This article originally appeared in Bad Reputation – a feminist pop-culture adventure on 28 February 2012.
This was going to be a very light and fluffy post, raising an arched eyebrow at an interesting find, but over the course of writing this article I made some discoveries which made it seem less of a frippery. But more on that later. Let’s start at the beginning: I was browsing in a charity shop when I found a 1901 book (okay, fine, the 1903 reprint) with the incredible name The Spinster Book. Even brushing aside, for a moment, the hilarious and wonderful title – it’s amazing.
I mean, just look at it. Look harder! It’s all lavender and embossing and gold leaf and a looking-glass (wonderfully implying ‘it could be YOU’). It’s an absolutely sodding gorgeous book: rough uncut paper edges on two sides, gold leaf on the top, strange red-and-black printing on the pages which reminds me a little of the Kelmscott Press facsimile I own (made by William Morris. The most beautiful books since illuminated manuscripts. OHMIGOD read his Chaucer… *cough* Excuse me, I seem to have bibliophiled all over the place).
On closer inspection, The Spinster Book is basically a dating/courtship guide, which very much assumes that one should never, ever attempt to talk to the opposite gender like a normal human being. Indeed, it even seems to suggest that too many friendships with men put a woman in the ‘friend zone’ forever:
“To one distinct class of women men tell their troubles and the other class sees that they have plenty to tell. It is better to be in the second category than in the first.”
The chapter titles are a treat in themselves:
- Notes on Men
- Concerning Women
- The Philosophy of Love
- The Lost Art of Courtship
- The Natural History of Proposals
- Love Letters: Old and New
- An Inquiry into Marriage
- The Physiology of Vanity
- Widowers and Widows
- The Consolations of Spinsterhood
(… note that even in 1901 courtship was considered a ‘lost art’. When precisely were the good old days, anyway?)
“There is nothing in the world so harmless and as utterly joyous as man’s conceit. The woman who will not pander to it is ungracious indeed. Man’s interest in himself is purely altruistic and springs from an unselfish desire to please.”
- Chapter 1, Notes on Men
Buh. Duh…. whu? A man being self-centred is actually selfless, because he’s only doing it to be adorable. So lighten up and adore him some more, regardless of how conceited he is? Can… can I get an irony check on this?
My instinct when dealing with writing from the past (rightly or wrongly) is to assume the chance of satire is reduced the longer ago the text comes from (Jonathan Swift, forgive me). However, for most of The Spinster Book, I’m realising a grain of salt is the way forward. This book does appear, at times, to be Jane Austen-wry, and puts forward some things with a fanciful glibness:
“After the door of a woman’s heart has once swung on its silent hinges, a man thinks he can prop it open with a brick and go away and leave it. A storm is apt to displace the brick, however – and there is a heavy spring in the door. Woe to the masculine finger that is in the way!”
- Chapter 4, The Lost Art of Courtship
But at the same time, it treads the difficult line of mocking some concepts whilst also giving some advice very seriously. I mean, come on, we’re playing for keeps. ‘Do you want to be a spinster? No? Then listen up. No talking at the back. It could be you. It could be YOOOU.’
There’s also a lingering assumption throughout this book that both parties are playing a pretty nasty game of chess:
“He who would win a woman must challenge her admiration, prove himself worthy of her regard, appeal to her sympathy – and then wound her. She is never wholly his until she realises that he has the power to make her miserable as well as to make her happy, and that love is an infinite capacity for suffering.”
- Chapter 4, The Lost Art of Courtship
(Also: lucky girl. Jesus.)
A lot of the book has this kind of masochistic, ‘love is pain’ tone throughout – sometimes in understandable ways and sometimes completely out of the blue. Advice, advice, advice… misery and masochism sneak attack! For example, the final sentence of the ‘love letters’ chapter is “So the old love letters bring happiness after all – like the smile which sometimes rests upon the faces of the dead.”
So, yes, I was unsure what to make of this tone. Then our lovely editor Googled the author, Myrtle Reed, and some more information fell into place. By all accounts, Reed was well-known and admired in her own time. She was the author of some thirty books, which included cookbooks (published under the name Olive Green) and novels under her real name – the best known of which is probably Lavender and Old Lace.
1899: First novel published (she continued to publish at least one a year, sometimes more)
1901: The Spinster Book was published when she was 27
1906: Married James Sydney McCullough, a penpal, at the unusually late age of 32
1911: Died of a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills/powders aged 37.
Her suicide note, addressed to her maid, stated “If my husband had been as good and kind to me and as considerate as you, I would not be going where I am”. Horrible and sad, but also increasingly eerie from an author whose most famous epigram is this:
“The only way to test a man is to marry him. If you live, it’s a mushroom. If you die, it’s a toadstool.”
- Threads of Gray and Gold (pub. 1913)
No one on the outside knew of anything bad within their marriage. Indeed, according to Annie, Myrtle Reed’s maid, she “had never heard Mrs McCullough [née Reed] quarrel with her husband during the four years she had been at their home.” It’s useless to guess what lay behind it, at how much was a depressive tendency (which certainly seems to show in The Spinster Book), how much was a bad relationship and how much was a clearly intelligent and ambitious woman feeling desperate and trapped in a society which didn’t have many roles for women.
I don’t really know how to end this post. It started with a brilliant charity shop find which had me so hyped I that was reading passages aloud to my flatmate on the tube until he pretended he didn’t know me… and it’s ended with a bit of a reality-check, I suppose.
Although she never states in as many words that she herself is a spinster, Reed was writing the book at age 27 – five years past a woman’s usual marrying age. By the standards of her time, she was now a spinster, and was presumably preparing herself for the future. The advice I saw as laughable – that being a spinster isn’t so bad as a woman might yet find herself a nice widower – was, presumably, Myrtle Reed’s actual hope.
The chapter ‘The Consolations of Spinsterhood’ does mention “the dazzling allurements offered by various “careers” which bring fame and perhaps fortune”, but it quickly goes on to show just how little consolation Reed considers these to be:
“The universal testimony of the great, that fame itself is barren … it is love for which she hungers, rather than fame…. If she were not free to continue the work that she loved, she would feel no deprivation.”
Although she was a successful and prolific novelist in her own time, the stigma of spinsterhood would have seemed to erode the achievements she had rightfully earned. Reed implies heavily in The Spinster Book that she would have traded it all in for a husband. Except that when she did eventually marry, that clearly didn’t make her happy either.
As much as I love mocking dating advice (old and new) for any hint of gendered assumptions, Myrtle Reed didn’t ‘opt in’ to play by those rules. In 1901 there wasn’t an ‘opt out’. And shame on me for finding the topic so hilariously trivial in the first place. Check your 21st century privilege, Hannah. If I’d lived in a time and a society where marriage was my home, my job, my finances, my legal rights and my love life all rolled into one – you bet your arse I’d agonise over it. I’d probably buy a few books on the topic too. For every snide, ironic, 21st century reader, there were probably dozens of contemporary readers poring over this book’s advice and worrying about their futures. I do have freedom and choices and don’t have to play nasty games to secure a man to secure my future stability – but you don’t have to go back even half as far as Reed’s time to find women who did have to work within this crapshoot of a system. Whilst artefacts like The Spinster Book make interesting time-pieces, we should never forget that many of us who stumble across it now are the lucky ones – and that our privilege is incredibly rare.
And I guess that’s one of the main reasons why I’m a feminist in the first place.
- The full text of The Spinster Book is available on Project Gutenberg.