Kate Bolick, growing up middle class on the east coast of the United States in the 1970s and ’80s, absorbed a particular truth: “You are born, you grow up, you become a wife.” Prone to long-term, heterosexual relationships, she nonetheless found herself becoming restless each time one became too comfortable. The idea of the “spinster”, especially American literary types such as Edna St Vincent Millay, whom she describes as “America’s first iconic single woman”, fascinated her. As Bolick, a writer, editor and cultural critic, investigated the work of Millay and four other literary “spinsters” in the context of their lives, she came to think of them – in the first hint that Spinster is part historical exploration, part memoir and part self-help – as her “awakeners”.
The four other “awakeners” are the New Yorker columnist and flâneur Maeve Brennan (the “first woman I’d ever read who wrote about herself not in relation to someone else”); Neith Boyce, whose column “The Bachelor Girl” launched in Vogue in 1898; the novelist Edith Wharton; and the eccentric visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Some ended up marrying. Yet in their work all argued the value to women of the single state, and all lived sexually adventurous and unconventional lives.
Bolick weaves their stories into a chatty narrative of her own life: the loss of her beloved mother, her move from a small New England town to New York and back again, and her passage through a succession of long- and short-term relationships. This reader would have preferred fewer dispatches from the New York dating scene and more detail on what singledom has meant to working-class and non-white women, as well as at least a brief survey of how single women have negotiated other cultures besides that of the United States.
Towards the end of Spinster, Bolick spruiks her newest relationship. On their first date, she tells us, “he brought me to see Richard III at the Brooklyn Academy of Music”; for the second “he brought me” to a Philip Glass symphony and on the third, he “took my hand”. All I could think was – after all this exploration of the importance of independence for a woman, she still frames each of these milestones in the passive voice. Happily coupled once more, she wonders if perhaps “spinster” today could simply be “code for remembering to take time out for yourself”. Awaken – and then reach for the snooze button. CG
Corsair, 288pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Kate Bolick, Spinster ". Subscribe here.