(Originally aired 2022/08/20 - listen here)
The spinster, the wallflower, the woman who is considered “on the shelf” and faces a future as an old maid. And then she meets…well, that’s going to be a surprise.
Historic romance is full of beloved tropes—scenarios that evoke a certain dynamic or conflict or anxiety that gets us right in the feels. Whether you have your favorites or enjoy them all, have you ever stopped to think about how those tropes might play out differently in a historic context when your romantic couple involves two women?
I’m continuing my series of interpreting favorite historic romance tropes in the same-sex context with a look at the spinster. While the series will also sometimes look at how the trope works with a male couple, I think we can agree that the social context for unmarried men versus unmarried women is different enough that there really isn’t a parallel in this case.
Originally, I was thinking about doing a combined show about spinsters and widows, but as I began putting my notes together, it felt like the two character types didn’t really make a natural set, other than for the fact of not being currently in a heterosexual marriage. So I’ll save the widows for later (although pairing spinsters with widows has a lot of potential).
What Is a Trope?
To briefly review what we mean by “trope” in this context, the word is used to mean a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
As usual, my examples and discussion are going to lean heavily on western culture. If you’re brainstorming a historic romance in some other cultural context, be careful about assuming that motifs from western culture are universal.
The Spinster Trope
So what is a spinster? A spinster is not simply a woman who has never married, but specifically a woman who has remained unmarried well past the typical age of marriage for her culture. (The word “spinster” itself has a highly specific cultural context, both in its literal sense and as a general pejorative term. But that’s a digression that we can save for another time.)
The concept of the spinster assumes a certain normative lifecycle in which all women are expected to marry—and to marry on an accepted schedule—and where never-married women are considered to be of low social value. They have marginal economic status, either taking low-paying jobs or jobs with low social status, or must live as appendages to someone else’s household, often acting as unpaid domestic labor. There is an implication that a woman becomes a spinster because she is insufficiently attractive, skilled, or endowed to attract an acceptable husband. A possible sub-reason might be that she was deprived of the opportunity to marry due to the death or other unavailability of a preferred suitor. Alternately, family circumstances — whether of finance, or social or political scandal — may have made her unmarriageable.
Within heterosexual historic romances, the attraction of the spinster heroine (for the reader!) is multifold. She may be depicted as strong-willed and independent-minded, having never encountered a potential suitor she felt was worth compromising her standards and goals for. Or she may be depicted as someone whose light has been hid under a bushel — a woman who is disastrously shy, or whose attractions are different enough from the conventional expectations that she hasn’t encountered someone who properly appreciated them. The spinster heroine may be a type of damsel in distress where — through no fault of her own — she has been deemed unmarriageable despite her conventional attractions. By definition, a spinster is older than the typical heroine for her context, which can appeal to readers who want to see wider age representation while still depicting historic norms.
The suitor who wins her over may be the thoughtful, insightful man who recognizes her hidden value, or the bold, unconventional man who breaks through the comfort of her independence to spark her desire, or the one so assured in his own position that her social defects can be safely ignored.
The Historic Spinster
Historically, in Western culture, there has been a lot of variation in the age at which one is considered a spinster, in social attitudes toward never-married women, in the proportion of never-married women present in the culture, and in the reasons why a woman might remain unmarried. There has also been a lot of variation in a woman’s ability to remain unmarried by choice, and the resulting options for her.
Demographers identify two contrasting life patterns: the southern or Mediterranean pattern in which women are expected to marry relatively young to a somewhat older husband, and to live within the parental household until marriage rather than being employed, and often for the married couple to then live with the husband’s family. Marriage prospects rely primarily on family position, available dowry, and on the moral reputation of the woman. In Catholic cultures, women who remained unmarried past the usual age might be encouraged to enter religious life. I should note that this pattern wasn’t fixed and unchanging — as we move into the early modern period and later, the expected age of marriage drifted later to align more closely with that of the “northern pattern.”
The northern European lifecycle pattern involved relatively equal age of marriage partners, relatively later age at first marriage (typically in the mid-20s), an expectation that the married couple would set up an independent household, and an expectation that both partners would have contributed the money necessary to set up that household, either from family contributions or by working outside the home or both. For a more wealthy or upper class family, and especially in more recent centuries, the period before marriage for young women might involve schooling rather than employment, or in earlier eras it might involve being sent to live in another household to strengthen social connections and learn essential skills.
Within these patterns, the proportion of never-married women might fluctuate anywhere between 10% and 50% depending on factors such as the availability of suitable partners due to warfare or migration patterns (or social constraints on who was considered suitable), the general economic circumstances that made it easier or harder for either the individuals or the family to supply the starter funds for the marriage, or shifts in social attitudes toward women remaining unmarried.
Extreme social hostility to the unmarried spinster or “old maid” seems to have been a peculiarly English phenomenon, beginning around the 18th century and tangled up with the rise of feminist movements. Feminist sentiments were seen both as a cause and a result of spinsterhood. Many feminists criticized traditional marriage as functionally equivalent to slavery and argued both for changes in marriage and for more viable options for unmarried women. But satirists depicted feminists as embittered and lonely due to their inability to attract a husband, and attracted to feminism to make up for that lack.
Never-married women were viewed askance in other eras and contexts as well. As a woman who wasn’t under a husband’s control, she might be seen as something of a loose cannon socially. In other circumstances, the systematic lower pay women received, even for equivalent work to men, meant they were viewed as economically disruptive in much the same way that immigrant or overseas labor is viewed in today’s first world economies. At various times, singlewomen were deliberately edged out of more economically lucrative work in favor of men. And while employment factors were less relevant to the upper class characters who are the traditional focus of historic romance, the impact on overall social attitudes affected all women. In eras when fertility was viewed as a social crisis, unmarried women might be considered self-centered and unpatriotic. And in eras when womanhood and motherhood were considered synonymous, unmarried women might be viewed as essentially unfeminine.
In all eras, as previously noted, there was always some proportion of the population of women who never married. But their cultural circumstances speak to why that might be the case and how people would treat them because of it.
What’s Different for Spinsters in a F/F Romance?
So how does the spinster historic romance trope change when the context is a sapphic story?
The most obvious consequence is that there is no looming male love interest to compete with the second heroine. Perhaps our spinster regrets never having found a male partner. Perhaps she’s simply anxious about how to support herself outside of marriage. Perhaps she’s deliberately embraced singlehood in support of a personal cause or preoccupation. Perhaps she’s actively disinterested in having a husband, whether or not she’s aware of being attracted to women. One of the themes that regularly comes up in historic feminist literature or literature about female friendship is how the everyday realities of marriage interfere with women’s commitments to each other (even when considering only non-romantic bonds). Though keep in mind that even women who had a romantic preference for women didn’t necessarily consider that a reason for remaining single. Love and marriage were often considered separate considerations. So if you want to set your heroine up to be a spinster, it can help to have additional reasons besides preferring women.
Has your spinster character already dealt with the fact that she isn’t married and doesn’t appear likely to be, and has settled into a modus vivendi? Or is she still coming to grips with her position and casting about for direction? Is she still living with her family or does she have sufficient resources (and sufficient reason) to live independently? What’s her financial situation? Lack of finances was the most common reason for a woman to remain single, but it’s not impossible for even a woman with comfortable prospects to remain unmarried. And in the rare but plausible circumstance where she has both financial resources and personal control over them, then she may be in a position to consider marriage a bad bargain, if she doesn’t need a husband’s support.
For that matter, are we dealing with one spinster or two? Are both of our heroines in a similar position and stage of life when they meet each other? Or are they coming from different positions? If we want to recreate some of the favorite character types from the heterosexual spinster trope, what parallels can we find?
The thoughtful suitor who sees the spinster’s true worth despite her retiring personality or unconventional attributes could be almost anyone, but perhaps a slightly older mentor figure, someone the spinster will believe when told she is worthy of love. Someone who helps her find her feet only to end up finding her heart.
The rescuer who is secure enough in her own position that the spinster’s social flaws can be overlooked might be a well-off widow. Widows get a lot of latitude for eccentricity and they frequently have an established independent household that the spinster could join. In some ways, widows are the closest parallel in economic and social terms to the position of the male suitor.
The devil-may-care rake who tempts the spinster to let go of her last attachments to respectability might be a glamorous courtesan, a successful actress, or a woman on the wrong side of the law. Some of these options are more precarious than others, but isn’t that always the case?
How does the character’s spinsterhood interact with her attraction to women? Perhaps she has always felt a romantic attraction to women and is relieved when she ages out of the expectation to fall in love with a man instead. Perhaps she and an intimate friend have spent their marriageable years terrified that the other will receive an offer she can’t refuse, ending their hopes of finding a life together. Perhaps she takes a position expecting genteel poverty as a governess or a lady’s companion, only to find love waiting in her new home. Perhaps she finds herself gradually drifting into the company of other spinsters and realizes that many of them have far more in common that just their marital status. Regardless of romantic interests, one option for unmarried women across the centuries was to form a household with other women in a similar situation, pooling their resources. In 18th and 19th century England, such households were a recognized phenomenon, often set up in less expensive locales than London, such as Bath.
The examples I’ve been giving have tended to center around the 18th and 19th centuries — those favorites of the historic romance genre. But there are plenty of contexts for spinsters in earlier eras. In 16th and 17th century England, an unmarried woman of the middle or upper middle class might turn inherited real estate or a share in a business into an independent living. Medieval daughters of aristocratic families who were not needed for marital alliances were far more likely to end up in convents than to remain unmarried within the family, so the spinster character is somewhat less plausible in this context.
For those enamored of aristocratic characters, the convent life was no longer an option for upper class spinsters in Protestant cultures (after the Reformation), and the restrictions on who was considered an acceptable marriage partner meant that, for example, in 18th and 19th century England, perhaps a quarter of women born to the aristocracy never married. A much more fertile ground for spinster romances, though fraught with anxieties about acceptable means of finding a living. But for earlier eras, it’s much more plausible to focus on middle class and gentry than the titled aristocracy.
There is, of course, another angle on interpreting the spinster trope in a sapphic historic romance, and that is to view it within the context of intimate female friendships. That is, rather than considering the case of a woman who hasn’t married within the expected timespan, what about looking at social contexts where close female bonding was a normative phenomenon, and then considering the woman who hasn’t succeeded in forming a “special friendship” within the age range where that is expected?
The 18th or 19th century woman who has never engaged in a romantic friendship with a woman. The late 19th century girl at a boarding school who develops no same-sex crushes. The woman in any society where gender-segregated socializing is the norm, but who has no particular friends within that context.
It’s hard to see this as closely parallel to the traditional spinster trope, because even when intimate female friendships were considered normal and typical, they were rarely considered obligatory in the way that marriage was expected to be. It’s an interesting motif to play with, but the dynamics are different. And except for the case of schoolgirls, the characters will also be dealing with the default expectations around marriage.
So let’s return to our more typical spinster heroine. She has achieved that age when she’s on the shelf. Perhaps she’s disappointed. Perhaps she’s frightened. Perhaps she’s relieved. Perhaps she feels as if she’s just opened the door to an entirely new world of possibilities. And perhaps there is someone special waiting on the other side of that door.
In a heterosexual spinster romance, the outcome is a reversal of the initial state. Rather than remaining unmarried, the original barriers to marriage are overcome. But in the sapphic spinster romance, those original barriers enable a different type of resolution. They free the heroine from conventional expectations for her life path and make the choice of a female partner acceptable as what is perceived as a fall-back option. The personality features or personal circumstances that discouraged male suitors may be irrelevant to a potential female partner. Intelligent, strong-willed, and independent? Sign me up! Not conventionally beautiful or charming? Men are so superficial. Inadequate dowry or scandalous past? Well, we’ve already stepped outside the expected bounds of polite society, so we’ll just make do as best we can. As spinsters we’ve become invisible, and in invisibility is power.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online