DAY OF THE SPINSTER
SINGLEDOUT: HOWTWOMILLIONWOMEN SURVIVEDWITHOUTMENAFTERTHEFIRST WORLDWAR
★By Virginia Nicholson (Viking 336pp £20)
IN1917 THEHeadmistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls made a chilling announcement to her sixth form: ‘I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever marry ... Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.’ She was right: 700,000 British soldiers died in the First World War, and over a million and a half were wounded. Ghastly and unthinkable though their fate was, it has been endlessly commemorated with Remembrance days, with war memorials and a literature which still continues to grow. The women who were left behind are forgotten. The Census of 1921 revealed a surplus of one and three-quarter million women over men. These Surplus Women form the subject of Virginia Nicholson’s book. She succeeds triumphantly in telling the human story behind the demographic statistic. Being condemned to a lifetime of spinsterhood was especially hard for women who had been programmed by their Victorian mothers to seek fulfilment through men, love, marriage and children. Society had never been kind to spinsters. Victorian maiden aunts with wispy buns and ruined hopes were caricatured and despised as frumps who had failed to attract a man. The Surplus Women in the wake of WWI could hardly be blamed for their spinster state, but nonetheless, as Nicholson shows, they were punished for it. The male minority, many of them damaged or mutilated by war, felt threatened by the surplus of healthy women, and sneered at bossy, warped, cat-loving virgins with thick legs. Misogynists waxed hysterical about man-hating, sexually abnormal viragos with ‘busy little brains’. Some women were defiant. ‘I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin,’ declared Winifred Holtby, who is one of the heroes of Nicholson’s book. Addressing
District maternity nurse, 1931
the issue head on, she wrote an essay, ‘Are Spinsters Frustrated?’, and pronounced that sex wasn’t the only thing that women wanted. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark created an interwar spinster teacher who is the antithesis of the maiden aunt – glamorous, cultured and subversive, she enlivens Eng Lit classes with reminiscences of her dead lover, killed in action. The reality was often grim, as women failed to take control of their lives. Nicholson quotes women confessing to a terrible sense of time passing, of the clock ticking, of regret for chances missed and fears of dying an unhappy, shrivelled virgin. There was something desperate about the postwar women who put on their war paint and went out dancing, often making do with female partners because there were not enough men to go round. Women had worked hard during the war to keep the economy going, but when the ‘khaki boys’ came home, they found themselves on the scrap heap. Surplus Women were forced onto the labour market to survive, but they were expected to do jobs that didn’t compete with men. The ‘business girl’ or shorthand typist, demure and neat, posed no threat to patriarchy, tinkling away on her Remington and taking dictation from the boss; but, as Nicholson shows, business girls lived grey half-lives, shivering in mean lodging houses and saving up for sardines on toast in dingy tearooms. Many Surplus Women became school mistresses, locked into spinsterhood by their profession, as they lost their jobs if they married – which in any case was unlikely, as schoolmarms were famously unattractive, and (in defiance surely of Darwinian theory) men are put off by clever women: even today, women’s marriage prospects apparently drop 40 per cent for every 16-point increase of IQ. The realities of living without sex in the early twentieth century, says Nicholson, are impossible to disinter – DON’T ASK. Nonetheless, she has a damn good go at it, quoting anguished letters written to sex counsellor Marie Stopes by single women riddled with guilt about masturbation. The story is not all gloom and doom though. If the war destroyed the certainty of marriage, it destroyed Victorian morality too. Newly liberated women had affairs, used contraception, enjoyed sex without marriage. ‘To be white as the driven snow at thirty is just damn silly,’ declared Angela du Maurier. Women came out as lesbians too; championed by Radclyffe Hall, they cropped their hair and smoked jewelled pipes.
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007