I grew up in the 1940s and '50s when marriage and children were seen as the only proper path for females. If a girl was as yet unmarried while edging toward 40—and yes she was still called a girl—she was pretty much considered a spinster. It was not a compliment; people assumed she was too ugly, too cold or too weird to catch a husband.
But there were some women, even before my time, who gloried in their so-called spinsterhood. Kate Bolick identifies with these women and explores their lives in her book, Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own. The author's admired spinsters, born between 1860 and 1917 and all writers like herself, include poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, essayist and short-story writer Maeve Brenan, novelist, playwright and poet Neith Boyce, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Edith Wharton, and prominent feminist, poet and novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Unlike society's conception of a spinster as a dried-up virginal specimen, Bolick's role models led full lives, just having lovers instead of husbands. She calls these women, who lived before their time, her awakeners. As she nears her 40th birthday, however, she concludes that she needs to progress into the next decade on her own.
Spinster, Bolick's memoir, is a self-examination of how the author has tackled this task. It is a book full of many questions, with many answers. She realizes that singleness and living a life alone is not for everyone, perhaps even not for her. Her doubts are double-edged in that they are polarized with pros and cons for both togetherness and aloneness.
As one who has chosen to live alone for the past 35 years, I found myself reliving many of my own thoughts in the book's conundrums. At times I felt like I was sitting up late at night, a half-finished bottle of wine sitting on the coffee table, discussing life's choices with Bolick. At one point, we laughed over Socrates' belief that an unexamined life is not worth living. If that were true, then both of us led lives that were well-lived. And then at some point, we came to the conclusion that choosing to live a single life does not mean being lonely.
The thing I take away from Bolick's book is that being a spinster is neither good nor bad, but that choosing singleness does not make us misfits. It is less important what lifestyle we choose than that we choose it consciously and not by default. As Bolick writes, "Each of us is a museum that opens for business the moment we're born, with memory the sole curator." Spinster is a book for women who care about the contents of their personal museum.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Spinster is Kate Bolick's first book. She is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and host of "Touchstones at The Mount," an annual literary interview series at Edith Wharton's country estate in Massachusetts. Her work appears in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Previously, she was executive editor of Domino, and a columnist for The Boston Globe Ideas Section. Visit her website.
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