Friday 1 June 2012

The Spinster Book - Myrtle Reed

Image source, and online text
There has been a bit of a theme on SiaB this year, hasn't there?  Lots of books for, and about, unmarried women - because of the research I've been doing.  You'll be hearing more about metamorphosis and talking animals later in the year, so get ready for that... Anyway, The Spinster Book by Myrtle Reed is the earliest of the books I've read this year - published, as it was, in 1901.  Myrtle Reed was only my age (26) which is perhaps too young to be penning anything with 'spinster' in the title - and, indeed, she never became an old spinster, or an old anything, as she committed suicide when she was 36.  I learnt all this after reading the book; it would, perhaps, have coloured my view of what is a witty and exuberant examination of men, women, and marriage.

Quite why it is called The Spinster Book I'm not sure, unless it is intended to act as a guide for the uninitiated.  It certainly doesn't linger on the single state for long - instead, leaping headfirst into a discussion about men.  This was perhaps the most openly satirical chapter - if I had read some of the others first, I might have thought Reed serious (if misguided) for 1901 is a long time ago, and her 'advice' might well have been current.  I couldn't tell whether the beautiful lay-out of the book, with bordered margins and notes at the side to tell you the main topic of the page (none of which, I note, is available in the free ebook edition - just sayin') was itself part of the satire, or simply a throwback to design which was not, in 1901, particularly distant.  But nobody could read this and imagine Reed's tongue to be anywhere but in her cheek:
How shall a girl acquire her knowledge of the phenomena of affection, if men are not willing to be questioned on the subject?  What is more natural than to seek wisdom from the man a girl has just refused to marry?  Why should she not ask if he has ever loved before, how long he has loved her, if he were not surprised when he found it out, and how he feels in her presence? 
Yet a sensitive spinster is repeatedly astonished at finding her lover transformed into a friend, without other provocation than this.  He accuses her of being "a heartless coquette," of having "led him on," - whatever that may mean, - and he does not care to have her for his sister, or even for his friend.
The Spinster Book is something akin to a satirical exploration of men, women, and love - not really in the style of an advisory guide, but closer to natural history.  Reed writes of men and women as though she were neither, and merely watching them at an amused, or concerned, distance.  She is full of sage, simple advice:
In order to be happy, a woman needs only a good digestion, a satisfatory complexion, and a lover.  The first requirement being met, the second is not hard to obtain, and the third follows as a matter of course.
And who can blame her if the contemplation of mankind in the throes of romance makes her somewhat cynical?
The average love letter is sufficient to make a sensitive spinster weep, unless she herself is in love and the letter be addressed to her.  The first stage of the tender passion renders a man careless as to his punctuation, the second seriously affects his spelling, and in the last period of the malady, his grammar develops locomotor ataxia.  The single blessedness of school-teachers is largely to be attributed to this cause.
Although Reed is being tongue-in-cheek throughout, The Spinster Book is still interesting as a window on society in the early 1900s.  True, affections and engagements were probably not bestowed and withdrawn quite in the manner Reed suggests, but it is taken as read that a man will barely know a woman before he proposes, and that a woman ought to turn down a few men before she settles upon one (in contrast to the post-WW1 supposed mentality of grabbing any man one can.)  Cynicism about marriage is a trope of comic writing which has been around since Chaucer's Wife of Bath, and doubtless before, but through this cynicism one can always discern a portrait of contemporaneous marriage and relationships - through a glass darkly, but it's there.  Failing that, The Spinster Book - though not satire at its most sophisticated or thorough - is still good for a giggle.

(As usual, clicking on the sketch will give you a larger, more readable, image... enjoy!)

The Spinster Book
Lesson No.1: Get lots of cats.
Lesson No.2: errr...


  1. I giggled at all the passages you quoted, especially the one about poorly-written love letters.

    As usual, the first thing I did was check to see if the library had a copy of this. They do! Except it's on microfilm. Yeah, that's just not going to happen, no matter how nicely formatted the book is. I loathe microfilm and, more specifically, microfilm readers. It'll have to be the ebook for me.

  2. Brilliantly entertaining pictures.

  3. Lovely blog. Just one visit and I came to know about loads of new books! I read your blog and add fresh names to my flipkart wishlist, which is getting pretty long.

  4. What an interesting find, and a brilliant blog entry to accompany it. I can imagine such a book sitting comfortably on my coffee table and evoking interest from visitors! I hope there are some copies floating around.


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