Gayle originally wrote this post for BookMachine, who have generously agreed to share. Check out their site for news, views and interviews from the publishing community.
If you spend a lot of time in the London Review Bookshop in the days leading up to February 14th, you could be forgiven for forgetting the significance of that date. If we’re not ignoring Valentine’s Day entirely, we’re wilfully misunderstanding it. So with that in mind, I won’t be recommending any of your happily-ever-after, ‘til-death-do-us-part love stories this Valentine’s Day, and instead invite you to appreciate the quietly wonderful world of the literary spinster.
Spinsters have had about as bad a time of it in literature as they have in real life. Marginalised and ridiculed, they range between silly Miss Bateses and horrific Miss Havishams; add to this the fact that many of literature’s most famous ‘spinsters’ actually end up married – Jane Eyre, I’m looking at you – and true spinsterhood might seem a fate worse than death. Not so, I say; here’s my pick of literary spinsters worth celebrating.
My first choice is really a double act, and while it might be Lucia, the sophisticated widow, who tends to have the upper hand in EF Benson‘s hilarious tale of polite social warfare, she’d be nothing without the spinster Mapp to plot against. (Pedants among you may wish to point out that Mapp, in the end, falls into the Jane Eyre category of spinsters-who-don’t-end-up-spinsters, but as her main reason for marrying is that ‘then poor Lulu will only be a widow and I a married woman with a well-controlled husband’, I view it less as a marriage, more as just another declaration of war.)
No list of literary spinsters would be complete without the incomparable Barbara Pym, so I’m cheating and picking as my second choice nearly every heroine she ever wrote. Pym’s spinsters exist against a background of church fetes and jumble sales, gloomy bedsits and dusty libraries; there’s always a sense of sadness and longing in the smallness of their lives, but when one considers the men on offer – earnest young curates, arrogant academics, hypocritical clergymen – spinsterhood really does seem like the only sensible course. And when it’s presented with Pym’s lightness of touch and Austen-like humour, it’s irresistible.
Now to bring things right up to date with a spinster for the twenty-first century: Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (out this February from Canongate) gives us Cheryl Glickman, a lonely neurotic forty-something, obsessed with Phillip, an older man who barely knows she exists. In a story full of the kind of surreal twists and turns you’d expect from July, Cheryl’s awakening is bizarre and wonderful, and – spoiler alert – doesn’t involve riding off into the sunset with Phillip.
In the grand tradition of things, I’ve saved the best for last: the fantastic – in both senses of the word – Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Following her belief that ‘nothing is impracticable for a single, middle-aged woman with an income of her own’ Lolly Willowes escapes her dull existence as a ‘useful and obliging’ presence in her brother’s household and goes off to the Chilterns, where she merrily becomes a witch. Happily ever after, indeed.