Lisa Bonos is an assistant editor for Outlook. Follow her on Twitter: @lisabonos.
By Kate Bolick. Crown.
308 pp. $26
Kate Bolick has long fantasized about being a spinster.
Her journals from her early 20s analyze every twist and turn of her “melodramatic romantic life,” yet solitude seems to be where the real romance is. A boyfriend leaves and she writes: “Ah, finally. . . . back to my little spinster ways.” A month later, she catalogues “a long, perfect spinster wish of a Sunday, read all day, took two naps.”
“Spinster” is a dowdy old word — coined in 15th-century Europe and originally applied to women who spun thread for a living. Now it’s a derogatory term for an unmarried woman, though it’s rarely heard anymore.
In “Spinster,” a book that sprang from her popular 2011 Atlantic essay, Bolick is taking back the S-word, polishing it and rebranding it as shorthand for the pleasures of being unattached. She argues that time and space to roam through life are the most valuable of luxuries for all adults, single or paired. Her mother — who married at 25, had two kids and died of breast cancer in middle age — never had enough time.
And so Bolick vows to make up for that. “I had my own aspirations to live out, but also hers,” she writes after her mother passes away. “My objectives were purely vocational: figure out how to be a writer; become financially independent. Then marriage.”
Bolick is no reclusive Emily Dickinson or tortured Sylvia Plath. She’s a self-described “conversation addict” and serial monogamist who craves time to herself — a hard balance to strike. Eventually, her cravings got so intense that quiet Sundays were nowhere near enough. At that point, Bolick was almost 30, living with a boyfriend in Brooklyn while in grad school. As the couple drifted “in the general direction of marriage,” she realized she didn’t know how to be on her own. “I was most alive when alone,” she writes, fantasizing about such a life as if it were “an unrequited lover.” But she was conflicted, feeling she should be ready to settle down. Instead, she cheated on her boyfriend, broke up with him and set off to become an adult by learning to be alone. “I wasn’t a woman who needed convincing that she wanted to be alone, but I did need help seeing clearly what that reality might look like.”
Bolick doesn’t find many living women as role models, which makes me think she didn’t look very hard. Among the unappealing examples she cites: her boss at the Atlantic, a married woman without kids who seems perpetually unhappy; a friend’s mother, a lonely and desperate divorcee; and a harried mom in her neighborhood whom she sarcastically dubs Having It All. “She wasn’t much older than I was,” she writes. “I could be her if I wasn’t careful.”
Instead, Bolick looks to the past for guidance. She focuses on five female writers who span the late 19th to mid-20th centuries: essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Edith Wharton and utopian feminist and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick dubs them her “spinster awakeners,” a phrase as overwrought and melodramatic as much of the prose in the book.
These awakeners were united in their ambivalence about or distaste for marriage. They all ended up marrying at some point, but most of those unions were brief and later than the norm for their time, and the women were more fruitful in producing books than children. Bolick is drawn to their work and lives for their boldness and independence. (Dear Meghan Trainor, these women might be better muses than whomever’s inspiring you.)
Millay, whose poetry Bolick discovered as a teenager, was a rock star of her day, writing verses that could’ve been ripped from a Taylor Swift hit: “And if I loved you Wednesday, / Well what is that to you? / I do not love you Thursday — / So much is true.” In her 20s, Millay was a published poet, and a celebrity and seductress of Greenwich Village bohemia. At age 28, she had plenty of suitors, didn’t want to marry any of them — and yet was stressed about becoming a spinster: “I’ll be thirty in a minute!” she fretted to an editor. Instead of settling down, she took off to Europe to write satirical essays for Vanity Fair. The life!
Just after winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, 31-year-old Millay did marry, but in a way that only she would: to a self-described feminist who took care of all the domestic chores so that she could write. She then fell in love with a much-younger poet, and the three of them ended up living together, an arrangement her husband encouraged.
Bolick admires Millay’s passion and all-in romantic adventures, but our 21st-century author is far more chaste. She wants to remain unattached more for the free time than the free love. When Bolick was working at the Atlantic, she happened upon the work of Maeve Brennan, who wrote for the New Yorker from the 1950s to the early ’80s as the Long-Winded Lady. “Maeve was the first woman I’d ever read who wrote about herself not in relation to someone else — whether lover, husband, parent, child,” Bolick observes. Bolick wants to be Brennan far more than she wants to be Mrs. Having It All. “Maeve embodied my longings — for an independent self, a writer self, an elegant self,” she writes.
And so did Neith Boyce, who was born to be a spinster. Named after an ancient Egyptian goddess who never married, Boyce wrote Vogue’s Bachelor Girl column, which praised single life a century before Carrie Bradshaw: “I shall never be an old maid, because I have elected to be a Girl Bachelor,” she wrote in 1898. But a year later, Boyce lost her bachelorhood, though she described her union as “tentative” and not “till death did them part” — sounding more like today (a la the Isabell Sawhill model) than a century ago. Indeed, Bolick views Boyce as more modern than many women of her own time. “Neith had given me the words to think critically about marriage, and actually establish a life of my own,” she writes.
When she was in her 30s and editing the home-decor magazine Domino before it folded in 2009, Bolick found some spinster kinship with Edith Wharton. While Wharton is known for her novel “The House of Mirth,” her first book was a design manual published in 1897. It appears to be “an instruction book for the one percent,” Bolick writes. But she also sees Wharton’s manual as a treatise on the importance of cultivating balance and proportion in one’s life, and not just in the design of a room or home. “To live happily alone requires a serious amount of intentional thought,” Bolick writes.
Bolick’s final awakener, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was another woman who vowed never to marry — she said she’d rather be a “world-server” than “that useful animal a wife and mother.” Eventually she became all of those things. And when, in 1894, she divorced her husband, she sent her 9-year-old daughter to live with him part-time. Gilman’s decision became a national news story. But instead of being silenced into obscurity, she used the attention to her advantage: She traveled the country advocating “material feminism,” a push to reduce sexism by changing the layout of the home. As her biographer put it, Gilman wanted to get “the kitchen out of the house, not more cooks in the kitchen.” That idea didn’t catch on, but Bolick sees echoes of it in big cities, where there’s more focus on communal spaces such as bars and restaurants, buses and parks than on the home.
Bolick gleans some important lessons from her awakeners. And her point of view — that marriage is a choice, not a default — is of the moment. But her role models are not, which makes the book feel oddly disconnected from what it’s like to be single today. (The only current single people we see are Bolick and her coterie of artist and writer friends in New York.)
With her awakeners’ similar backgrounds — they’re all white writers, most of them wealthy or well-connected, all residing in New York and New England — their lives begin to blend together for the reader, and privilege oozes off the page. (For example, in Millay’s single 20s, she earned enough as a poet and essayist to afford a two-bedroom apartment near Washington Square Park. Inspiring, yes. Relatable for most women of that age today? Hardly.)
Throughout the book, I hungered for more diversity. Bolick nods at it; she mentions that Brennan was a Billie Holiday fan and then frustratingly dismisses the singer: “I knew it specious of me to compare them as single women; the political, social, and economic forces that shape the African American single experience is an entire book unto itself.”
She’s right: It would have been an entirely different book, perhaps a better one. More women might have been able to see themselves in Bolick’s prose. They might even have discovered a spinster or two who would awaken them to the joys of being single.
They’ll have to find their own role models instead.
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