Spinster (Kate Bolick, 2015) / Live Alone and Like It (Marjore Hillis, 1936)


Many months ago one of my brother’s girlfriends was reading this Bolick book, so I picked it up, and inspired by this LA Review of Books article read it together with the Marjorie Hillis. In the end, the Hillis was much more interesting to me; it is a guide for women living alone in the 1930s, and provides the dual joys of strange cultural assumptions and gritty practical advice about how to enjoy solitude when possible and, when not, how to make the best of it. Hillis takes it for granted that most of her readers have been taught to define themselves by men, and sets about arguing that this is not only unnecessary but counterproductive for women who, by choice or necessity, are going to be living alone. She tells her readers to develop passionate interests in things (not people) outside themselves, finding one hobby they can do within their own home, another which will be certain to take them outside of it; after all, Hillis says, “the more you enjoy yourself, the more of a person you will be.” She has no pity for women who mope, or who single-mindedly chase after the married state, but she does not assume that a woman living alone will be devoid of male companionship; she presents time with men as a choice, possibly pleasant, but simply one more option amongst many. I loved her insistence on both self-care and self-discipline and her belief that solitary women can live rich, fulfilling lives, discovering that they “are more of a person” than they may have once thought. It is a short, fascinating book, and I highly recommend it.

As for Spinster… well, I found Bolick to be an interesting author, and I enjoyed some aspects of her search for self-identity, but much of it was quite frustrating, the sort of book where I want to sit down and have a long talk with the author about all the things she seems to be missing. As best as I can tell, Bolick’s “spinster wish” that inspired the book is simply the desire to be a fully adult person, self-sufficient and competent, able to ride out the emotional challenges of her life without falling apart. A noble goal, certainly, but Bolick’s struggle towards adulthood is not inherent in being female, despite the many ways in which contemporary U.S. society still infantalises women; it is instead a problem that lies at the intersection of her whiteness, her upper middle class background, her family that has enough wealth and leisure to support her emotionally and financially whenever she wishes it, and her sense of entitlement that underlies her belief that her life must satisfy her in all ways or is otherwise flawed. I was floored by Bolick’s enthusiastic approval of Floyd Dell’s essay “Feminism for Men,” in which Dell argues that women should be allowed to work and be self-supporting so that men will have no responsbility for children and can thus live unfettered lives of adventure. People are, of course, complex, and everyone has values that they do not live, but for Bolick to sing the praises of this viewpoint while returning home to live with her father after a failed relationship is not just ironic, but signals a self-absorption which mars the book for me. Bolick seems unable to connect her emotional ambivalance about modern womanhood to the broader feminist struggles which have been going on for centuries. Women have not only fought for hundreds of years to live without the support of men, but to survive alone when forced by necessity to do so, and to have their lives respected as fully meaningful no matter how they end up living. To be a spinster does not have to mean (as Briallen Hopper puts it in that fantastic LARB essay I linked to above) being “a kind of dream girlfriend for Nathaniel P–type Brooklyn boys: exactly as man-oriented as every other girl, except maybe less interested in commitment.” It can be about living in a lesbian commune, or being asexual, or deciding that celibacy is the way to meet other goals, or it can be a bitter disappointment of never finding anyone interested, or anyone who interests you — and that is just the merest sampling. Women can live a thousand different ways, and for Bolick to position herself as the voice of spinsterhood without considering how unrepresentative her white upper-middle-class urban experience is annoys me to no end. If the book had been titled ‘My realisation that I can have a boyfriend whom I don’t live with’ I might have enjoyed it much more. As it is, I can only hope that the fuss around her work demonstrates to publishers that there any book about actual spinsterhood will have no problem finding an audience.