Old Maids in Literature

For centuries, old maids have been a stock comedy character in novels, invariably portrayed as ‘dried up’, shrewish, and desperate to bag a man – any man. Most lived with their families as unpaid servants – always on hand to nurse sick relatives and help their more ‘fortunate’, married sisters when they had their babies.

Jane Austen fulfilled this role and many of her novel’s characters lived with the fear of old maidenhood hanging over their heads. My favourite heroine, Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, seems destined for this fate – she let the love of her life get away and was resigned to a life of servitude. But (and this always makes me cry, I am such a sap) he never stopped loving her and they marry, despite the fact she’s lost her first ‘bloom’. SOBZ.

Before Austen, Tobias Smollett wrote a classic example of the archetype into his novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker – Tabitha Bramble is the archetypal screeching, nagging old maid, desperate to get her claws into even the most ridiculous of men, to end her middle aged virginity.

But the real tragedy of these women’s situation would begin if they lost their financial security – if the male family member who paid for their room and board died and left them with no money.

Trapped by their status, the impoverished daughters of country curates and minor gentry were prevented from taking on ‘proper’ paid work, because they couldn’t bear to lose face and they weren’t actually trained to do anything useful  (also see The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart, an old-maid-in-the-making until she tries to be a hatmaker and dies of a laudanum overdose).

Because they were impoverished gentlewomen, they could only choose from a narrow range of ‘genteel’ positions – governesses, companions etc. They must have lived in a constant state of fear, worrying that if they lost this job, for which they’d had to sacrifice their dignity, they would end up starving quietly in some garrett or shabby boarding house.

Great example of a 20th century spinster in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women

Virgina Woolf viewed the situation of impoverished gentlewoman with a detached fascination – she seems repulsed yet drawn to her character in Mrs Dalloway, the governess Miss Kilman, with her sausage-like fingers, greed born of poverty and thinly-veiled lesbian desires… “Elizabeth rather wondered whether Miss Kilman could be hungry. It was her way of eating, eating with intensity, then looking, again and again, at a plate of sugared cakes on the table next to them; then, when a lady and a child sat down and the child took the cake, could Miss Kilman really mind it? Yes, Miss Kilman did mind it. She had wanted that cake – the pink one. The pleasure left her, and then to be baffled even in that!”[1]

Agatha Christie felt the pain and terror of these women’s situations keenly – she features them in several of her books, and even when they turn out to be the murderer or thief, she still paints their predicament sympathetically:

“‘No, one doesn’t bother to look at a mere companion-help,’said Miss Gilchrist. Her voice shook a little. ‘A drudge, a domestic drudge!…You don’t know how boring it is listening to somebody going on about the same things, hour after hour and day after day. And saying, “Oh yes, Mrs Lansquenet?” and “Really, Mrs Lansquenet?” Pretending to be interested. And really bored – bored – bored… And nothing to look forward to.”[2]

“‘I’m not a clever woman at all, and I’ve no training and I’m getting older – and I’m so terrified for the future. I’ve not been able to save anything – how could I with Emily to be cared for? – and as I get older and more incompetent there won’t be any one who wants me… I’ve – I’ve known so many people like I am – nobody wants you and you live in one room and you can’t have a fire or any warmth and not very much to eat… There are a good many others situated like I am – poor companions – untrained useless women with nothing to look forward to but a deadly fear…’”[3]

And a couple more in Mollie Keane’s Devoted Ladies

“‘I’ve heard people say so often “I’d rather have flowers on a table than a meal without them.” But how many meals have those people ever missed? They don’t know what it is – nobody knows who hasn’t been through it – to be really hungry. Bread, you know, and a jar of meat paste, and a scrape of margarine. Day after day, and how one longs for a good plate of meat and two vegetables. And the shabbines. Darning one’s clothes and hoping it won’t show. And applying for jobs and always being told you’re too old. And then perhaps getting a job and after all one isn’t strong enough. One faints. And you’re back again.’”[4]

This all seems like a tragedy of an earlier age – nowadays women can turn their hand to any profession and marriage is not seen as essential by society. But Jackie Ashley (sigh, my hero) has identified a looming pension crisis that will target women of a certain generation, who relied on their husband’s pensions and who didn’t work themselves, but concentrated on raising families and caring for elderly relatives, who will soon find themselves without a decent pension to live on in their old age and who will end their lives existing in grinding poverty. This is because the system has failed them –

“The problem goes back to the 1948 Beveridge-era creation of the modern welfare state, enacted by Labour for a different world, in which women were expected to be financially provided for by husbands in stable work. This is said to be the last piece of unreconstructed Beveridge thinking left in the system, which makes it 60 years out of date. More immediately, the need to keep millions of women who have succoured children and dependants out of embarrassing poverty in their old age, should be obvious to a centre-left government.”[5]

[1] Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Wolf

[2] Agatha Christie, After The Funeral

[3] Agatha Christie, The Labours of Hercules

[4] Agatha Christie, A Murder Is Announced

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1635796,00.html

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Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.
About phoebe:

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.

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