Saturday, 23 November 2013

Introducing the ‘surplus’ spinster...

Today’s Guardian bemoans ‘the price of being single.’[i] From gym membership to aeronautical travel to car insurance, the necessities of life are more expensive as a singleton. Should the single person even dream of seeing an actor as popular as Daniel ‘Harry Potter’ Radcliffe on stage, they risk utter ostracism! When theatre seats are limited, it seems they are only sold in pairs. Though, as one commentator helpfully points out, most of the problems identified in this article can be overcome if one has friends (!), this is undoubtedly annoying. I would not have been pleased to have been barred from the front row of Hay Fever or Handbagged for lacking accompaniment.  

Outrageous as they may be, however, the iniquitous policies of ticketing websites and budget airlines are not the subject of this blog. Instead, we will explore the lives of women for whom ‘the price of being single’ was far more severe – women who couldn’t possibly imagine visiting the theatre sans chaperone. We will examine the lot of the ‘surplus’ spinster.

The 'surplus'spinsters of St Stephen's missionary community in Delhi, c.1914.
Photograph copyright of St Stephen's Community, Delhi. 
Thanks to the work of Virginia Nicholson[ii] and Ruth Adam[iii], amongst others – and also to thanks to popular period dramas like Downton Abbey – it is well known that the death of nearly three-quarters of a million soldiers in World War One led to a ‘Mutilated Society’ in Britain. The 1921 Census revealed the existence of one and three-quarter million ‘surplus women’ in the population. For many women, therefore, singleness was not a choice, but an inevitability. As Lady Sybil puts it, ‘Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.’[iv]

It is much less appreciated, however, as the historian Kathrin Levitan notes, that the problem of a surplus of women already existed, and was anxiously discussed, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.[v] The Census of 1851 fuelled this debate, asking for the first time about respondents’ marital status. It showed that in a national population of twenty million, there were 500,000 more women than men, and two and a half million unmarried women.

The existence of these ‘redundant’ women challenged the Victorian middle class ideal of a fulfilled woman as a dutiful wife and mother, who occupied a well-managed domestic sphere to which her husband could retire after his day in the public sphere of work. It was feared that in their spinsterhood, such women were failing to be useful to the nation. They posed moral and economic problems due to their dependence upon their male relations for support.[vi]

'There will be a certain sum for each of you on your wedding-day, but there’s no question of either of you bein’ able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible...’  Lady Isabel warns her daughter, Alex, of the consequences of remaining single in the 1890s.
E.M. Delafield, Consequences. (London, 2000). p.227.     

The fate of the ‘surplus’ spinster was discussed in newspapers, pamphlets, instructional manuals, and popular novels. All manner of commentators from politicians to doctors to playwrights proffered lamentations, advice, and mockery regarding her plight.

The ‘surplus’ spinsters themselves also refused to be quiet. In search of purpose and respectability, they became pioneers in the fields of education and medicine, establishing girls’ schools and women’s colleges, training as nurses and even as doctors. Some engaged in philanthropic work; others entered into religious service, founding sisterhoods and Deaconess orders. A minority went to live and work in the British Empire, often as missionaries. It was on these latter that my doctoral thesis was based.  

This blog will investigate these single women’s experiences in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries  – their struggles for professional and personal fulfilment, their hopes, their fears, their joys, and their sorrows. It will draw largely from my doctoral research on Anglican women missionaries in India, but will also consider their sisters at ‘home’. I am keen to explore any source about the single woman – autobiographies, diaries, letters, novels, films etc. I seek to show that for all its disadvantages, for many ‘surplus’ spinsters, singleness offered opportunity and adventure!   

[i] Emma Lunn, ‘The price of being single,’ The Guardian website. First posted Friday 22nd November 2013.
[ii] Virginia Nicholson, Singled Out. How Two Mission Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. (London, 2007).
[iii] Ruth Adam, A Woman’s Place, 1910-1975. (Guildford, 2000).
[iv] Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey The Complete Scripts. Season Two. (London, 2013). Episode One. p.21.
[v] See Kathrin Levitan, ‘Redundancy, the ‘Surplus Woman’ Problem, and the British Census, 1851-1861,’ in Women’s History Review, Vol.17, No.3., (July 2008), p.363-364.  
[vi] Ibid.