Image: Penguin

Image: Penguin

It is too often said that youth is wasted on the young. Well, say that to John Keats, Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald or any of the other many literary wunderkinder who have bedazzled us with their raw, unjaded ability to capture the world from a youth's-eye-view.

But that's not to say that talent fades as age kicks in. The literary world is full of writers who spent years – decades, even – honing their ideas and polishing their prose before writing their best book in the Autumn of their career.

Take this year's Goldsmith's Prize as a golden example, where all but one (Xiaolu Guo) of the shortlisted authors are over 49, each with a trove of work already under their belts. 

Or as Mark Twain, a late-career bloomer himself, once said, “Ageing is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Here, from George Orwell to Nella Larsen, are some of history's greatest writers who proved that creative energy, like fine wine or a mistrust of technology, only ripens with age.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

The saddest part of Kate Chopin's fascinating life story is that she never knew the feminist triumph The Awakening would become after her death. Tastemaking, back then, was an almost entirely male pursuit, and the gatekeepers of culture were largely unable to handle a story about a wife and mother who refuses to be cowed by the patriarchal prison of an unhappy marriage. One critic called it "poison ... too strong a drink for moral babes".

Already a well-known short story writer before she turned her hand to novels, the criticism hit Chopin hard, and she never wrote another novel, folding back into short fiction until her death in 1904.

But history, it turned out, had her back. It would take 60 years – and the explosion of second-wave feminism – for the world to wake up to what Chopin had to say about identity, self-revelation and sexual awakening in women. It is now considered to be a feminist masterwork with a timeless message.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four on his deathbed. He had holed himself up in a tiny wind-battered farmhouse on a remote Scottish island to rush the novel out before tuberculosis destroyed his lungs, and life, completely. "[It] wouldn’t have been so gloomy if I had not been so ill”, he later said of the book that would go on to become the definitive novel of the 20th century.

He lived just long enough to see the novel published to rapturous critical acclaim in June 1949. The New York Herald Tribune called it as “timely as a label on a poison bottle,” while EM Forster called it “too terrible a novel to be read straight through”. But alas, he would never know the incalculable impact it would have on the world – the most influential novel about propaganda, surveillance and paranoid politics ever written.

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Nella Larsen took up writing relatively late in life – she'd already lived through two careers (a nurse and a children's librarian) before she wrote her semi-autobiographical first novel, Quicksand, about a headstrong biracial woman in search of love and acceptance in 1920s New York.

But it was her second novel, Passing, that propelled her into literary lore – a novel not just about a black woman who lives her life “passing” as a white woman, but also about secrecy and hypocrisy and the universally human fear of being “found out”.

And it came out at a time when conversations about race, class and gender were beginning to open up, despite prejudice still seeming, to many, a stone-set human right. It was such a success that, in 1930, Larsen became the first black woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

Only, following a messy divorce in 1933, Larsen began to struggle with her mental health and all but gave up writing until her death in 1964. Passing would remain the book that put her name in lights as one of the most-respected members of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.

Billy Budd by Herman Melville (1924)

What a tempestuous life Herman Melville had. In his youth, he answered the call of the sea, hunting whales, surviving mutinies and living among cannibals in far-flung Pacific islands before he began writing about his exotic escapades.

With Typee, Omoo, and later Moby-Dick, he set out his stall as an adventure writer. The first two did well, but Moby-Dick failed miserably and had long fallen out of print by the time he died, an impoverished and forgotten customs inspector, in 1891.

What nobody knew was that he had spend the twilight of his life secretly writing the manuscript of what would become Billy Budd, the “culmination,” as one scholar put it, “of a lifetime's spiritual agony.”

Unearthed and published almost 30 years after his death, it was hailed as a masterpiece, reanimating his genius and finally searing his name into history.

D. H. Lawrence was among its earliest cheerleaders, while German author Thomas Mann gushed, “How beautiful is it, how moving – masterful, cheerful and serious, masculine-pure, relentless and at the same time poetic and reconciling.”

Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972)

After serving in the British Army during the Second World War, Richard Adams got a job in the civil service, rising to the rank of Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

That was when – in 1966, aged 46 – he came up with a story about a fluffle of rabbits who escape from their doomed warren to keep his two daughters quiet as he drove them to school. “I had been put on the spot and I started off, ‘Once there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver.’ And I just took it on from there,” he told The Guardian in 2015.

The girls loved the story so much that they convinced him to write it down. It would take a further six years for him to find a publisher willing to take a punt on his story of fear, friendship and the search for a home.

But when he did, it proved a literary slam dunk, selling tens of millions of copies and earning Adams, in one swoop, both of the most prestigious children's book awards: the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)

Emily Bronte wasn't old when she wrote Wuthering Heights, but her life was at its end. She was just 30 when tuberculosis cut short her rise to literary stardom in 1847, the same year her only novel was published under the pen name “Ellis Bell”.

It was the only book she ever finished, and many critics believed it to be by a man, such was its visceral exploration of love, emotional cruelty and the destructive powers of both. “As a portrait of "star-cross'd lovers" it rivals Romeo and Juliet,” wrote the critic Robert McCrum in 2013. “ There is … something operatic about its audacity and ambition.”

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)

When Anna Sewell was 11, she slipped in a rainstorm and injured her ankle so severely that she never walked properly again. From that moment on, she relied on a pony and trap to get about.

There was a silver lining to the tragedy, however: it sparked a lifelong love for horses that remained until her death in 1878.

So in 1877, when she was terminally ill and pushing 60, she finally put her equine devotion to paper in a bid to “induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”.

The result was Black Beauty, a heart-pluckingly tender novel about a horse who triumphs over human cruelty. It was, in some ways, the first animal rights novel ever written, and proved an instant mega-seller, just in time for her to enjoy its success before she died a year later.

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