Spinsters, Widows and Chars

Catch the Oscars last night? This week's review analyzes how aging women are depicted in British cinema.

Spinsters, Widows and Chars: The Ageing Woman in British Film

Mortimer, Claire. Edinburgh University Press, 2021
240p bibl index, 9781474452823 $110.00, 9781474452854 $110.00

Spinsters, Widows and Chars: The Ageing Woman in British Film book cover.

Mortimer surveys the representational avenues available to aging women in British cinema, noting both long-standing archetypes and investigating recent trends. The analyses of the star personae of key women such as Kay Walsh and Maggie Smith highlight their versatility and show the degree to which they could be typecast based on past successes. Smith, for instance, has played spinsters and witches for more than half her life. The key figure in the book is Margaret Rutherford, whose physicality, eccentricity, and delightful nonconformity make her the most formidable of the older actors in the book. Her turns as a medium in Blithe Spirit (1945) and as “battleaxe bluestocking” Miss Whitchurch in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)—which inspired the St. Trinian’s franchise—showcased her talents, even in supporting roles. Though the book rushes a bit through the contemporary examples in the last chapter, the thematic focus around representational types and social issues throughout works well. The excellent chapter “Hags, Witches, and the Magic Spinster” particularly shows the centrality of aging women to the boom in supernatural, horror, and occult films in postwar British cinema.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty
Reviewer: K. M. Flanagan, George Mason University
Interdisciplinary Subjects: Women’s & Gender Studies
 Humanities – Performing Arts – Film
Choice Issue: Dec 2022

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