctly negative light. Sometimes villain, more often comic butt, she is rarely an admirable or sympathetic figure. While a general antipathy to older women may be attributed to ageism and misogyny, economic trends and the cultural climate of the period provide fertile ground for the prejudice. The Enlightenment's faith in the primacy of "Nature" as a governing principle figures prominently in the contemporary definition of woman and her proper role in society, but few of the older women characters in the drama and novels of the period fill the prescribed role. In various ways, they subvert or defy the conventional model of eighteenth-century womanhood narrowly envisioned in terms of "chaste maiden and obedient wife." The older women characters are most often portrayed as either amorous widow, pretender to learning, or bawd, three stereotypical figures recreated by eighteenth-century writers according to their individual dictates and in light of the period's cultural imperatives. The distinctive traits of the three basic types of older women characters remain fairly stable from the stock figures common in Restoration drama to the more individualized figures in the novels. In texts that span more than one hundred years, writers as diverse as Wycherley and Smollett regularly depict the older woman as laughable or dangerous.


Philosophy; Women's Studies; Theater; Literature, English

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