Love in an old climate: Writing about older lovers

Maggie Gee tackles the issue of ageism in the media and publishing and discusses how to write about love and sex between older people.

Novelist Maggie Gee is in her seventies and in love, so why shouldn’t she write about older lovers in her novel?

This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Love, including exercises, a podcast and an article, all covering the broad topic of writing about love. Our Resources packs are generously supported by Arts Council England. Discover more here →

Older lovers

There was one particular aspect of my latest novel that caused my normally sympathetic publisher to pause for thought. It was not the issues I might have expected – putting Neanderthal characters into a book set in the future might have raised eyebrows, I thought, or having the two raven narrators in a fable for adults about migration.

But no, that was all fine – it was the age of the central pair of lovers that my young editor was worried about.

I never say the exact ages of Professor Juan Der Tal and Holly Palermo, but they are both in their sixth or seventh decade. Yet they fall in love, and make love – frequently – in bed, or wherever they feel like it. They are mad about each other, and the love between them is a great happiness in a testing external world.

‘How often is the narrative of love, particularly sexual love, between older adults told?’

No, I told her, I want them to be that age. And because ours is a mutually respectful editorial relationship, she accepted it. It made me think, though. Why shouldn’t fictional lovers be old?

The novel they star in, The Red Children, is about the arrival of a mysterious group of refugees, who are not quite human-looking, on the south coast of the UK in the 2030s. Their leader – the tall, still-red-haired ‘Professor’ Juan – is looking for a cooler, safer place to live; he’s also looking for Holly Palermo, a woman he had fallen in love with three decades earlier.

Holly is a widow now, and her long thick hair is grey, but to him she is entirely beautiful. He’s shy, but her tenderness means they waste no time in going to bed together – after all, they have already wasted years being apart. ‘Long sunlit avenues open up before them’ as they drink champagne on her balcony overlooking the harbour.

I am in my seventies and still in love with someone of my own age, so to me there was nothing improbable about this. But in our culture, how often is the narrative of love, particularly sexual love, between older adults told?



My scalp prickles ‘danger’ when someone around my age wanders onto the stage in a TV comedy, or appears in an advertisement. Will they be portrayed as physical wrecks? If they are given sexual feelings, will that be conveyed as absurd? Will they be patronised, pitied or mocked?

The comedy stereotypes are themselves out of date. Maybe a generation ago the majority of old people were a lot older, in physical terms, or acted and dressed as if they were. But that was before we unstoppable baby boomers came on the scene. We Babies go on robustly toddling about, doing all the normal things that normal, un-old people do. Research suggests we’re actually doing more of them.


The joy of sex

According to a whole raft of studies since 2008 (see sidebar), older people are having at least as much sex as younger ones. In fact millennials are less sexually active than their parents. Answers to polls indicate regular sexual activity continues into our sixties, seventies and even eighties. None of this is news to us oldies – it’s our life.

Of course not all TV and film is ageist, even though ageism often seems like the only -ism our culture still allows. The TV series Last Tango in Halifax, for example, was as astute in its portrayal of the older characters’ love affair as it was in the diverse sexuality of the younger ones. The 2009 romcom movie It’s Complicated had Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin playing lovers their own age and in bed together. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (based on Debbie Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things) showed older people still hungry for sexual love, and any film that sends Bill Nighy and Judi Dench off into the sunset together is a success in my book. Too often, though, sexual power is the first kind of power that the young unconsciously disallow the old.


Respect your elders

I realised while writing this piece that I myself was always fascinated by older people, the generation above my parents’, in real life. The first writer I knew personally was a poet called E J (Joy) Scovell. She was 50 years older than me, and those years seemed so full of knowledge, writing, relationships, travels in the Amazon and family in the Caribbean, as well as poetry – and she writes beautifully about love in old age. Later I was lucky to become a friend of Doris Lessing, who was 40 years older than me, and had been a communist and a Sufi and had love affairs. I learned greedily from these women, whose lives overlapped with mine but who had seen things I could never have known.

‘The sexual passion of the older woman burns like a flame.’

Doris Lessing led a countercharge against the arrogance of youth when she wrote Love, Again (1996), the story of a clever, strong older woman, an artist, who falls in love with a much younger man. He is seductive and flattering and apparently courts her, but never actually tries to consummate the relationship. It turns out he is only interested in the aura of her fame. It’s a painful, truthful book about misreadings, but the sexual passion of the older woman burns like a flame.

There’s a different outcome in Lessing’s extraordinary long short story ‘The grandmothers’. Roz and Lil, once childhood friends but now attractive women in their sixties, brazenly seduce each other’s sons away from younger fertile women – and the triumphant laughter of the older women rings out through the pages. Bernardine Evaristo did a similar service to older gay men in her witty high-voltage novel Mr Loverman, starring a septuagenarian sexual adventurer.



All writers make choices about their characters semi-unconsciously. I remember a great friend saying to me back when we were both 50 – as was the heroine of Lost Children, the novel I had just written – ‘Are you always going to make your main characters the same age as you? Won’t you lose younger readers?’

Would I? Were people really only interested in reading about protagonists of their own generation? I didn’t know. But all my subsequent novels have had casts of characters with a wide age range – and I sense that this gives a springiness and depth of perspective to a story.


Interplay of ages

The first full draft of my 2014 novel Virginia Woolf in Manhattan seemed too static, narrated alternately by two late-middle-aged writerly women – even though the elder of the two was a resurrected Virginia Woolf having fun in 21st Century New York. So I set the book aside for six months then tried adding a third voice. Gerda is a bright, angry, funny girl on the edge of her teens and warring with her mother, bringing with her all the rebelliousness and playful verbal energy of her age group.

Bringing her into the book was an artistic decision, but it also recognised de facto the narrowing logic of an ageing author plus ageing characters plus ageing audience. Writer Diana Melly, youthful in her eighties, once advised ‘Have younger friends’. When we give central roles to older characters, it’s a good idea to balance the mix with younger ones.

‘When we give central roles to older characters, it’s a good idea to balance the mix with younger ones.’

The tension between old and young vivifies a book. Stout, whiskery Anthony Trollope is not a frequent visitor to Mslexia’s pages, but he deserves a place here because of his wonderful female characters, older women in particular. In Can You Forgive Her?, the confident, pleasure-loving widow Mrs Greenow lays the menfolk of Yarmouth low in her inaugural trip away, attired in fetching mourning weeds, rather too soon after her husband’s death. And Trollope’s Barsetshire novels are lit up by the fabulously wealthy Miss Dunstable, whose money, she is amused to remind polite society, comes from her family’s manufacture of a preparation called the Oil of Lebanon. Miss Dunstable stays happily single until her fifth decade, cutting swathes through her feeble, venal aristocratic young suitors with her loud laughter and witty commentary on human folly.

The lessons of Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel – the gripping, perceptive Oh, William – are many, but it’s interesting to trace a reversal between the sexes taking place (spoiler alert). Though it is the woman who seems to love the most, and the most painfully, it is she who remains on stage at the end.



How to write other ages

So how do you write believable older characters if you are young? First, remember that inside they are the same as you. One day you will be them; once they were just like you. Second, listen to older people. Their idiolect and metaphors may be different but they have probably gone through the same agonies you are having now. They have simply had more life and are therefore gold dust for writers.

I intend to keep loving, writing and writing real, believable, characters of all ages until I die. My hope is to have written and published at least 20 titles – my heroes Doris Lessing and Maureen Duffy (aged 88 and still writing amazing poetry) have published many more.

One thing we older women writers can write about is the real thriving, subversive, funny older women we know. If we don’t, these lives will fade into invisibility in the social media glare of underage models and tragic teenagers already botoxing their faces to look more youthful. Older women are alive, interesting and sexy. Let’s write ourselves as we really are.


The facts

  • Research at Manchester University and MMU in 2017 into over 7,000 people aged 50+ found that ‘women aged 80 and over may be having more satisfying sex than we might have thought’ and that octogenarian men reported higher levels of sexual satisfaction and of feeling more in physically in tune with their partners than those aged 50-79.
  • A study in the Journals of Gerontology in 2011 found declines in sexual activity of older women in the US are due largely to widowhood and the unavailability of healthy male partners ‘exacerbated by the typical sexual partnering patterns of older men with younger women’.
  • The national Youth Risk Behaviour Survey in the US reports that rates of sexual activity decreased between 1991 and 2015, as indicated by current activity, number of partners, and those who had never had sex.
  • Research into the sexual activity of young people in the US, reported in Socius in 2021, confirmed previous findings of a decline and attributed this to increased computer gaming and decreased alcohol consumption.
  • A survey of 60,000 Australians by a team at Melbourne University found Gen Z were as sexually active as people aged 75+, with 37 per cent having sex once a month or more.


About The Red Children

It’s the 2030s in Ramsgate and four people who don’t look quite human are found sitting, naked, in the early spring sunlight on the quay of the quiet south coast resort. The locals are puzzled – the newcomers are larger and heavier than they are and say they are fleeing the heat. Soon more arrive. Their tall red-haired leader, The Professor, talks to the universe. The locals talk among themselves.

Red people appear everywhere, making friends, going into the caves, liked by some but accused of bringing infection by others. Two rivalrous brothers, Liam and Joe, take different sides as one joins a notorious far-right group. Their teacher Monica is the first to warn there’ll be trouble. And she’s right, there is; but there is also a great Midsummer Festival, laughter and love.

Set in a world in crisis, this original, gripping fable about migration and global warming restores belief in the power of human kindness.

Find out more and buy The Red Children here →


About this article

This article appeared in Issue 94 of Mslexia – the magazine for women who write.








About Maggie Gee

Maggie Gee, OBE FRSL was one of only six women among the 20 writers on Granta’s first ever Best of Young British Novelists list in 1983. She was the first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature (2004-8) and is a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. She has published 14 novels, a collection of short stories and a memoir. The White Family was shortlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award.

Follow her on Twitter @maggiegeewriter


The Writing Life podcast

Subscribe to The Writing Life podcast for regular episodes on all aspects of writing – from the muse to the craft.