I Call Myself a Spinster, But that Doesn’t Mean I’ll Be Single Forever
The unmarried women of Barbra Pym's 1950s novels are still teaching me lessons today
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business.—Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
As an unmarried woman just over 30, Barbara Pym is my patron saint of young “spinsters.” In her satirical novels published mostly in the 1950s, she draws colorful portraits of the overlooked British women of that decade—the unmarried, dutiful, Church-goers. Pym has the lived experience to render these spinsters accurately—she herself never married. Her first novel was published in 1950, and she earned acclaim for her second, Excellent Women, published in 1952. She went on to write several more, but by the mid-1960s, her work had fallen out of favor, with numerous publishers telling her that it was “too old-fashioned” and too difficult to sell.
Despite the criticism of the 60s, Pym remains a cult icon. To this day, there is an active band of Barbara Pym fanatics who meet annually to discuss her work. While I haven’t paid the $30 membership fee for this illustrious society, I consider myself a Pym-lover. I started reading her novels a year ago off the recommendation of a friend, as recent profiles in the New York Times and The New Yorker have lifted her posthumous profile. She was known in her day for her wit and accurate portrayals of post-war Britain, and her work is often read in that historical context. But I strongly disagree that her work is old-fashioned—quite the opposite. In her novels, Pym highlights the essential paradox for single women that still exists today: society expects them to stay unattached because in singlehood, they are dutiful, and yet, everyone wants to set them up because they can’t imagine anyone is happy on their own.
Pym’s spinsters, specifically Mildred in Excellent Women (1952), Prudence in Jane and Prudence (1953), and Catherine in Less Than Angels (1955), who is not single for the entire novel but still functions as the novel’s spinster, care deeply about mundane deliberations such as preparing the Church for events, making tea correctly, and rationing meat. None of these activities touch my life, as a Cold-Brew-Vegan-Heathen, and yet, I am the Barbara Pym Spinster.
I’m a single 30-year-old, and while friends object to me calling myself a “spinster,” I object to their objections. I don’t know if I’ll be single forever, but I call myself a spinster to signify that a romantic relationship is not important to me. I intend to start a family with my best friend, I take issue with our coupling of romance and child-rearing, and I find most of my Hinge matches thoroughly unimpressive. I wouldn’t say I’m “happy” being single so much as I don’t think my mental health is tied to my romantic status, and I don’t see a relationship as an end-goal. Society, however, seems to disagree, a pervasive attitude Pym chronicles astutely.
Pym’s coupled characters are obsessed with setting the single women up. In Jane and Prudence, Jane, the older wife of a vicar, is unable to stop herself from setting up Prudence, despite fear that she’ll upset her. “She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive.” Prudence sees right through this, as I have many times when introduced to a man who “also liked TV.” In Excellent Women, the miserable couple downstairs devote themselves to finding Mildred a husband, despite their own relationship veering far from “aspirational.” The closer I crept to 30, the more assertive my coupled friends were about giving me dating advice, missing that I may prefer my single life to their relationship. The world seeks to set us up, even against our wishes.
Pym knows that as much as we try to set up our unmarried friends, we know that in staying single, they are fulfilling some sort of purpose. The title Excellent Women is a parody of this exact phenomenon; it’s condescendingly used to describe the single women without whom the Church would not function. Mildred is treated as a utility for those around her. A potential romantic interest asks if she’ll break up with another woman for him. She’s expected to sort out the furniture and communications of a newly separated couple. And the greatest expectation of all: that the single women will gladly comply. “I forebore to remark that women like me really expected very little—nothing, almost,” Mildred says woefully. Prudence’s married boss keeps her on hand at all times in case he ever needs a dinner companion. Polite society cannot function without women who express no needs.
I can’t pretend I’m treated as egregiously as Pym’s protagonists, but I’ve felt like an “excellent woman” before. I was once seated at a wedding table of strangers while the rest of my college friends, all in relationships, sat together. The bride later explained it’s because I was “so good at making conversation” that she had to place me with her awkward assortment of cousins and former coworkers. In retrospect, she should have paid me to attend, but instead, what did I get? No +1. But Mildred wouldn’t have complained, and nor did I.
Coupled friends are protective of single women, and they need not be. “Prudence’s flat was in the kind of block where Jane imagined people might be found dead, though she had never said this to Prudence herself; it seemed rather a macabre fancy and not one to be confided to an unmarried woman living alone,” Pym writes. Built in is the assumption that having a husband would protect someone from a murderer. I’m not quite sure what men have done to earn their regard as a necessity—more of a hindrance, in my opinion, but they have. How many times at the start of quarantine was I asked if I was “okay on my own,” as though I was not the proud owner of a protective baseball bat. In my last relationship, when I told a friend we’d become official, she asked if I was “relieved.” No, I was not “relieved.” I was happy, because I liked him. I was not desperate to avoid the awful fate of singlehood, though. He had not saved me.
But Pym knows that. Even more articulately than she captures the paradox of the single woman, she captures the limitations of bringing a man into a woman’s life. I related most to her spinsters in their cutting roasts of the male breed. While not entirely undeveloped, her men are notably simple. Jane speculates, “If it is true that men only want one thing, is it perhaps just to be left to themselves with their soap animals or some other harmless little trifle?” Mildred’s friend tells her, “Men are very simple and obvious in some ways, you know. They generally react in the way one would expect and it is often rather a cowardly way.” A character in Less Than Angels describes a relationship to the man’s lover as, “a reciprocal relationship—the woman giving the food and shelter and doing some typing for him and the man giving the priceless gift of himself.” Pym had no higher opinion of men than I do today, and she gives her spinsters the gift of insight.
Pym’s spinsters are the most independent and interesting characters. “I’m not asking you to live with me, thought Prudence, merely to have a drink.” Catherine is the most observant character among a cast of literal anthropologists. Her philandering partner Tom fails to appreciate this until he’s left her and returned to his hometown, at which point he wishes he had her hot takes. Mildred’s shrewd observations are the heart of Excellent Woman. I laughed out loud when she speculated on how many relationships had ended because of how challenging it was to eat spaghetti in an attractive way. “We, my dear Mildred, are the observers of life. Let other people get married by all means, the more the merrier. Let Dora marry if she likes. She hasn’t your talent for observation,” Mildred’s friend says. Perhaps they’re observant because they’re single, but perhaps they, like me, are single because they’re observant. They’ve observed that they’re just as happy, if not happier, without a partner.
Pym is on my side, the side of the spinsters. She doesn’t leave us out in the cold, estranged from society. She centers us. I couldn’t help but feel like Mildred, Prudence, and Catherine were all notably happier by the end of the novel. Mildred becomes aware that she “might be going to have ‘a full life’ after all.” Prudence so enjoys her single life that she envies Jane’s young daughter all the love affairs ahead of her. Catherine lovingly befriends the woman her partner left her for with no malice; her jealousy, if she ever had it, is gone.
I’m struck by how Pym’s spinsters don’t hate being single nearly as much as they reject their treatment as single women; the pity is far worse than the loneliness. Prudence laments that she’d like to visit her mother, but doesn’t want to be asked about her relationship status. In Mildred’s own words, women like her are, “for being unmarried…and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.” Like Pym, I believe singlehood is a positive state, an affirmative one, even. What is the point of adding a new man to my life? Have you ever met one?
Pym’s spinsters aren’t really spinsters, at the end. Mildred marries in another book, Prudence ultimately goes on a sex vacation with a hot coworker, and Catherine finds connection in the novel’s final pages. But by the time we get there, we’ve been with the women long enough to believe they’d be okay on their own. There are many joys to singlehood. I once built my own bicycle, and I always get to choose what I want to watch on Netflix (typically, I like to scroll for 45 minutes then go to bed, but still). I can’t say I’ve always been single or will always be single, but I can say I don’t see it as a stop along the way.
The problem is other people, not the spinsters themselves, and this social discomfort mirrors Pym’s own career. She was said to “disappear” in the 1960s, but she was there all along. Indeed, she came back into favor in 1977 when two men voted her the “most underrated” British novelist of the 20th-century, but Pym didn’t need their validation; she was writing the whole time. To remain single, as Pym did, is, to this day, an anti-establishment act, as was being a successful mid-century female novelist, but it’s not the responsibility of the single woman or female writer to make others comfortable with her choices.
The real problem is telling women they ought to desire a state of Unsinglehood. I see in her characters spinsters of the type I aspire to be: incisive, busy, and fine with or without a partner. Pym was ahead of her time in pointing out how inglorious coupledom was. So ahead, in fact, that we haven’t yet caught up to her. As we find out about Prudence’s potential partner, “she found him both boring and irritating. But wasn’t that what so many marriages were—finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring, or irritating?” Certainly not I.