Spinster: on the madness of being man-less

American singleton Kate Bolick proves that old maids are alive and well and selling trite books

Elizabeth Gilbert: there are too many female characters in literature for whom “marriage is the end of their story”. Photograph: The New York Times

Elizabeth Gilbert: there are too many female characters in literature for whom “marriage is the end of their story”. Photograph: The New York Times

 

‘Whom to marry, and when it will happen – these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does, or doesn’t practice . . . ”

This is the opening of Spinster, in which Kate Bolick minorly examines the historical condition of spinsterhood while focusing on five literary women she deems her “awakeners”.

Bolick is from Massachusetts, and four of her five women – Edna St Vincent Millay, Neith Boyce, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman – have strong ties to New England. (The fifth is Maeve Brennan, who, rather than being described as a short-story writer or columnist, is oddly saddled with the job of “essayist”.)

Bolick details her connections to these women, ranging from the heartfelt to the superficial (“like me, four of my five awakeners were redheads”) and the book redirects constantly to Bolick’s own relationships, though never marriage.

All five of Bolick’s spinsters eventually married, but that doesn’t stop her considering their former spinsterhood over the course of 300 pages. It’s also problematic to define successful women as spinsters; how is their success linked to their marital status?

The book is spliced through with Bolick’s own story, including observations on the relationship status of her contemporaries.

Here’s just one dollop of generalisation (warning: contains massive assumptions): “Single women of my acquaintance were exceptionally alert to the people around them, generous in their attention . . . married women, especially those with children, tended to assume a superior stance, as if their insights into people and relationships came pre-approved, even though single women drew from a larger store of experiences and had often seen more of the world.”

If that kind of castigation doesn’t tempt you to read on, neither will the depthless examination of bookish spinsterhood. It’s an interesting topic wasted, and there are better-researched works around. (It’s not solely about spinsters, but Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine, or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much is excellent.)

Many of literature’s classic spinsters (Elizabeth Mapp, Jane Eyre) also end up married, but too often they are painted as tragic on-the-shelf leftovers who never managed to bag a man. Think of poor Miss Havisham wandering her mansion in a faded wedding dress, or Jean Brodie bewitched by fascism.

A side effect of being man-less is madness; in both Notes on a Scandal and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, well-meaning older women turn into creepy turncoats. (Note the closeness of Messud’s title to “the madwoman in the attic”.)

It’s not too much to ask for alternative representations? Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes was the first book I ever read about a lifelong single woman whose story is presented as an adventure, not a pitiful car crash. Fed up with her overbearing family, Lolly moves away to live alone and becomes a witch. Similarly, “wild and peculiar” Christina Goering in Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles ditches family for autonomy.

More recently, Cheryl Glickman in Miranda July’s The First Bad Man is initially presented to the reader as a dowdy 40-something singleton, but July gives her another, less predictable story.

In Dublin in 2013, author Elizabeth Gilbert said that there were too many female characters in literature for whom “marriage is the end of their story”.

“Happy ever after”, despite what we’re consistently told, doesn’t always have to mean marriage.

Sinéad Gleeson hosts The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1

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