Sunday, 17 March 2013

Singled Out ~ Virginia Nicholson

During the Great War, three quarters of a million British soldiers were killed. Until then, the one aim and purpose of women had been to get married. When the war wrecked havoc with demography, leaving two million women without men, it created unprecedented social, political, and economic scenarios. Virginia Nicholson dwells vividly on the fate of these women labelled "Surplus women", and how they survived an intensely patriarchal world through poverty, gendered mores, unequal opportunities, lack of love and appreciation, and ultimately carved a niche for themselves, as well as changed the system.

Singled Out must have been a very difficult book to write -- stylistically, emotionally. Virginia Nicholson interviewed hundreds of women who must have been in their late nineties at the time the book was being written, and tried to incorporate their personal stories. She also refers to obscure, unpublished memoirs, autobiographies, and diary entries of many ordinary women from the time. I found reading this book very difficult at the beginning. The initial chapters were very depressing; a testimonial to the times that had fixed gendered roles for half of the population, and would change the attitude at no cost.

With most of the male population fighting on the continent, and the country still to run, women first came out of the house during the First World War to talk up positions in offices and factories all around the country. However, when the war was over, the few men who returned wanted their jobs back. The women were expected to go back to their homes and get married, leaving their jobs to the war-returned heroes. The women who refused to do so (simply because there were no men to get married to, and they still had to earn their bread) were frowned upon and labelled 'superfluous'.

In the beginning there was still a mad rush to get married. Girls went to dances where they outnumbered men by 20:1. There was a mad scramble to dance with that one whole man; there was always that mad scramble to catch the eyes of that man. Girls took the "fishing fleet" and travelled to the colonies, some sailing as far as New Zealand, hoping to catch the officers. Reality intruded and most of them returned home empty-handed. When finally relegated to "the shelf", the women eventually tried to come to terms with the fact that their single dream was coming to an end. They next had to concentrate on means of sustenance. With salaries ranging from 1 pound, 15s, it was difficult to make both ends meet, let alone socialise. Luncheon would often be just an apple, and the stifling pangs of hunger made the women "grouse", until some of them discovered free stews for "fallen women" near Knightsbridge. Lodging would be another problem, as it was taken for granted that unmarried women who rented rooms in the city, earned their keep not through honest work.

These "spinsters" were the relentless object of ridicule. Despite their meagre earning, they were expected to send money home for the upkeep of their parents. Since they had never married and had families of their own, they were again expected to be universal aunts attending to the several needs of the nephews and nieces. They were women innit? They were expected to have ingrained maternal feelings. Richmal Crompton for one, twisted this idea of the universal aunt in her William books; and one knew that the world was changing when one spotted the advert 'Universal Aunts' in The Times put forth by Gertie Mclean. She, together with her secretary Emily Faulder would provide 'Aunt Services' for women and children. They stood guarantor for American debutantes who wanted to be presented at court, gave advice on how to pay off gambling debts, made up fourths at bridge, purchased corsets, organised fire extinguisher tests, took guided tours up the Rhine, in short, they were the lifestyle consultants of the 1920s.

Of course the public imagination was not free from contemplating on the sex lives of the surplus women. There were handbooks for "married love" but they were strictly that, and hence out of bounds for the spinsters. Marie Stopes wrote a number of books on the sexual health of the spinsters, but oddly enough, her advice was centred on not thinking about sex or desire, rather concentrating on knitting or taking a hot bath to let the "extra energy" seep out. Homosexuality was invented in 1928 of course, with that harridan Radclyffe Hall publishing her book Well of Loneliness; and men all over the country, at homes, factories, positions of power, and offices discovered yet another threat by the errant unmarried women.

However, Virginia Nicholson slowly seeps optimism into her prose, until towards the end you suddenly realise that these two million ordinary but remarkable women, who did so many extraordinary things for the first time in their lifetime were single-handedly instrumental in changing the face of the world. To marry would mean a different kind of life, perhaps a different kind of happiness. But what they had, and were having, was so novel -- travelling to Africa, excavating in the deserts, preventing Kwashiorkor in China, learning Spanish and German, flying planes, organising protests demanding pension for spinsters and votes for women. Not every one had to come an African lion and survive to win respect. Remember Miss Jean Brodie from Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who travelled to the continent, got enlightened, and carried her enlightenment back to class? She was just one representative of that dowdy race called 'school marms', who just by dint of their profession were stereotyped and looked down upon as "not marriage material". The diaries of their subsequent students reveal how dedicated they were to their work.

The several illustrations from Punch and other magazines of the time that have been reproduced in the book deserve special mention. They provide an indelible insight into the times and the responses in popular culture, as well as the perspectives of the "others". The numerous photographs are beautiful and nostalgic at the same time.

Singled Out made me rethink about the numerous spinster aunts that I read about in English literature. I thought more fondly of Miss Marple, although she would have belonged to perhaps an earlier time. At the end, I thought of the lines from Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which fittingly describes the plight of the remarkable women:

That's why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending that life's a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure . . . One doesn't become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It's to escape all that -- to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others . . .

I shudder to think what would have happened to the women's movement, but for these remarkable, brave women.

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