Friday, July 10, 2015

"Spinster," by Kate Bolick

The word “spinster” is a fraught one, meaning “unmarried woman” but with connotations of “woman who couldn’t get a man” or “pathetic woman left behind.” In Kate Bolick’s intriguing exploration of the term and the concept of spinsterhood, “Spinster” (Crown, 2015), the author presents a much more positive view of the word and the condition. This book is a memoir, one with literary, sociological, historical, and philosophical sections and aspects. The throughline is Bolick’s own life, as she has arrived at age 40 without getting married; although she feels ambivalent about this, she also knows that she has intentionally, although not always consciously, steered clear of the married state. She has had a series of relationships, some quite long-term, but eventually she has always left them or let them die a natural death. Why? In a word: freedom. It is not that she hasn’t been with wonderful men, whom she takes care to praise (while preserving their privacy by using initials rather than names when discussing them). Her devotion to her work (writing and editing, but especially writing) and her need to keep control over her own life, both everyday life and long term destiny, make her leery of marriage. She makes the useful point that because relationships end does not mean they were failures; each man she was with, and each relationship, enriched her life. Another, related throughline in this book is Bolick’s description of five women writers who have been inspirations to her: Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Maeve Brennan, and Neith Boyce. These women were all independent, although some of them were married at some points, usually briefly. She has learned something from each of them. Here she describes these writers and their lives, both professional and personal; she does research on them, including in some cases visiting places they had lived and interviewing relatives and others who knew them. Although Bolick does have times of wondering if she is missing out by not getting married, and not having children (which she also decides not to do), she is at peace with the decisions she has made. By the end of the book, she concludes that “spinster” represents a positive way of thinking and living for women; it does not necessarily mean not marrying, but it means being an equal human being, an independent one, and one who has goals and talents and work besides being wives and mothers. I have to say a word about the type of writing in this book: as mentioned above, it is a sort of hybrid of memoir and other genres, and I admire the way Bolick has blended these various parts. This book is a serious one, one that makes a contribution to the ongoing discussion of how women can and should live, and especially one that delineates a rich and complex option for women, one that is not as valued perhaps as the more common option of living a more traditional married life. In addition, Bolick makes the argument in an interesting, accessible way. And, for me and other readers I am sure, the exploration of the five women writers’ lives is an added pleasure – informative, inspiring, and (although not always happy) enjoyable.
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