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.
|Kate Bolick in the Globe and Mail|
So I enjoyed reading about Kate Bolick's personal journey as narrated in her book. But I also loved that she explores the lives of five women who influenced and inspired her; she calls them her "awakeners." Essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Edith Wharton, and "social visionary" Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick says she borrowed the term from Edith Wharton who "used it in her memoir, A Backward Glance, to describe the books and thinkers who'd guided her intellectual studies."
|Edna St. Vincent Millay source|
All five of Bolick's "awakeners" lived fascinating and vivid lives. Like Bolick is doing now, they struggled with society's expectations of them as women, and with their own desires and ambitions to live a life that was not defined by marriage and motherhood. In fact it was my fascination with Bolick's "awakeners" which lead me down so many "reading rabbit holes" (as I call them) that I couldn't finish this post earlier in the month when I started it. I won't go into any more detail; you should read the book yourself. Really. You should.
|Maeve Brennan source|
|Anita Brookner source|
|Constance Beresford-Howe source|
It's odd to think of Constance Beresford-Howe writing about the stultifying effects of marriage and family when you consider that she was happily married for 55 years. But then again, she says she based the character of Eve on her mother who "never left her father, but should have." According to Kennedy, women used to approach the author at readings to tell her she "gave them courage to change their lives." That's lovely, isn't it?
These are my three favourite Beresford-Howe novels. If you haven't read her books, do check them out. You'll be in for a treat. You know, I think it would be amazing if someone were to revive Beresford-Howe's reputation, like Philip Larkin did for Pym in the seventies. And reignite interest in this wonderful writer.
I read Pym, Brookner and Beresford-Howe for the first time in my late twenties. When I was making major changes in my life. And when I think of it, I guess I would classify them as three of my own "awakeners, " as Kate Bolick (and Edith Wharton) might say.
So, Constance Beresford-Howe wrote about bad marriages, and lonely women, yet was happily married. Jane Austen never married but wrote about women who longed for perfect marriages. Kate Bolick writes of spinsterhood as something to be cultivated, yet she has a long-time boyfriend. And me, I've been happily married for 27 years, but I suspect I may have a deeply ingrained streak of spinsterhood in me. Huh.
Now what the heck does all of that mean, do you think? Kate Bolick writes: "Whom to marry, and when will it happen- these two questions define every woman's existence... until they're answered, even if the answers are nobody and never." But I think what Bolick's book, and the books of these other writers, goes on to prove is that even once these questions are answered, women still grapple with the consequences of the answers. There is no happily ever after. There's just us continuing to "explore possibilities" as Beresford-Howe's character says.
Sheesh. That's enough of me pretending to be profound. Trying to maintain a pretense of profundity, I might say, if I were being particularly pretentious. What do you say about all this, dear readers?