Earlier this year, Rebecca Traister’s book All the Single Ladies noted that single adult women now outnumber married women in the United States and that the median age for first marriage is now over 27. I am one of those single women. In fact, I’m about as spinstery a spinster as you’re likely to find, and I haven’t made much of an effort to change that. And I’m not unique. I know lots of women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who are thoroughly single and rarely bother with dating.
These women are far more common in my life than they are on my bookshelves.
This fact came to my attention recently when my friend Christy reviewed Barbara Pym’s book Excellent Women and noted how rare it is to read a book about a single adult woman that doesn’t involve some sort of romance. This got both of us started on a quest for more literary spinsters, ladies in works of fiction who’ve never been married and who do not, over the course of the book, get involved in a romantic or sexual relationship.
Between us, and with the help of some Twitter friends, we came up with a mere 21 novels where the main character is and remains a spinster. And there are some distressing gaps in our list. Hardly any of the books are set in the 21st century—a time when single women outnumber married women. We could not come up with any books about women of color.
Some of the books we include barely meet the criteria. Excellent Women includes a relationship that could be read as the beginning of a romance, although Pym keeps it just ambiguous enough. Home by Marilynne Robinson is centered on a woman who is getting over a failed romance. But neither woman is in a clearly romantic relationship during the book, so they squeak in.
I can think of a few reasons why there are so few single women in books. First, I think many people still assume that the primary life goal of a single woman is to find the man or woman of her dreams, so many books are going to incorporate that quest into the story. And, to be clear, I’m not complaining about the existence of romance in books or romance books in general. I enjoy a love story! But there are many women out there for whom romance and sex just aren’t on the agenda at the moment, and it would be nice to see more of them in fiction. In fact, seeing more such women represented might help dispel the notion that single womanhood is all about dating.
Another possible reason for the lack of entirely single women is that romantic and sexual relationships provide great fodder for fiction. There’s conflict and drama and lots of meat for a novelist to dig into. But not all relationships are romantic. Family relationships and friendships provide plenty of grist for the fictional mill. And stories about women on the job could easily feature unmarried women. Writing about spinsters doesn’t have to mean writing about sad ladies alone in a houseful of cats. (Although it could!)
I get especially irritated at books where the romance isn’t essential to the plot but gets tossed in at the last minute. The otherwise delightful Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson is one of the worst examples. The whole book capitalizes on how Miss Buncle’s spinster status makes her invisible to her neighbors, who never suspect her of taking notes on their lives, and then she’s given a man at the end as a sign, I guess, that she’s grown up. (That certainly appears to be the view taken in the sequel, Miss Buncle Married.)
It’s not just spinsters who appear to be neglected in fiction, by the way. It’s possible that single men are just as rare. When Christy and I tried to come up with fictional bachelors, we had even worse luck! I suspect that this is partly attributable to the fact that we read more books about women than about men, but I’m not sure that’s entirely it. When I started to think through the (admittedly small) number of spy novels I’ve read, for example, the heroes are usually single, but they almost always have a sexual tryst with the book’s leading lady, I suppose to prove their virility or some such nonsense.
So now I ask you. Can you think of any novels that focus on adults who’ve never been married and don’t get into any sort of romantic relationship over the course of the book? Bonus points for books set in the 21st century or that focus on people of color. I’m stumped.