»  The Straggler, No. 60

November 5th, 2007

  Left Behind


Whenever war is spoken of
I find
The war that was called Great invades the mind
                   — Vernon Scannell, "The Great War"

Some years ago my colleague Florence King declared her ambition to rehabilitate the word "spinster." Her efforts seem to have borne little fruit. Neither my local newspaper nor my local TV station ever refers to anyone as a spinster. Nor have I heard anyone so designated in private conversation, not since my childhood.

"Spinster" is certainly a fine old word. It has been used in its current sense since at least the early 17th century, when the lexicographer John Minsheu, a contemporary of Shakespeare, described the word as "onely added in Obligations, Euidences, and Writings, vnto maids vnmarried." It is all a bit unfair. "Bachelor," whose current meaning goes much further back, at least to Chaucer's time, is still heard, but "spinster," never. Yet perhaps, with the twentieth century behind us, and with all proper respect to Florence King, this is a case where we should let sleeping words lie.

These reflections arose from reading reviews in the British magazines of Virginia Nicholson's book Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War. The book seems not yet to have been published on this side of the pond, but I shall certainly read it when it does appear. No person born in Britain in the twentieth century can ever tire of reading about "the war that was called Great."

As awful as that war was for British men (not to mention the men of this and other nations, who are beyond my scope here), it may have been worse for women. One of the most heartbreaking books ever written is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. Twenty years old in 1914, Brittain lost to the war, one by one, all the men she cared about, beginning with the love of her life, the poet Roland Leighton. He was expected home from the Western Front for Christmas of 1915. Brittain sat up late on Christmas Day waiting for him, to be greeted next morning with the news he had been killed on December 23rd. The others followed him, ending with her adored only brother in the last months of the war.

So it was for untold numbers of women. Virginia Nicholson quotes the headmistress of a tony girls' school breaking the news to her senior pupils in 1917: "I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever marry  … Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can." This was actually a bit hyperbolic. As Niall Ferguson notes in The Pity of War: "Fewer British men were killed during the war than had emigrated in the decade before it." Seven hundred thousand is still a lot of young men to die in four years, with some corresponding number hopelessly maimed; and the losses were disproportionately from the middle and upper classes, which supplied most of the British army's junior officers.

The novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, born 1884, had seven sisters: none of the eight ever married. Two committed suicide. For thirty years after the war Ivy shared an apartment with the journalist Margaret Jourdain. There was nothing improper about the relationship. Asked, after Margaret's death, if she needed to retrieve anything from her room, Ivy replied indignantly: "I have never been inside Margaret's room."

This restraint was not universal. Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, notes that

After the war women dramatically outnumbered men, and a common sight in the thirties — to be seen, for some reason, especially on railway trains — was the standard middle-aged Lesbian couple in tweeds, who had come together as girls after each had lost a fiancé, lover, or husband.

Radclyffe Hall's pioneering lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness had a ready-made readership when it appeared in 1928.

It didn't help that Britain still had a big overseas empire to staff. From the mid-nineteenth century on, some high proportion of the nation's eligible bachelors were abroad. Long before WW1, the steamships bringing hopeful young spinsters to British India were known as "the fishing fleet." In the 1920s, with the stock of middle-class bachelors much depleted, the fisherfolk became correspondingly more numerous and desperate. (There is a gruesome example in George Orwell's Burmese Days.)

I can remember some of those war spinsters and widows. They were in their fifties and sixties when I was growing up in a provincial English town. My father had taken lodgings with a couple of them before his marriage, and our family had kept up the acquaintance. This particular couple — let us call them Mrs. Benn and Miss Trott — lived in genteel poverty near the town's main park, a favorite spot of ours on summer weekends.

There is not the remotest possibility that these two ladies were bound by anything more than companionship. One of my American friends claims to have had an aunt of such unassailable primness that she would correct people who referred to Walt Disney by name: "It's Walter." I can't recall whether Mrs. Benn rose to those heights, but she was formidably respectable, and grimly reproving of such childhood sins as elbows on the table.

Miss Trott has left no impression on my memory at all, but the manner of her eventual passing speaks for itself. My mother, a professional nurse (who, by the way, was described on her marriage certificate as "Spinster"), could be depended on for information about all the town's interesting deaths. Miss Trott, she told me when I was at home from college one summer, had been admitted to the general hospital with a breast cancer so advanced the tumor had burst through the skin. Asked why she had not sought treatment before, the poor woman replied that she had been unwilling to submit to an intimate examination. She died within days.

I think Carlyle was wrong: the truly dismal science is not economics, but demography. A dip in the population graph: seven hundred thousand young men turned to dust. A bulge in the sex ratio: untold quantities of sorrow, stoicism, and loneliness, of unwilling spinsterhood. Let the word go, Florence.