Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Most of the action in The Seven Ages is in the past, stories of earlier women as remembered by other women and heard by the Narrator, who has just retired to the countryside after thirty-five years of practice as a midwife. She has taken up residence in a small cottage near the farm, where, as an evacuee from World War II, she spent her childhood with her Aunt Doris and her cousin Ada.
While their talents vary, the women from the past are like most women—involved in bearing or not bearing children, and worrying about them as women have been occupied since the beginning of time. While several women of rank, subject to the pains of childbirth as are all women, figure prominently in these tales, the narrators of their stories are women who were midwives until the man-midwives and male doctors assumed authority in the seventeenth century (chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5). The story of Alice (chapter 3) is told by Ann, who was taught to read by her mother, Lady Elizabeth, and who was consequently burned as a witch (during the reign of Mary I). Granny Martin, the Narrator’s grandmother, remembers the story told to her by her grandmother, Nancy, who was in service to Sophie, the Matriarch from the time she was ten years old (chapter 6). The Narrator gives up her retirement after less than two years to support the women’s peace movement in the late twentieth century (chapter 7). This choice serves to declare her own identity.
Time is perceived in this novel by the effects of politics and religion on ordinary people. War is viewed in its social context rather than in its historical context. Whether the fighting was to gain property or to prove whose side God had taken—wars typically involving both God and money—the results were always the same: men killed or crippled, leaving their children deserted and the women to care for the property.
In the sixteenth century, Alice, the great-great-granddaughter of Judith, is a victim of the times. In service as a nun from early adolescence, Alice is sent home with nothing but her cropped hair when the nunneries are closed. (The Church was nationalized under Henry VIII in 1534 and continued so under his son, Edward VI.) Under the new rules, Alice eventually marries a parish priest and bears him six children in as many years. Her husband becomes insane, understandably, when he is told that he was never married but living in sin (Mary I, assuming the throne after her brother, denationalized the Church). Alice’s husband is later restored to his living after Elizabeth comes to the throne in 1558, when the English Church was nationalized for good.
This is a novel about women, narrated by other women—with first names, but without surnames because lineage does not suffice to provide identity. The retired Narrator remains unnamed,...
(The entire section is 1149 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Field, Michele. “Eva Figes,” in Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI (January 16, 1987), pp. 56-57.
Goreau, Angeline. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XCII (February 22, 1987), p. 7.
Library Journal. Review. CXI (December, 1986), p. 35.
Maja-Pearce, Adewale. Review in New Statesman. CXI (May 23, 1986), p. 26.
Publishers Weekly. Review. CCXXX (October 24, 1986), p. 58.