Wednesday 23 November 2011

The Spinster - 100 years ago

I've mentioned before that I'm writing about spinsters in the early twentieth-century.  I find it a fascinating topic, and I know that many of you do too.  We all have access to wonderful spinster novels such as Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, The Love Child by Edith Olivier, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson etc. etc., but having the Bodleian at my lucky little fingertips does give me more scope than many.  Having read an article called 'The Spinster', published in a journal called The Freewoman, I thought I'd share it with you.  What makes it even more noteworthy is that it was published on November 23rd 1911: exactly one hundred years ago today.  The views are sometimes rather shocking. I wonder how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same? (For one thing, paragraphs were much longer!)

The Spinster.  By One.

I write of the High Priestess of Society. Not of the mother of sons, but of her barren sister, the withered tree, the aciduous vestal under whose pales shadow we chill and whiten, of the Spinster I write. Because of her power and dominion. She, unobtrusive, meek, soft-footed, silent, shamefaced, bloodless and boneless, thinned to spirit, enters the secret recesses of the mind, sits at the secret springs of action, and moulds and fashions our emasculate Society. She is our social Nemesis. For the insult of her creation, without knowing it she takes her revenge. What she has become, she makes all. To every form of social life she gives its complexion. Every book, every play, every sermon, every song, each bears her inscription. The Churches she has made her own. Their message and their conventions are for her type, and of their Ideal she has made a Spinster transfigured. In the auditorium of every theatre she sits, the pale guardian. What the players say and do, they say and do never forgetting her presence. She haunts every library. Her eye will pierce the cover of every book, and her glance may not be offended. In our schools she takes the little children, and day by day they breathe in the atmosphere of her violated spirit. She tinges every conversation, she weights each moral judgment. She rules the earth. All our outward morality is made to accommodate her, and any alien, wild life-impulse which clamours for release is released in secret, in shame, and under the sense of sin. A restive but impotent world writhes under her subtle priestly domination. She triumphs, and we turn half expecting to see in her the joy of triumph. But no, not that even. She has no knowledge of it. All is pure fatality. She remains at once the injured and the injuring.   Society has cursed her and the curse is now roosting at home.

The indictment which the Spinster lays up against Society is that of ingenious cruelty. The type of intelligence which, in its immaturity, conceived the tortures of a Tantalus might have essayed the creation of a spinster as its ripe production. See how she is made, and from what. She is mothered into the world by a being, who, whatever else she may be, is not a spinster, and from this being she draws her instincts. While yet a child, these instincts are intensified and made self-conscious by the development, in her own person, of a phenomenon which is unmistakable, repellent, and recurrent with a rapid and painful certainty. This development engenders its own lassitude, and in this lassitude new instincts are set free. Little by little, the development of her entire form sets towards a single consummation, and all the while, by every kind of device, the mind is set towards the same consummation. In babyhood, she begins, with her dolls. Why do not the parents of a prospective spinster give her a gun or an engine. If Society is going to have spinsters, it should train spinsters. In girlhood, she is ushered into an atmosphere charged with sex-distinctions and sex-insinuations.  She is educated on a literature saturated with these. In every book she takes up, in every play she sees, in every conversation, in every social amusement, in every interest in life she finds that the pivot upon which all interest turns is the sex interest. So body, mind, training, and environment unite to produce in her an expectation which awaits definite fulfilment. She is ready to marry, ripe to marry, needing marriage, and up to this point Society has been blameless. It is in the next step that she sins. Did Society inculcate nothing more, Nature would step in to solve her own difficulties, as she does where Society and its judgments have little weight. Among the very poor there is no spinster difficulty, because the very poor do not remain spinsters. It is from higher up in the social scale, where social judgments count, where the individual is a little more highly wrought, better fashioned for suffering, that we draw the army of actual spinsters. It is in the classes where it is not good form to have too much feeling, and actual bad form to show any; where there is a smattering of education, and little interests to fill in the time, that their numbers rally and increase. It is here that Society, after having fostered just expectations, turns round arbitrarily on one perhaps in every four and says, "Thou shalt not." No reason given, only outlawry prescribed if the prohibition is disregarded. And because Society has a dim consciousness of its own treachery - for its protection and like a coward - it lays down the law of silence, and in subtle fashion makes the poor wretch the culprit. (It is probably this sense of self-defection which keeps these cheated women from committing rape. Imagine an equal proportion of any male population under similar circumstances!) Probably, one will ask, What is all the fuss about? Is it all because a man did not turn up at the right time? Well, partly yes and partly no. Not any man. It was the right man she was expecting, HER man. Rightly or wrongly the theory of the right man has been dinned into consciousness of the ordinary middle-class woman. It may be merely a subtle ruse on the part of a consciously inadequate society to prepare its victims for the altar. However that may be, the result is the same. The Spinster stands the racket. She pays the penalty. She is the failure, and she closes her teeth down and says nothing. What can she say? Is she not the failure? And so the conspiracy of silence becomes complete. Then, mind and body begin. They get their pound of flesh and the innermost Ego of the Soul, the solitary Dweller behind the Mind, stands at bay to meet their baiting. Day by day, year by year, the baiting goes on. To what end - for what temporal or final good is all this? This is the question to which Society, in sheer amends, has to find an answer. This unfair war waged by instinct and training against poor ordinary consciousness can only be rendered decent by some overwhelming good accruing to someone or something. To whom and for what? These are questions to which we demand an answer as a right. Then, being answered, if any woman considers the benefit conferred upon Society great enough to outweigh the suffering entailed upon herself she may possibly undertake it in the spirit of some magnanimous benefactor. Because this inward warfare cannot truthfully be considered for one moment as benefiting the Spinster herself. Her character for instance, is not in need of that kind of tonic. For, be it noted, the Spinster does not overcome Sex as a Saint overcomes Sin. She does not, save rarely, crush out of existence that part of her which is threatening her life's reasonable calm. Driven inward, denied its rightful ordained fulfilment, the instinct becomes diffused. The field of consciousness is charged with an all-pervasive unrest and sickness, which changes all meanings, and queers all judgments, and which, appearing outwardly, we recognise as sentimentality. It is to this sentimentality that all reason and intelligence has to bow. It is by this means that we are all made to pass under the yoke. It is not, however, to be believed that every spinster will thus suffer mind and body to enter into bondage. Some are finding a way of escape. Some women have taken this way, and more will take it. It is the final retort. It is the way of the Saint. It would be the right way in overcoming sin. But in overcoming the life instinct itself, who shall say it is right? The way is to destroy the faculty. With a strong will and a stern regime it can be done. Women are doing it with a fierce joy that would have gladdened the heart of some old Puritan. You take the body and tire it out with work, work, work. In any crevice of time left over you rush here and there, up and down, constantly active. And for the mind, you close down the shutters on that field. No image, no phrase, no brooding, nothing there which speaks of emotions which produce life. And this sort of Spinster, more and more, is bringing up the younger generation. Another unconscious revenge! But this is the way of the few. As for the many, they go the sentimental way. For there is no shuffling possible in this matter. The Spinster must either keep her womanhood at the cost of suffering inordinate for the thing it is, and be compelled to turn what should be an incidental interest into the basis of all interest; or she must destroy the faculty itself, and know herself atrophied. There is no alternative. To offer work, pleasure, "doing good," in lieu of this is as much to the point and as sensible as to offer a loaf to a person who is tortured with thirst.

Let the social guardians remember that in the fulness of time physical developments show themselves, and that as they appear, so must they be provided for. This social slaughter can no longer pass without challenge, and they may remember for their comfort that if prurience has slain its thousands, chastity has slain its tens of thousands. In this matter, it remains for Society to justify itself.


  1. I particularly like the bit where potential spinsters should be singled out at birth and given guns and engines rather than toys...

    These people need to figure out how to form an opinion.

  2. How depressing! You would find a lot about spinsters in the Girl's Own Annual volumes for the same period. The magazine took a much more positive attitude (it was published by the Religious Tract Society) and many of its articles aimed to reconcile unmarried women to a full and useful life alone. The issues edited by Flora Klickmann are the best, IMO.

    Miss Silver (Patricia Wentworth's creation) is a notable literary spinster.

  3. '...Society should train spinsters.'

    Well that's me with images of community college classes full of women learning goodness knows what!

  4. … so I have in mind, after reading, the question: does being a Spinster (upper case imperative to being the epitome of the lot) preclude one from giving birth to children? Seems like a bit of an oops moment – how do we know that every spinster’s mother was not unmarried? There is a never-having-known-ness (sigh … the spell check simply refuses that amount of lexical creativity) quality when I read the word, but historically speaking I’m wondering what you have found concerning dual criteria (never being married and never having children) versus single criterion (never being married) – I can, of course, imagine (smile) that there were other terms more usually applied to women who had children while not being married, but, as they aged and reached some advanced milestone of years still in the unmarried state, were these women eligible for entry into the Spinster Sisterhood, or were they perhaps excluded from the club? Is there an assumption that the distraction of raising children would make it impossible to spin(ster) those stories about everything and everyone that are the legacy of any respectable spinster?


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