Spinster Lit

When you travel for a living you have quite a lot of time to think about loneliness and detachment; doing so as a woman adds quite a few layers to that. Despite the much-touted progress of the last ...

When you travel for a living you have quite a lot of time to think about loneliness and detachment; doing so as a woman adds quite a few layers to that. Despite the much-touted progress of the last century there remains something slightly scandalous about the figure of the unaccompanied woman directing her own travel. Pop cultural figures like Australia’s unwed flapper detective Miss Fisher (whose eponymous Mysteries have become a breakout hit on Netflix in the US) seem to resonate with modern women who still often encounter men who see female solitude as an invitation.

A woman who goes somewhere on her own remains quietly radical, whether her solitary journey takes her to the corner auto repair shop or to a distant continent. This is truer than ever when it comes to the ultimate journey, life itself. Solitary women are seen as being forever in want of husbands, and marriage is still a question that bedevils us.

Two new books intervene in this old debate about women, marriage, and the specter of spinsterdom in intriguing, and very different ways. Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, part memoir, part biographical polemic, explores the author’s own life through the lens of the lives of five historical women dubbed “spinsters” in their day. Eliza Kennedy’s uproarious debut novel I Take You, meanwhile, is a delectably grotesque comedy about the runup to the protagonist’s wedding to “the perfect man” and her anxiety about ending her carefree, sex-filled life as a result.

Each book says something interesting about solitude and womanhood in the 21st century; neither has much to say for the unique realities faced by women of color or queer women—indeed, Kennedy’s novel reduces transgender women to ugly punch lines. In spite of this oversight, both contain their truths and speak loudly about how women are re-evaluating the supposed benefits of heterosexual marriage. Each book shows how women are slowly unfreezing the stalled sexual revolution by rediscovering the joys of life without laboring under the wedding bells of Damocles—even if, in I Take You’s case, that point is made by showing a woman falling away from everything that makes her who she is.

It is both sobering and depressing that feminist discourse must still grapple with the question of marriage. Like most “is this feminist or not?” questions, the one about marriage is tedious; few acts are inherently feminist or anti-feminist outside of context and larger patterns.

Today, the pattern we see is that, although marriage rates are in sharp decline, marriage remains a fixture in our collective consciousness, a proud milestone in each person’s life that most still believe should be achieved by a specific age.

Men are of course expected to marry, but it is women who are surrounded by an arsenal of ticking clocks and social pressures. There is no true male counterpart to the spinster, the monster under our unused wedding beds that Bolick reclaims admirably in her book. “Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence,” she writes at the outset. The most important lesson that Bolick imparts, however, is that women have an under-expressed right to be alone, and that there is a kind of artistry to being single. The most important room of our own is our own minds.

<i>Edna St. Vincent Millay</i>. Photograph Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

Edna St. Vincent Millay. Photograph Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

Bolick writes that she was trying to understand why it is that our most “feared selves” as women often took the shape of the spinster—she who never married—and why our impression of spinsterdom took the shape of being a wandering bag lady or living alone with scores of cats, and so on.

To answer this, Bolick mixes genres with aplomb: Her book is a memoir but also a miniature biography series of five women whom she dubs her “awakeners,” because all have dealt with the question of marriage and solitude in their literary careers. Creativity is another through-line in the book, and Bolick became enamored of these women, including figures like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton, because she aspired to something she saw in them and their work.

The book is a cornucopia of information, and Bolick demonstrates her mastery of the craft by corralling the staggering amount of data she marshals into a coherent narrative; from history to personal reflection to sociology and economics, there’s a lot in here that never feels forced or excessive.

Bolick argues there is a way to be solitary without truly being alone. For her, solitude means, first and foremost, being unmarried; she embraces the image of loneliness evoked by the spinster stereotype and tries, quite successfully, to redeem it. She then prizes apart the nature of unmarried life in order for women to explore who and what we can be when we embrace the uncoupled life. It is not, she argues, a life free of love, sex, or companionship, but rather one that deepens all of these experiences.

For many women—Black, Latina, trans—“womanhood” is a state of being which they are categorically barred from achieving by our society.

More importantly, Bolick suggests that the greatest threat that solitary women pose to patriarchy is that their solitude may allow them to recover a sense of pride in the things they are meant to be ashamed of—having lots of cats, for example. Bolick takes Virgina Woolf’s exhortation to “furnish” a room of her own literally and discovers the art of interior decoration. Her tribute to the vocation and its significant role in her life seems at first to be a distraction from the book’s themes but, in fact, reaches their very heart. As Bolick lived by herself and focused on what most fulfilled her, the idea that home decoration and design was a frivolous feminine waste fell away like so many out-of-season curtains.

For women, as surely as with men, solitude can give life and return you to what Hannah Arendt memorably called the silent dialogue between I and myself that constitutes the core of rational thought; solitude was, for Arendt, markedly different from loneliness. The former sees you in contact and dialogue with your deepest self. “I am ‘by myself,’ together with myself” in solitude, Arendt writes; a precondition for truly meditative thought and critical thinking. Far from being truly alone, you are engaged with your doppelgänger, in whom is invested a wealth of socialized thought. You speak to society through that reflection. Loneliness, in Arendt’s contrasting vision, is instead a state where you are utterly disconnected from others, including your deepest self.

Solitude can lift or part the ideological veil that so often occludes our vision, and can also introduce us to new ways of connecting to other people. As Bolick puts it so well at the end of her book: “The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the 21st century.”

In Arendt’s terms, then, Bolick is suggesting that a marriage one undertakes because it’s the “done thing” will actually result in loneliness, alienation from who you truly are. The solitude of an unwed life that exists on its own terms, however, promotes a productive solitude where you deepen your connection to your truest self through that neverending critical engagement with one’s own received ideas and creative spirit.

Bolick suggests that we unshackle ourselves from thinking that marriage, or any long-term committed relationship, must replace our solitary pursuits and explorations. Sadly, the other book under review, Kennedy’s I Take You, is at war with itself on this point. In parts, the book exemplifies the virtues of the lifestyle Bolick extols, and yet it ultimately gets cold feet and ends with a retreat into the comfort of the false dichotomy between marriage and singlehood.

Kennedy’s novel is her first, but her spitfire comedic prose leaves next to no hint of that. This is a genuinely funny book, with a protagonist, Lily Wilder, who plays a comedic role usually left to men: that of the unaccountably lovable asshole. She’s a potty-mouthed lawyer who enjoys liquid lunches (and breakfasts, and dinners), sex with many different men, as well as the occasional woman—and who often makes the first move. Wilder’s lifestyle is an acerbic torrent of delightful obscenities in word and deed. But one of the few genuinely selfish things she’s ever done is hand-waved away by an unbelievable plot resolution at the book’s end that puts the novel in the curious position of letting Lily get away with an actual act of irresponsibility while tarring her sexual behavior as immature and selfish and “correcting” her.

What was deeply dissatisfying about I Take You is that, where Bolick tells a tale of self-liberation, Kennedy shows us a female character sanding away everything that makes her who she is out of fear of loneliness, of losing not only the “perfect man,” but the perfect wedding.

A comprehensive discussion of this requires spoiling the book’s various revelations, but they’re not all that surprising. Lily Wilder has genuine faults that she needs to mend, particularly her complete lack of consideration for the feelings of others. But her freewheeling sexual lifestyle is, ultimately, what she sacrifices to have a worthwhile marriage with her boyfriend—in spite of the fact that he too reveals himself to be a “nympho” and, at the book’s end, even tells Lily he is willing to have a polyamorous marriage.

In spite of all this, Lily gives up something that she loves—sexual adventure—in exchange for a “normal,” monogamous marriage that even her husband-to-be is specifically not asking for.

The novel’s driving conflict lies in the fact that Lily is unsure whether or not she wants to marry her fiancé, to the point where the women of her family—her mother and her two mothers-in-law, her father’s ex-wives whom she treats as additional mothers—stage an intervention and tell her to call it off. There are sensible reasons for this decision: for one thing, she barely knows him. For another, even more crucially, Lily believes that her fiancé has no idea she has been enjoying the company of countless other men, up to and including her boss at her law firm, during their brief courtship,.

The novel poses a classic dilemma for Lily: to get married and “grow up,” leaving behind a lifetime of fun and distinction, or to stay single and be empty and alone. I had hoped that Kennedy’s novel would, at the very least, trouble this age-old conflict, and for a few hundred pages it seems like that’s exactly where she’s going. Instead, it’s all undone at the end of the final act. This is significant because Lily’s sexual behavior is not simply something played for laughs or portrayed as an illness or sin; the book repeatedly demonstrates that she sincerely loves having sex with lots of different people whom she often has just met. It’s shown to be a part of who Lily is, as a person.

One of Bolick’s “awakeners” is Edna St. Vincent Millay, who famously enjoyed the company of both men and women. She could’ve been someone for Kennedy’s Lily Wilder to look up to; instead, one gets the sense that Lily was ultimately repelled at the thought of being like her, living a life of love and adventure without being tied down. Kennedy’s novel, as hilarious as it is, reads like a tragedy when Lily turns her back on being like Millay.

Polyamory is an interesting form of solitude because it compels a person to carve space for themselves in domains outside marriage or “primary” relationships. Instead of being locked in someone’s orbit, the polyamorist floats freely in a whole planetary system.

Of course, this is not exactly news to queer people who, for generations, have often abandoned the monogamous norms associated with the dominant forms of sexuality. And, in some ways, all women who exist beyond the glitzy, white, upper-class worlds inhabited by Bolick and Kennedy are born spinsters, in that we are less defined by the norms that characterized an upper class, white/European family model. For many women—Black, Latina, trans—“womanhood” is a state of being from which we are categorically barred by our society, which regards us as imperfect pretenders who lack the supposed docility and purity endowed unto white women; we lack the right bodies, to boot.

The same, more or less, goes for queer women who do not seek male sexual partners exclusively or at all. We learn quickly to live on our own terms, because no other options are available to us. The hegemonic model of femininity that defines itself against the “spinster” was never for us.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the embrace of “spinsterdom” that Bolick advocates and Kennedy’s heroine flees might mean that at last the rest of the world is starting to catch up to us. icon

Featured image: White Wedding Dress. Photograph courtesy of Public Domain Archive