Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Spinsters in Literature - or Do I Mean Single Women?


The word spinster is funny and subversive. I use it flippantly, and hope it causes no offense. The word evokes the image of a  professorial woman wearing spectacles on a chain and sipping a stinky tea brewed from herbs grown in her weedy back yard.  Who knows what tisane she sips?

All spinsters are by definition single women, but are all single women spinsters?  The definition in my old Webster's dictionary is:  1.  a woman still unmarried beyond the usual age of marrying.  2.  Chiefly Law. A woman who has never married.  3. a woman whose occupation is spinning.  

I know many women who are delighted to be called spinsters, but none whose occupation is spinning.  And yet I have gone ahead and compiled a list of

Ten Spinsters (or Single Women) in Fiction

1.  Rosamund in Margaret Drabble's The Millstone. Brainy Rosamund theoretically approves of the sexual revolution, but hasn’t yet experienced it personally. When she takes a break from her research to lose her virginity, she has the bad luck to get pregnant. But is it bad luck?  She becomes a single mother and continues to work on her dissertation.

 2.  Lucy Snowe in Villette by Charlotte Bronte. With no job prospects in England, Lucy bravely travels to Villette (i.e., Bruges) and serendipitously finds a job teaching English at a girls' school. Teaching is not her vocation, but how else can a Victorian woman make a living?  This book is about making do:  not every girl gets the guy she wants; Lucy falls in love with Dr. Graham, her godmother's son, but he falls for much prettier women.  She
doesn't get what she wants, but perhaps she gets something better.  The ending is ambiguous.


3.  Sheila Levine in Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent. Written in the form of a suicide note, this 1972 novel reads like stand-up comedy. Sheila is unabashedly unpolitically correct and has problems with “women’s lib.” Unlike the beautiful heroines of ’70s feminist best-sellers like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen,  Sheila Levine is an overweight sexy girl who doesn’t attract the men she is attracted to.  She doesn’t mind being an easy lay:  she enjoys sex.  But we do feel her pain and grief as the book goes on.

4.  Miss Bates in Emma by Jane Austen.  Miss Bates babbles a mile a minute and lives in genteel poverty.  When Emma cruelly mocks Miss Bates, Knightley explains that it is her duty to be courteous.  The well-born Miss Bates would have been her equal but for the loss of the family fortune. Poor Miss Bates!  As the years go by, I have more and more sympathy for her.

5.  Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians by Henry James.  Olive, a fanatical suffragist, woos (without knowing she woos) a beautiful young orator, Verena Varrant.   Soon the two women are living together,  and Olive coaches Verena to become a celebrity feminist speaker. Does, Olive, a repressed lesbian, know she is in love with Verena?  She certainly battles Basil Ransom, Verena's suitor, for Verena's soul - and presumably her body. Basil has many faults, too, though we tend to be pro-Basil.  This reads like a prison break, but James makes it clear that Verena may be exchanging one prison for another.

6.  The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. Pragmatic Jane Graham is respected at her public relations job. A sexual slip-up--an unplanned pregnancy--forces her to examine her life. In a bug-infested L-shaped room, she befriends some unconventional Londoners and makes peace with her disapproving father. (Two sequels published in the ‘70s, The Backward Shadow and Two is Lonely, relate Jane’s further adventures.)

7.  A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence. Time is passing for 34-year-old Rachel, whose invalid mother dominates her. During a brief, not particularly happy, love affair, she discovers the importance of taking risks.

8.  The Country Girls trilogy by Edna O’Brien. The first two novels iare a lyrical coming-of-age story. Caithleen and Baba, two bickering, mischievous friends, contrive their own expulsion from a convent school and move to Dublin to pursue fun and love.  But they are not destined to be spinsters, of course.

9.  Georgy Girl by Margaret Forster.  I saw the charming movie, with Vanessa Redford as Georgy, on TV years ago and then read the book. It isn't fresh in my mind, so here is the Goodreads blurb:  Georgy is young, gregarious and fun - she is also large, self-confessedly ugly and desperate for love. Georgy bears her fate bravely as she alternates between playing the fool and humbling herself before Meredith, her pretty, callous flatmate, although when James, middle-aged socialite and self-imposed 'Uncle', asks Georgy to become his mistress, she is tempted to accept.

10.  Bassett by Stella Gibbons.  In this delightful novel, two middle-aged women go into business together. Miss Hilda Baker, a Londoner who works in a pattern-cutting office, wants to invest her savings of 300 pounds.  S
he sees an ad in Town and Country that might offer what she wants:  Miss Padsoe, a spinster in a country town, needs a partner in the conversion of her house into a rooming house. Miss Baker cautiously visits Miss Padsoe, but doesn't decide to invest until her boss fires her (he is downsizing).  And thus the adventures of Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe begin. 

Who are your favorite spinsters in literature?  There must be thousands, but I had trouble thinking of ten!


  1. Life long single women is a good term. Such women not an anomaly if you just allow a woman can make a mistake and spend a few years married or have a child or so. Then turn to real life and you find inspiring models everywhere.

  2. I agree, they are not an anomaly. Many women are happy living alone. I'm sure the word "spinster" had bad connotations in the past, but that doesn't seem (usually) to be the case.

  3. Mapp and Lucia, E.F. Benson's two friends?

  4. Hi Kat! I left a fairly long comment on this very interesting post a few days ago; the comment never appeared. I mention it only as an "alert" in case you've had similar problems with other posts. Anyway, here's the gist of it, as best I remember!
    You've come up with a very impressive list that I very much enjoyed reading. Mentally, I started my own list and realized it would take me a decade to do as much. To your own, I'd only add a character or two from Anita Brookner and/or Barbara Pym, both wonderful sources for spinsters/single women; perhaps Edith from AB's Hotel du Lac and Mildred from Pym's Excellent Women. Depending on how one looks at spinsters I might even throw in one of Jean Rhys' tortured , always "looking for love in all the wrong places" protagonists (Sasha from Good Morning, Midnight maybe?).
    The divergence in the three writers I've mentioned illustrates the fundamental nature of your question regarding how we regard spinsters or single women. Are they temporarily without a love interest that defines their life (Rhys), women of accomplishment who function quite well but who sense a void that can be filled only with a satisfying male relationship (Brookner) or independent women who actually don't think about romantic relationships very much, having constructed a meaningful and busy life they find quite satisfying (Pym. Although at the end of Excellent Women, it's clear Mildred is destined to end her single status)?

    1. Sorry about the missing comment. This one is great, and I thank you. I'll see if I can figure out the problem. Wish me luck!

      I love your recommendations. Am a great fan of Pym and Brookner, but I haven't read Rhys in years. Her sad, impoverished women are fascinating. Yes, everything depends on the male presence for Rhy's women. And that's why I reread Pym: the characters are less intense, more humorous.

  5. Miss Millamant in Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles. She lost her fiancé in the Great War and turned to tutoring to support herself.

    1. Love the Cazalet Chronicles. That reminds me, I need to get going with the reread. so many great books are recommended in these comments.