Apparently Greta Garbo never actually said, “I want to be alone.” Except as a line in the movie Grand Hotel. But she was. At least alone in the way that society defines women who don’t marry as being “alone.” I’ve been thinking of the state of being alone, or unmarried, a good deal these days. And the many famous, respected, independent women who live and have lived single lives. Women whom I admire for one reason or another, like Jane Austen, Diane Keaton, Harper Lee, Coco Chanel, and Greta Garbo. Some of these women did not marry by choice, and others might have liked to marry but, for whatever reason, did not.
I’ve been wondering how pressured these famous women felt to conform to the norm, how they probably felt undervalued as women because they did not fulfill roles as wives and mothers. And how much harder it might have been for them if they had not been talented and creative, and able to build a life around satisfying work.
All this has been on my mind since I’ve been reading Kate Bolick’s wonderful book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a non-fiction book quite so much in a long time. In fact I’ve been reading it like fiction, in that I couldn’t wait to find out what happens. Bolick is a talented writer. In her book, she explores the evolution of the “spinster” in society. And she tells her own story, compellingly, of building a career, and a life of her own, despite societal pressure to find a mate, marry, and have children.
In a May 2015 article in the Globe and Mail, Zosia Bielski outlines Bolick’s argument that “there’s nothing wrong with being a ‘spinster.'” In fact Bolick believes the word ‘spinster’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a pejorative term. But might be extended to any woman, “single or partnered” who holds onto “the idea of autonomy that can get so easily lost inside of marriage or motherhood.” Bolick thinks we should all try to cultivate this autonomy, and hold onto “that in us which is independent and self-sufficient.” Can’t argue with that. Growing up as the child of a single mum who was raising four kids, my sisters and I certainly learned early the value of independence, and self-sufficiency, and the idea that in order to achieve these as women, a good education was key.
|Kate Bolick in the Globe and Mail|
|Edna St. Vincent Millay source|
|Maeve Brennan source|
Women on their own, whether single, or widowed, or fleeing from bad marriages is a theme in the work of many of my favourite writers. Like Anita Brookner. Sadly Brookner died in March at age 87. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll already know what I think of Brookner. If not you can read this post about Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, and what I call “gentle reading.” Neither Pym nor Brookner married, and their stories of other “spinsters” are some of my favourite novels. And have a look at this article in The Guardian where Rachel Cooke contends that Brookner’s “ability to capture life’s quiet battles” makes her novels “required reading.”
|Anita Brookner source|
Another writer who writes about women who struggle to “throw off the restraints placed around them by husbands, fathers, society” in order to live meaningful lives… and whom I consider as required reading… is Canadian Constance Beresford-Howe. Beresford-Howe also died this past winter, at age 93. You can read her obituary in The Globe and Mail here. According to Pat Kennedy, her longtime editor at MacMillan Canada, Beresford-Howe is “often underrated” because she “was quiet and not flashy.” In fact Beresford-Howe has been compared to Barbara Pym, who Philip Larkin called the “most underrated writer of the twentieth century.”
|Constance Beresford-Howe source|
Beresford-Howe’s best known work is The Book of Eve, in which the character Eve, at age 65, leaves her disastrous marriage and discovers who she really is, who she’s really been all along: “You can’t know what it’s like to be invisible for years on end. Never independent. Never free, even to use those four letters words we all know, because the chief duty of females, we are taught, was to practice the restraints of civilization, not explore its possibilities.” Gad, I love that book. All Beresford-Howe’s books are about women finding the courage to build their own life, on their own terms. And mostly on their own. Alone.