Sunday, September 21, 2008

The necessary spinster

I recently read Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire, which I very much enjoyed. It's a novel about love, and sincerity, and partly about the strangeness of communication. It's also about the isolated spinsters and widows who hold the world together, point by point, with their renunciations, so that beautiful young mermaid-women can have war heroes and sincerity. Their loves are necessary but not sufficient.

The necessary spinster is a trope that one finds frequently in fiction for girls. I am thinking in particular of Anne of Green Gables and I Capture the Castle, but of course it lurks in the background of nearly every novel with a literary young woman. Louisa May Alcott thought Jo March ought to turn out a "literary spinster" -- like herself, of course. And the spinster Jane Eyre might have become is Lucy Snowe.

The misogynistic suspicion arises, always, that a woman cannot be both intellectual and sexual; this is one theme in Le Doeuff's The Sex of Knowing, and one of the great problems addressed women's fiction. (One possible conclusion is that women are a priori sexual, are the sexual, and that therefore women cannot be intellectual, full stop. This is a favorite theme of men's fiction.)

In women's fiction, the woman is usually forced, painfully, to choose--and really, it is no choice at all. The usual way out is for the heroine to marry an intellectual man, one who respects her enough that he intends to let her keep on thinking. Mr. Rochester is one such; Professor Bhaer is another. Gilbert Blythe, we are to assume, another.

But Jo puts away her writing after marriage; so does Anne. Anne instead mentors a bright young boy who goes on to be a writer himself. Jo and Anne recede into the roles of teacher and mother: support staff. The happy ending is a compromise, as Alcott saw.

The necessary spinster is in the background as a warning of what might happen. Marilla in Anne of Green Gables is a classic example. Secretly brilliant and warm-hearted, she develops a no-nonsense approach to the life that she devotes to maintaining her kind, dreamy, utterly socially impaired brother. In her youth, Marilla has a brief affair with Gilbert Blythe's father, which ends when both are too proud to make the first gesture toward ending a fight. This is, we are to understand, Marilla's fault and Marilla's tragedy; she is, after all, the one who remains single.

Anne learns of this, and must get over her pride (some might call it self-respect) and marry Gilbert in order to set it to rights. Anne saves Marilla partly by giving her another shot at motherhood, but partly by redeeming Marilla's spinsterhood in the next generation, House of Seven Gables-style.

It's, to put it lightly, problematic, from a feminist perspective.

I find I Capture the Castle more thoughtful on this subject, but of course it's a different kind of book. Marriage is a matter of love in this novel, but also of rescue. All the women in the family are extremely practical on this score, and so is Miss Marcy, the necessary spinster of the novel. Miss Marcy is the local school teacher, who has given up on expecting things for herself and has moved on to sustaining others.

The Mortmain family's desperate financial situation stems, we are told, from a misunderstanding that destroyed the father's ability to write -- he was once a celebrated novelist. But it is equally a consequence of the sexual division of labor in the household. The women are excellent housekeepers, good at spending wisely and frugally what the men gain. This is nearly meaningless, however, in the absence of gain.

Miss Marcy, though certainly not wealthy, is financially independent; she has a job, and she helps the Mortmains. She has stability and a meaningful life, but nobody loves her, and this, Cassandra decides, is unacceptable. Miss Marcy is necessary; Cassandra benefits from her presence and learns from her. But Miss Marcy is also a warning: this is what could happen.

What I find so interesting about the spinsters in The Great Fire is that the spinsters are not warnings so much as emulable models.

Not for Helen, of course, who, because female, is subject to the same strictures as the spinsters. Already at seventeen she is used to being exploited by her parents as a nurse for her brilliant brother Benedict, who is ill. (Fortunately for the two of them, Helen is competent and Benedict is good company.) It is possible for the poetic, intellectual Helen to be buried first in interminable nursing and then, later, to "knuckle under" in the isolation of New Zealand, where the women ultimately marry and renounce intellect or pleasure. Such a fate is strenuously to be avoided, and near the end we feel the danger for Helen.

But unlike so many novels in which the literary girl is trailed by the warning specter of the literary spinster, The Great Fire does not hold anyone up as the tragic example. Instead, it dots the globe with necessary spinsters, interesting women who have tamped themselves down in order to survive. Each acting in isolation, the spinsters ameliorate the cruelties of geography and of loneliness and provide needed funds of love. They are geniuses of repair, quiet human connective nodes that master distance. The final chapter is a neural mass of correspondences: telegrams, long distance calls, and finally, necessarily, travel. Their jobs done, the spinsters recede into the background.

And as the spinsters carefully reach out and make themselves useful, Aldred also learns to do so, moving swiftly to repair a connection between Helen and Benedict and engaging himself in the complex network of human communications of which the spinsters, it turns out, are the anchors. If such actions are dangerous for Helen (there is no question of bucking the sex/gender system), they are required for Aldred. It is by entering this network of letters and telegrams and telephone calls that Aldred finally understands what to do, how to manage his father's estate and how to reach Helen. It is also by entrusting the care of Peter Exley to such women that Aldred is able to turn his attentions where they are most needed. The necessary spinster here is not merely a faintly pitiable fairy godmother. Rather, she is model of active, adult human compassion. Thus the solution for Helen is not only to marry an intellectual man who will allow her to think, although Aldred is also that. Helen must marry a man who is, in a sense, a spinster, the kind of person who makes sincere love possible for others. Above all, he must make it possible for her -- really possible, without concomitant renunciations.

Update: Sadie Stein on spinsters.

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