Spinsters and Bachelor Girls

     I received the perfect book this Christmas! Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men after the First World War by Virginia Nicholson (2008). Although parts of it are very sad and other parts depressing, much is inspiring, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Twenties.


     The British census of 1921 revealed that there were approximately 2 million “surplus women” in Great Britain, that is, women who were widowed or could never marry because so many young men had died on the battlefield. Remember, in those years, marriage was a woman’s only respectable ambition. Unmarried women (referred to as frustrated spinsters, pathetic old maids, or, more charitably, bachelor girls) were widely considered a disgrace, a failure, an embarrassment to their families, and a burden on society. The sudden jump in their numbers was perceived as a dangerous threat to social stability.

     What about a career in place of a home and family? Almost impossible in those days. With little education or training, most women were fit for nothing but low paying, menial labor. The few with decent educations were restricted to the teaching profession which was itself restricted to single women.

       Here’s what one reviewer says: “Drawing upon a wealth of moving memoirs, Singled Out tells the inspiring stories of these women who, deprived of their traditional roles, reinvented themselves into something better. Tracing their fates, Nicholson shows that these women did indeed harbor secret sadness, and many of them yearned for the comforts forever denied them–physical intimacy, the closeness of a loving relationship, and children. Some just endured, but others challenged the conventions, fought the system, and found fulfillment outside of marriage. From the mill-girl turned activist to the debutante turned archeologist, from the first woman stockbroker to the “business girls” and the Miss Jean Brodies, this book memorializes a generation of young women who were forced by four of the bloodiest years in human history to stop depending on men for their income, their identity, and their future happiness. Indeed, Singled Out pays homage to this remarkable generation of women who, changed by war, in turn would change society.”

      Singled Out is not about American women. They did not experience the same dearth of men in the postwar years (“only” 126,000 American soldiers were killed in battle versus about 1 million Brits, 1.3 million French, and 1.8 million Germans). But this book will certainly help me as I revise the manuscript of a romantic suspense novel I’ve set in 1928 in France. It has an unmarried English protagonist who will, thanks to what I’ve just learned, be more accurately drawn. Thanks for the book, Adam!

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 10:29 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I haven’t read that book yet but thumbs up for those “involuntary” spinster sisters back then.
    Whether they realise it or not, they’ve proven that women can make it on their own.

  2. I think some of them realized they were proving that women could lead independent lives nd were proud of themselves for it, but because they hadn’t been raised to consider a career an honorable, or even desirable, option, I doubt many were happy “settling” for spinsterhood. When everyone for generations has been brought up to think that the only road to happiness and fulfillment is mariage and children, anything else must have seemed second best. I admire these women tremendously but at the same time, am very sad for them. It was an eye-opening book.

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