On a misty November morning when Winifred was in her second year at Cambridge, the war ended. She heard the pealing of bells from St Mary the Great; students had got into the church and were ringing the long-silent chimes in a wild burst of rejoicing. But she couldn’t find it in her heart to join it. ‘I went into my room and cried for a lost world.’When the First World War ended, over three quarters of a million British soldiers had been killed. Because there had been more women than men to begin with, after the war the number of women who couldn’t hope to marry because there were simply not enough men to go round amounted to nearly two millions. These were referred to as the “surplus women” – an awful expression which drove home the point that, given that they couldn’t become wives and mothers, they were completely useless in the eyes of society.
Singled Out tells us the story of these women’s lives, and it clearly shows that what they went on to do was far from useless. Using examples drawn from the biographies and works of unmarried women writers such as Elizabeth Goudge, Mary Renault, E.M. Delafield, Radclyffe Hal, Angela du Maurier, Vera Brittain, Sylvia Townsend Warner, or Noël Streatfeild, as well as from the lives of many other known and unknown women, Virginia Nicholson tells us about what they did when it came to employment and economic survival; about their loneliness (or lack thereof) and sexual lives; about female friendships and alternative forms of companionship; about the lives of lesbian women who suddenly found themselves in the spotlight; about these women’s intellectual interests and pursuits; and so on. Singled Out is detailed but never exhaustive, often very moving, and entirely fascinating.
What I liked the most about Virginia Nicholson’s approach is that while she’s clearly out to defy the stereotype of the bitter, unfulfilled spinster, she never once ceases to take these women’s feelings or the social constraints they were up against seriously. Showing that the interwar singles were not necessarily unhappy is not the same as not acknowledging that for many, if not most, the fact that they never married was a bitter disappointment.These were, after all, women raised in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. They were taught to expect husbands and children, and told that domestic bliss would be the be-all and end-all of their existence. One of the consequences of the Great War was that they were forced to realise that there were alternative ways of leading happy and fulfilled lives – but this obviously involved a psychological adjustment, not to mention the surpassing of some serious social obstacles. There’s also the fact that many of these women lost the men they loved in the war, so they had grief to contend with in addition to everything else.
The way these women are portrayed in Singled Out is complex and multifaceted. They were individual human beings, so it almost goes without saying that their experiences were extremely diverse. Some were lonely and unhappy; others were cheerful and lived surrounded by friends. Some found love, romantic or not, later in life; others remained in mourning for those they had lost. Some found jobs and careers as writers, teachers, academics, journalists, explorers, engineers, stockbrokers, archaeologists, doctors, secretaries, typists, and so on; others remained dependant on relatives, or went out into the streets to fight for pensions for older unmarried women rather than just for widows. Some enjoyed their freedom and were grateful for the experiences the Great War had allowed them to have; others regretted the domestic lives they never had the opportunity to lead. The sheer variety of these women’s experiences makes their humanity undeniable, which is sadly the opposite of what most portrayals of the “surplus women” in the press tended to do.
One of the things that made these women’s experiences different from those of Victorian singles was the fact that social perceptions of sexuality had very much changed. These women didn’t necessarily think they had escaped having to “lie back and think of England”; instead, they were aware that they were missing out on intimacy, pleasure, and an important human experience. One of the chapters of Singled Out includes excerpts from letters sent to Marie Stopes on masturbation – its supposed health dangers, and of course, the question of its moral permissibility. These letters were actually quite moving, I found. The Victorian attitudes and sexual mores these women struggled with were beginning to disappear, but they still cast a shadow over their lives.
But of course, being unmarried didn’t necessarily mean that all these women were celibate, and Singled Out includes accounts of great love affairs, both hetero and homosexual. I loved the story of Irene Rathbone’s passionate summer with the poet Richard Aldington, as well as the story of BBC presenter Winifred Haward, who fell in love with Louis Hodgkiss, a working class man. This, of course, draws attention to the issue of class: it wasn’t so much that there were no men for these women to marry, but that there were no man of their own class. What Haward and Hodgkiss did was still an exception and was widely perceived as a transgression, but it brought them much happiness.
All through the book, Virginia Nicholson emphasises the fact that the current generations owe a great deal to these single women: they were pioneers in many professional fields, they defied conventions and stereotypes, and they greatly enlarged the activities, social roles, aspirations and forms of living that were considered acceptable for women.
One more thing: I loved the fact that Singled Out constantly makes references to interwar novelists and to their works. Some of these novels are now out of print, but many, I noticed, are available as Virago Modern Classics. All this to say that this book was extremely dangerous for my wishlist – I’d list the books and authors I now want to explore, but Danielle at A Work in Progress already has, and my list would be pretty much the same as hers.
The status quo demanded that male members of a family support their female relatives, so genteel women learned French and fancy needlework rather than a trade or skill that could earn money. The world of employment did not offer opportunities for single women to become self-sufficient, so they were reduced to dependency. The demands of gentility were cruel. If you wanted to stay respectable you could be a governess or a ladies’ companion but you couldn’t enter any form of commerce. Normally, an unmarried middle-class daughter would live at home and care for her fractious and ailing parents until their deaths. Then, if she was lucky, she would be left just enough to live on; late in life, she might find freedom of a sort. But if not, she moved on down the line and went to live with whichever male relative felt morally obliged to have her.(This is Rachel Ferguson’s excellent novel Alas, Poor Lady in a nutshell.)
The unequal pay levels were the product of an ironic kind of double-think by the powers that be. Men must be paid more in order to support their families, ran the argument, and a single woman had only herself to support; but at the same time women must be deterred from breaking free of motherhood and the home. High remuneration would encourage the bachelor girl to escape her destiny as breeder of the race, so the differentials must be maintained in the interest of demographic stability.Reviewed at:
Gertrude Caton-Thompson was twenty-eight when Carlyon Mason-MacFarlane died; she lived another seventy years: they were years of intrepid adventure, intellectual purpose, deep friendship and simple, intense pleasure. She was admired, loved, and widely honoured. Could anyone describe such a woman as unfulfilled?
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