Apparently Greta Garbo never actually said, “I want to be alone.” Except as a line in the movie Grand Hotel. But she was. At least alone in the way that society defines women who don’t marry as being “alone.” I’ve been thinking of the state of being alone, or unmarried, a good deal these days. And the many famous, respected, independent women who live and have lived single lives. Women whom I admire for one reason or another, like Jane Austen, Diane Keaton, Harper Lee, Coco Chanel, and Greta Garbo. Some of these women did not marry by choice, and others might have liked to marry but, for whatever reason, did not.

On Her Own: Spinsters and the Women Who Write about Them

I’ve been wondering how pressured these famous women felt to conform to the norm, how they probably felt undervalued as women because they did not fulfill roles as wives and mothers. And how much harder it might have been for them if they had not been talented and creative, and able to build a life around satisfying work.

All this has been on my mind since I’ve been reading Kate Bolick’s wonderful book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a non-fiction book quite so much in a long time. In fact I’ve been reading it like fiction, in that I couldn’t wait to find out what happens. Bolick is a talented writer. In her book, she explores the evolution of the “spinster” in society. And she tells her own story, compellingly, of building a career, and a life of her own, despite societal pressure to find a mate, marry, and have children.

In a May 2015 article in the Globe and Mail, Zosia Bielski outlines Bolick’s argument that “there’s nothing wrong with being a ‘spinster.'” In fact Bolick believes the word ‘spinster’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a pejorative term. But might be extended to any woman, “single or partnered” who holds onto “the idea of autonomy that can get so easily lost inside of marriage or motherhood.” Bolick thinks we should all try to cultivate this autonomy, and hold onto “that in us which is independent and self-sufficient.” Can’t argue with that. Growing up as the child of a single mum who was raising four kids, my sisters and I certainly learned early the value of independence, and self-sufficiency, and the idea that in order to achieve these as women, a good education was key.

On Her Own: Spinsters and the Women Who Write about Them
Kate Bolick in the Globe and Mail
So I enjoyed reading about Kate Bolick’s personal journey as narrated in her book. But I also loved that she explores the lives of five women who influenced and inspired her; she calls them her “awakeners.” Essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Edith Wharton, and “social visionary” Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick says she borrowed the term from Edith Wharton who “used it in her memoir, A Backward Glance, to describe the books and thinkers who’d guided her intellectual studies.”
On Her Own: Spinsters and the Woman Who Write about Them
Edna St. Vincent Millay source
All five of Bolick’s “awakeners” lived fascinating and vivid lives. Like Bolick is doing now, they struggled with society’s expectations of them as women, and with their own desires and ambitions to live a life that was not defined by marriage and motherhood. In fact it was my fascination with Bolick’s “awakeners” which lead me down so many “reading rabbit holes” (as I call them) that I couldn’t finish this post earlier in the month when I started it. I won’t go into any more detail; you should read the book yourself. Really. You should.
On Her Own: Spinsters and the Women Who Write about Them
Maeve Brennan source

Women on their own, whether single, or widowed, or fleeing from bad marriages is a theme in the work of many of my favourite writers. Like Anita Brookner. Sadly Brookner died in March at age 87. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll already know what I think of Brookner. If not you can read this post about Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, and what I call “gentle reading.” Neither Pym nor Brookner married, and their stories of other “spinsters” are some of my favourite novels. And have a look at this article in The Guardian where Rachel Cooke contends that  Brookner’s “ability to capture life’s quiet battles” makes her novels “required reading.”

On Her Own: Spinsters and the Women Who Write about Them
Anita Brookner source

Another writer who writes about women who struggle to “throw off the restraints placed around them by husbands, fathers, society” in order to live meaningful lives… and whom I consider as required reading… is Canadian Constance Beresford-Howe. Beresford-Howe also died this past winter, at age 93. You can read her obituary in The Globe and Mail here. According to Pat Kennedy, her longtime editor at MacMillan Canada, Beresford-Howe is “often underrated” because she “was quiet and not flashy.” In fact Beresford-Howe has been compared to Barbara Pym, who Philip Larkin called the “most underrated writer of the twentieth century.”

Constance Beresford-Howe in the Globe and Mail
Constance Beresford-Howe source

Beresford-Howe’s best known work is The Book of Eve, in which the character Eve, at age 65, leaves her disastrous marriage and discovers who she really is, who she’s really been all along: “You can’t know what it’s like to be invisible for years on end. Never independent. Never free, even to use those four letters words we all know, because the chief duty of females, we are taught, was to practice the restraints of civilization, not explore its possibilities.” Gad, I love that book.  All Beresford-Howe’s books are about women finding the courage to build their own life, on their own terms. And mostly on their own. Alone.

It’s odd to think of Constance Beresford-Howe writing about the stultifying effects of marriage and family when you consider that she was happily married for 55 years. But then again, she says she based the character of Eve on her mother who “never left her father, but should have.” According to Kennedy, women used to approach the author at readings to tell her she “gave them courage to change their lives.” That’s lovely, isn’t it?
These are my two favourite Beresford-Howe novels. If you haven’t read her books, do check them out. You’ll be in for a treat. You know, I think it would be amazing if someone were to revive Beresford-Howe’s reputation, like Philip Larkin did for Pym in the seventies. And reignite interest in this wonderful writer.
I read Pym, Brookner and Beresford-Howe for the first time in my late twenties. When I was making major changes in my life. And when I think of it, I guess I would classify them as three of my own “awakeners, ” as Kate Bolick (and Edith Wharton) might say.
So, Constance Beresford-Howe wrote about bad marriages, and lonely women, yet was happily married. Jane Austen never married but wrote about women who longed for perfect marriages. Kate Bolick writes of spinsterhood as something to be cultivated, yet she has a long-time boyfriend. And me, I’ve been happily married for 27 years, but I suspect I may have a deeply ingrained streak of spinsterhood in me. Huh.
Now what the heck does all of that mean, do you think? Kate Bolick writes: “Whom to marry, and when will it happen- these two questions define every woman’s existence… until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.” But I think what Bolick’s book, and the books of these other writers, goes on to prove is that even once these questions are answered, women still grapple with the consequences of the answers. There is no happily ever after. There’s just us continuing to “explore possibilities” as Beresford-Howe’s character says.
Sheesh. That’s enough of me pretending to be profound. Trying to maintain a pretense of profundity, I might say, if I were being particularly pretentious. What do you say about all this, dear readers?


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17 thoughts on “On Her Own: Spinsters and Women Who Write about Them”

  1. Read about Kate Bolick's book when it was first published and thought it sounded interesting. Funny you should mention Maeve Brennan as I recently read a biography of her – a very complex and interesting character. Hadn't come across Constance Beresford Howe but she sounds interesting. Will look out for her. Thank you for more reading inspiration and an enjoyable brush with profundity. Iris

    1. I'm going to try to find some of Brennan's work, if I can. I was intrigued by her and by Neith Boyce and their writings on being single. "Brush with profundity" … that made me laugh, Iris.

  2. Apologies for overuse of the word interesting. Hope it doesn't offend your English teacher sensibilities Iris

    1. Ha. Not at all. And speaking of teaching… reading about these fascinating women makes me wish I were still teaching teenage girls. Wouldn't it be amazing to have an all-girls creative writing class, and to read work by women writers, such as these, as inpspiration?

  3. I have the Spinster book on my to-read list, and have just now added Constance Beresford-Howe. Thank you for the recommendations! The others mentioned in your post are all faves of mine.

    I think that especially when you don't have children – married or not – people decide you are fair game for judgement. It's really tiresome. I mean, it is 2016, right?

  4. When I started reading this post, I thought of Anita Brookner…I didn't know you were a fan too. I've read all her books, and happened on the first one while browsing in a bookstore in my early 40's. I'm going to read Spinster and Constance Beresford-Howe on your recommendation. I was really sad when I read that Anita Brookner had died….

    1. As I said to Bridget above… if you like Brookner, you'll like Beresford-Howe. Her prose is not as "lean" as Brookner's, but also not as bleak.

  5. It's difficult to understand how women of the past lived with their lack of independence once they married , especially from our present day viewpoint , but I suppose many of them wanted to be looked after & provided for . I sometimes wonder if we should sympathise with the men , having to work & keep them ? Certainly careers were almost impossible for women . Even when I became a civil servant in the 60s , women had to retire on marriage . It quickly changed so didn't affect me . I have a Pym omnibus on the book pile , following your recommendation , & will look out for Beresford-Howe .
    Wendy in York
    ( I have reservations now about Coco Chanel after reading of her activities in WW2 )

    1. I guess the men had as few choices as the women, in some ways. At least in the pressure to conform to the stereotype husband and father etc. I do hope you like Barbara Pym. Bit nervous when readers act on my recommendations… oh the weight of responsibility! Just kidding… mostly. But not everyone likes Pym or Brookner for that matter. I remember when my book club read Brookner's Hotel du Lac and dismissed it as a "light read." I think I gasped that they had sooo missed the point of that book. Know what you mean about Chanel. I think she was probably a very self centered person… as in what was good for Coco was just good period. Guess that's what made her so successful…that focus.

  6. Thanks for the reminder about Constance Beresford-Howe. I read and enjoyed her novels when I was in my thirties, but I think I would appreciate them even more now that I'm fifty-something. Time for a reread! And I'm glad that you keep spreading the word about Barbara Pym. She is too delightful not to be shared! (Denise L.)

  7. I love checking out your recommendations. Something I've noticed as I age (I'm 61) is people finally stopped asking me if I was seeing anyone. I've been single for many years and thoroughly enjoy it!

  8. I will definitely have to add this book to my reading list – I love the idea of "reading rabbit holes". Such an interesting post – thank you for linking to the #allaboutyou link party on I have always hated the sound of the word "spinster", and the portrayal of women who are defined as such. It sounds so spiky and unapproachable, especially in contrast with the more gregarious portrayal of a "bachelor". The idea of a spinster as embodying strength and choice is a far more appealing one.

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