Women outside marriage between 1850 and the Second World War were seen as abnormal, threatening, superfluous and incomplete, whilst also being hailed as ‘women of the future’. Before 1850 odd women were marginalised, minor characters, yet by the 1930s spinsters, lesbians and widows had become heroines. This book considers how Victorian and modernist women's writing challenged the heterosexual plot and reconfigured conceptualisations of public and private space in order to valorise female oddity. It offers queer readings of novels and stories by women writers, from Charlotte Bronte, Elisabeth Gaskell, Ella Hepworth Dixon and Netta Syrett to May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Clemence Dane, Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf. This interdisciplinary study tracks diverse representations of the odd woman in fiction and autobiographical accounts in relation to the rise of feminism. It illuminates singleness in the context of the suffrage campaign, women's work, sexual inversion and birth control as well as assessing the impact of the First World War. It draws on advice literature, medical texts, feminist polemic and articles from the new women's magazines. Developing debates within queer theory about gender non-conformity, heteronormativity and relationships between women, this genealogy of the odd woman shows how new conceptualisations of female singleness and lesbianism troubled, and ultimately transformed, social norms.
Reconfiguring spinsterhood and the Victorian family in inter- war women’s writing
This chapter traces women writers' reinterpretations and reworkings of Charlotte Bronte's 'feminist voice' between 1910 and 1940. Margaret Oliphant identified the surplus woman debates as key to interpreting Bronte's depictions of 'that solitude and longing of women', explicitly linking heroines such as Lucy Snowe to 'the extra halfmillion of women' in Victorian society. In their critiques of the Victorian family, inter-war feminist writers often took their cue from the progressive views on the freedoms of female singleness expressed in Bronte's letters, while questioning Elizabeth Gaskell's apparent endorsement of a daughter's duty. The chapter considers political and auto/biographical writing by Virginia Woolf, May Sinclair and Vera Brittain, before focusing on the new spinster heroines of modernist novels such as Sinclair's The Three Sisters and Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street.
The introduction contextualises representations of female oddity between the 1850s and the Second World War in relation to debates within queer theory about heteronormativity, queer subjectivities, relations between women and gender non-conformity. It tracks changing attitudes to female singleness in relation to the rise of feminism, considering debates around women's work, sexuality and suffrage. It introduces debates around female auto/biography and queer auto/biography, and considers the ways in which modernity was conceptualised in this period.
This chapter demonstrates how debates around redundancy, the old maid and the surplus woman in the 1850s began to create a prototypical spinster heroine. The Victorian widow in fiction and autobiography in the mid-Victorian period can be seen to operate as a disruptive, contradictory presence, often bound by her affinity to the figure of the aunt, as illustrated in autobiographical writing by Margaret Oliphant. Advice literature for women and discussions in the feminist press are used to mobilise queer readings of the clever daughter, female communities and the attractions of 'imaginary widowhood' in Gaskell's Cranford, Bronte's Villette and the lesser-known novels of Charlotte Yonge.
Myths of the spinster as asexual, barren and dowdy are challenged in the second chapter, by an exploration of the figure of the New Woman or bachelor girl, and the alternative glamorous identity of the mistress. Women's autobiographies locate the single woman within the dangerous excesses of Bohemianism. The enabling singleness of the professionalised New Woman in novels by Netta Syrett and Ella Hepworth Dixon is explored in relation to her occupation of her spinster flat, in which her modernity is guaranteed by her celibacy. This is considered in relation to the enviability of the spinster's occupation of public space in New Woman and suffragette autobiography by Cecily Hamilton, Violet Hunt and Evelyn Sharp.
The third chapter re-examines the spinster heroine of modernist fiction, focussing particularly on the widowed mother/repressed daughter and aunt/niece paradigms as examples of same-sex alliance and rivalry. Showing the influence of psychoanalytical models of the family, the widowed mother in novels by May Sinclair, F.M. Mayor and Lettice Cooper is a monstrous presence from whom the daughter must separate, in order to make the transition from an out-dated Victorianism to an uncertain modernity. Aunt figures are haunting presences in the modernist text. In the work of lesser-known middlebrow novelist E.H. Young, the challenge to heterosexuality posed by the tantular, and the uses of fantasy, offer playful alternatives to spinster narratives structured around repression.
This considers the crossovers between lesbian and spinster identities in the interwar period. Lesbian novels by Radclyffe Hall, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rosamond Lehmann, and Clemence Dane are scrutinized in the context of sexological debates about perversity and abnormality, advice literature on female friendship and arguments about lesbian modernism and female masculinity. I develop queer readings of the ‘apparitional lesbian’ and question whether the lesbian heroine can be rescued from isolation. Such arguments are related to the normalising and coding of same-sex desire in autobiographical accounts.
This also considers the crossovers between lesbian and spinster identities but focuses on the 1930s, and incorporates debates around the older woman. It examines female professionalism and tracks cross-generational female alliances, seen as essential, if precarious, in the progress of feminism. Novels by Virginia Woolf and Winifred Holtby are used to reflect on the progress of the professional spinster and the new older heroine. The 1930s novels of Vita Sackville-West are read as widows' stories through Terry Castle's concept of the post-marital.
The conclusion revisits debates about female singleness and argues that new conceptualisations of lesbianism, spinsterhood and widowhood had helped to trouble and ultimately transform social norms by the end of the 1930s. It links these debates to ongoing concerns about abortion, female promiscuity, celibacy and adoption. It shows how queer readings of novels and autobiographical accounts in this period can help us to rethink our notions of modernity, gender and the family.