Wednesday, April 22, 2015

SPINSTER :: Kate Bolick

I've come to think that, much as neglect in infancy scars the eventual adult, so our first experiences of pleasurable solitude teach us how to be content by ourselves and shape the conditions in which we seek it.

From the time she was a child, building her own pretend kingdom playing Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins while vacationing on a coastal Maine island, Kate Bolick sought (and often found) serenity and a sense of self through solitude. As she grew older, however, she became aware of what she terms the "two questions that define every woman's existence" - whom to marry and when.

In Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, Bolick, freelance writer and The Atlantic contributing editor, takes readers through almost two decades of her journey to reconcile these two apparently competing pressures. She does so by sharing the five "awakeners" who helped guide her along various turns in her life path, somewhat in lieu of her mother, who died when Bolick was twenty-three and just starting out.

These awakeners include poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton, and social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman. What these women had in common, beside their artistic talents, was a rejection, to varying degrees, of the social norms of their times which called for women to marry, and marry early, in order to have any social standing and avoid being stigmatized with the historically derogatory term "spinster."

Right out of the gate, I must say I wholeheartedly disagree with Bolick's premise that every woman's life is defined by questions of marriage. I'm older than she, and even so never felt my existence defined by marriage. I didn't marry until I was 40, nor did any of the women in my generation within my family, some of whom have never married. But while she lost me in theory, the recounting of what these ground-breaking women did and what they meant for future generations of women I found riveting.

Each awakener came along at a time in Bolick's life when she needed the particular message their life and work provided. For example, feeling restless in a long-term relationship following a move to New York, Bolick discovers the essays of Maeve Brennan, who lived in New York after emigrating from Ireland and, at 31, joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1948.

For most of her life, Brennan lived alone, "moving restlessly about the city." Bolick sees herself in Brennan's words, sees the solitary self she hasn't been able to articulate, sees Brennan living the "spinster wish" existence Bolick so craves. ("Spinster wish" is Bolick's shorthand for "the extravagant pleasures of simply being alone." What I simply call "being alone.")

In my mind's eye, the spinster wish was the shape of that small, steel sylph gracing the nose of a Rolls-Royce, arms outstretched, sleeves billowing, about to leap from her earthbound perch and soar. Itself an incongruous image: culture tells us that a spinster is without future - no heirs to bear, nobody to remember her when she's gone - not a woman racing toward it.

Bolick's goal seems to be to "reclaim" the term spinster from its negative connotations, I'm not sure why this is particularly relevant or necessary today. Does anyone use the term "spinster" anymore? And if so, can it really apply to a serial monogamist (Bolick) or women who married or cohabitated (most of, if not all of Bolick's awakeners)? For someone who professes her love for and need to be alone so vociferously, Bolick doesn't spend much of her time alone or outside relationships. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it made for a bit of a disconnect for me in terms of her writing.

All that having been said, I recommend Spinster for those of you who, like I was, are unaware of the stories behind the five women profiled, as well as any of you who may feel a need to reconcile questions of marriage with a need for solitude. Perhaps I'm simply not Bolick's target audience for the personal portion of the book.

Maybe I was lucky enough to have a St. Vincent Millay, a Brennan, or a Boyce in my own life via the women around me and thus didn't end up feeling the conflict Bolick did (though Bolick's own mother would seem to fall into that category). I harken back to the quote I placed at the start of this review. Perhaps my first experiences of "pleasurable solitude" (ahem, likely reading while sitting on the top shelf of my closet) were more contenting?

 Even though I married "late" by the standards of my time, I never felt like (nor was made to feel like) a "spinster." That may be one reason I don't quite connect with the need to "reclaim" the term. It never really entered into my vocabulary in the first place. I'm curious as to whether I'm in the majority or minority here. If you'd care to share you personal thoughts and experiences, please do, especially if you do find resonance in Bolick's position.


Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

I've been super curious about this book. I do think it's still relevant. Maybe the word spinster isn't used that often, but women are looked at with a more critical eye when they're unmarried after a particular age than men are. Even if your immediately family doesn't put on the pressure, there are expectations of women.

I love Charlotte Perkins Gilman and I'm super interested in Maeve Brennan, so maybe I should check this out. I also just listened to an interview of the author on the podcast Lit Up, if that interests you.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I agree that unmarried women are looked at differently than men and probably always will be. I just don't connect at all with the idea that this issue defines women's lives. Maybe I just don't care what people think on this issue and it didn't impact me. Don't know, but it's an interesting issue.

I thought of you while reading this one based on the "other half" of the book, the stories of these women. It was fascinating. I think you'd really enjoy Spinster, especially since you may connect a bit more with the author's own life than I did. I'd really like to hear your thoughts if you read it.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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