Category: Writers and poets

Failures: Spinsters & Old Maids in Victorian England

By , December 9, 2010 2:34 pm

An Unmarried Woman was a Failure

The proper purpose of a Victorian woman’s life, of whatever class, was to marry suitably.

It was not essential for the marriage to be happy, but marriage in itself was, “the crown and joy of a woman’s life – what we were born for.”

Victorian England became concerned about what one charming Victorian gentleman described as the “redundant women” problem for middle or upper class women, for whom education was limited and (respectable) employment almost impossible.

A woman who did not marry became a spinster, old maid or maiden aunt, a figure of fun, pity and derision.

Put simply, a woman who failed to marry was a failure.

The “Surplus Women” in Victorian England

Punch cartoon about spinsters marrying

(Lady, recently married, in answer to congratulations of a visiting lady friend) "Thank you, dear. But I still find it very hard to remember my new name" Friend, "Ah, dear, but of course you had the old one so long!"

The Victorians became particularly exercised about redundant women after the 1851 Census showed that there were nearly 1.5 million spinsters, aged between about 20 and 40, and 350,000 old maids over 40.

In the 1851 Census, there were 104 women for every 100 men in England and Wales.

Victorian England was also about the British Empire. Although, as now, more men wore born than women, boys were more likely to die than girls in childhood, and men more likely than woman to die young.

Men emigrated, to the old and new commonwealth, America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India and other places in the British Empire. For every woman who emigrated, three men did so.

Men also served time abroad either as colonial administrators or as soldiers.
There was an increasing tendency for middle and upper class men to marry later. Between about 1840 and 1870, the average age at marriage for middle and upper class men was 30. At the age of 30, however, a spinster was definitely past her sell-by date.

Life for the Victorian Spinster

About the only respectable forms of employment that any middle or upper class Victorian spinster could undertake were as a teacher, a governess, or a companion.

Many couples with large families liked to keep an unmarried daughter at home to tend to their every whim and care for them in their old age. Although often obliged to do so, the unmarried stay at home daughter was nevertheless incomplete. She’d failed to undertake her primary duty, to be a wife and mother.

Charlotte Bronte, Victorian author, spinster, and old maid....

Charlotte Bronte, Victorian author, spinster, and old maid....

Many women who didn’t marry in Victorian England lived first in their parents’ house, and when their parents died, in the house of a brother or nephew. Although such women tended to work extremely hard, provided a useful second mother and unpaid housekeeper, they were undervalued.

Spinsters and old maids in the middle and upper classes were financially dependent in many cases on their fathers, uncles, brothers or nephews. They were economically and socially vulnerable, and faced considerable exploitation.

Of course, very many single Victorian woman lived happy and fulfilled lives in the houses of their relatives. Nevertheless, the lack of power meant there was nothing they could do about it if the life was distinctly unhappy and unfulfilled.

Although until the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1868 a wife had no separate legal existence from her husband, and did not own property unless he chose to allow her to do so, nevertheless a married woman had a social status and respect that her single sister would always struggle to achieve.

How Surplus Women were a Social Evil

The National Review in the 1860s described spinsters in the following terms,

a number quite disproportionate and quite abnormal; a number which, positively and relatively, is indicative of an unwholesome social state

Anne Bronte, a Victorian spinster and writer

Anne Bronte, a Victorian spinster and writer

An individual spinster or old maid could be pitied and patronised. As a group, spinsters were damaging to society, and redundant.

Although it was rarely mentioned specifically, there was a general view that celibacy in women was unnatural.

Of course, an old maid or a spinster was according to social norms considered to be a virgin. That was unnatural, and a waste.

Edward Gibbon talked about single English women as, “growing thin, pale, listless and cross”.

Thackeray described Charlotte Brontë as, “a noble heart longing to mate itself and destined to wither away into old maidenhood”.

John Stewart Mill argued against the spinster stereotype and said that the problem was that women were badly educated. A woman who did not marry,

… is felt both by herself and others to be a kind of excrescence on the surface of society, having no use or function or office there.

Forced Emigration?

Many, such as WR Gregg, urged that single women be almost obliged to emigrate. WR Gregg went on to discuss the semi forced emigration of women that he proposed,

England must restore by an emigration women that natural proportion between the sexes in the old country and in the new one, which was disturbed by an emigration of men, and the disturbance of which has wrought so much mischief in both lands

Spinsters and Steroetypes in Victorian Literature

The Spinster got a pretty bad press in Victorian England.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

In Charles Dickens’ novels, the spinsters and old maids who appear are usually mad, desiccated, boring or secluded.

Miss Haversham in Great Expectations is an example, a woman who fell in love and was jilted on the day of her wedding.

She lived for the rest of life in her wedding dress, with one shoe on, a wedding cake uneaten on the table, and the clock stopped at the time she found out that her husband-to-be had deserted her.

In Nicholas Nickleby, Fanny Squeers is 23, and ugly, and full of fears that she is about to be left on the shelf.

Then there is Miss Sarah Brass, who in many ways runs the company formerly belonging to her brother. She is referred to as a “dragon” in the book, and rebuffs an attempt by Daniel Quilp to propose to her. And there is the charming Miss Dartle who is extremely thin, has a scar on her lip, and is unpleasant and aggressive.


Spinsters were also humiliated and seen as unnatural, dried up, and failures. Jane Osborne in Vanity Fair is a good example. Her sister, who has succeeded in marriage, snubs her, her father is rude to her directly, although she’s acting as her father’s unpaid housekeeper.

The Brontes and other Women Writers

The literary Brontë sisters often wrote about women who did not marry in their books. None of them married, and they were themselves brought up by a spinster aunt, after the early death of their mother.

Charlotte Brontë turned down four separate marriage proposals as she was determined not to live with a man she did not think her intellectual moral equal.

The difficulties that respectable but impoverished women faced in Victorian England is clear from Charlotte Brontë’s second book, Shirley.

In Shirley, one of the main characters, Caroline Helstone, is the daughter of a mother who is missing and a father who is abusive.

Living with her uncle, a clergyman, Caroline is wasting away and is emotionally deprived. Caroline has no respectable way to earn a living, and does not have the sort of money easily to attract a husband.

By the end of the novel, Caroline is fortunate enough to marry her cousin, Robert Moore, but it’s very clear from the book that she has escaped a repressed and oppressed state.

Shirley makes it very clear that the lot of a spinster woman without private means is an extraordinarily difficult one. Caroline, in her spinster life in her uncle’s household, has a miserable time of it. But it was not just the case that women had a difficult time if they did not marry.

Being a spinster did not only involve economic insecurity and precarious dependence on male relatives. But a woman was unable to bring about marriage on her own behalf. As Charlotte Brontë said in Shirley:

A lover masculine so disappointed can speak and urge explanation: a lover feminine can say nothing; if she did the result would be shame and anguish, inward remorse for self treachery.

In The Professor, Frances is made very aware that being an unmarried woman in England would be a serious mistake for her. She says in the book:

An old maid’s life must doubtless be void and vapid, her heart strained and empty; had I been an old maid I should have spent existence in efforts to fill the void and ease the aching I should have probably failed, and died weary and disappointed, despised and of no account, like other single women

Marry or else!

Florence Nightingale - one of the very few Victorian spinster women who got away with being unmarried

Florence Nightingale - one of the very few Victorian spinster women who got away with being unmarried

In summary, being a spinster or an old maid in Victorian England was generally pretty grim.

There were of course the exceptions, such as Octavia Hill or Florence Nightingale (see right).

But they were the exceptions that proved the rule.

For most spinsters, they were failures. They had failed to marry, and were pitied and derided individually, and seen as a social threat, redundant, surplus and unnatural as a group.

Compared with this status, putting oneself into the legal limbo of a married woman could almost seem like a good bet.

Historical fiction: Matthew Shardlake and the dark side of Tudor England

By , December 13, 2009 4:42 am

The good, the bad, and the ugly in historical novels

There is a lot of bad historical fiction around. A good percentage of it is just sex in funny clothes and people saying “forsooth!”, “divers” and “God’s blood”, still in funny clothes.

But good historical fiction is not only an interesting read, it evokes a feel of the time and place, and the undercurrents and emotions of a different time.

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, but a good historical novel can be an interesting guide book. I enjoy reading good examples of the genre, mostly those set in England.

King Henry VIII, in about 1540

King Henry VIII, in about 1540

This post is a review of one series of books I can highly recommend – C J Sansom’s 4-book (so far) look at Henry VIII’s London, through the eyes of a lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court still around today.

The series as a whole

I have really enjoyed these books, and bought them as presents for various family members and friends, as well as reading them myself.

They are not only tightly plotted and well characterised, they really evoke a sense of time and place; Tudor London comes to life in all its religious upheaval, poverty, smell and action.

Our hero

The central character of the books is Matthew Shardlake. He is a barrister, who lives in Chancery Lane, and has chambers in Lincoln’s Inn.

He is originally a rural man, from Hertfordshire, an only child, whose mother died when he was young.

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, King Henry VIII's chief minister in the 1530s

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, King Henry VIII's chief minister in the 1530s

He has a hunchback, which alienates him in many ways from a society that sees such physical deformity as bringing bad luck to others.

Matthew was, in his younger days, a keen religious reformer, what we would now call a Protestant.

He’s certainly not perfect – inclined to be melancholy and perhaps over-analytical, but he is a very interesting and credible character.


The first book is set in 1537, 4 years after Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, and the future Elizabeth I was born, and the year after the execution of Anne Boleyn and Henry’s re-marriage to Jane Seymour.

The Reformation was in full swing in the 1530s. By the time this book starts, all the smaller monasteries had been dissolved, and the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, had his sights set on the larger, richer, and more powerful monasteries.

Matthew Shardlake is therefore instructed by Cromwell to visit the monastery of Scarnsea, on the south coast (a fictional town and monastic establishment, clearly near Rye and Winchelsea, and sharing much of the characteristics of the Cinque Ports in general). The previous Royal Commissioner has been murdered, and Matthew’s job is to solve the murder and procure the voluntary surrender of Scarnsea’s monastery to the Crown.

The book is set mostly in the monastery, in the depths of a cold winter.

Dark Fire

Anne of Cleves, who became King Henry VIII's fourth wife in 1540

Anne of Cleves, who became King Henry VIII's fourth wife in 1540

The second book is set 3 years later, in 1540. Thomas Cromwell is at risk of falling from power, after arranging the King’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves. He has been told that dark fire, also known as Greek fire, has been discovered and is desperate to procure this long-lost weapon for Henry VIII.

Cromwell sets Matthew Shardlake on the trail of the dark fire, in return for protecting Matthew’s hapless client, Elizabeth, accused of murdering her young cousin.

For more about the real ancient weapon of Greek Fire, see this article. There is a detailed review of the book in the Guardian, here.


This, the third in the series, is set partly in London, and mostly in York, on the occasion of Henry VIII’s Progress with his new, fifth wife, Catherine Howard. In 1541, following rebellions based in the north of England, Henry went on the grandest Progress of his reign, visiting all sorts of towns, cities, and ports across the country.

Matthew Shardlake is given a post on the Progress, and gets to see his (increasingly grumpy and malevolent) King, and also a secret mission from Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who wants him to keep an eye on an important state prisoner, Edward Broderick.

The dark, ever more dangerous environment of Henry VIII’s later years is very well portrayed in this, as is the King himself.


In the fourth, and so far last, of the series, Matthew Shardlake and Jack Barak, his assistant, are investigating the case of a boy imprisoned in Bedlam (the Royal Bethlehem hospital) for the insane. The boy is suffering from religious visions and anxieties. There is also a serial killer on the loose, getting more violent and aggressive as he kills more often. Shardlake is once again working for the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, whose own position looks shaky as Henry VIII pursues yet another wife.

For a review of Revelation from the Times, see here.

Rudyard Kipling: how the great writer’s son Jack died in the WWI trenches

By , June 22, 2009 5:29 am

Rudyard Kipling was one of the great Victorian and Edwardian writers. With a fluent voice, keen social eye and gift for story-telling, generations have enjoyed his Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, Kim, and poems such as If, Tommy, Mandalay and Gunga Din.

His career soared high, and he became the first English-speaker to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907, and the youngest person yet to be awarded it.

He was offered both a Knighthood and the post of Poet Laureate, and turned both down.

Rudyard Kipling in 1914

Rudyard Kipling in 1914

And then came the horrors of the First World War, the trenches, the vast numbers of casualties, the slaughter of a generation of young men in the new era of machine guns, shells, poison gas and grenades.

And among the dead of the War was Kipling’s only son, Jack, killed in the Battle of Loos at the age of 18.

This article is about Rudyard Kipling’s life, and about “My Son Jack”, the teenager who wasn’t fit for military service, but nevertheless died young in the trenches of the First World War. At the end of the article, you will find links to free versions of Kipling’s work online and for Kindle.


Kipling’s early life

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India, in 1865, and lived there until he was 6 years old. As a young child, his Hindi was more fluent than his English, and the influence of India on his life and writings is very clear.

Malabar Point, Bombay. This photograph was taken in 1865, the year Rudyard Kipling was born

Malabar Point, Bombay. This photograph was taken in 1865, the year Rudyard Kipling was born

At the age of 6, Rudyard and his sister were sent to live in England, while their parents remained in India. He went to school in England.

At the age of 16, Kipling returned by ship to Bombay, and travelled by train to Lahore (now in Pakistan) where his parents had moved to. The importance of his return to the city of his birth is made clear by his later statement,

There were yet three or four days’ rail to Lahore, where my people lived. After these, my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.

Kipling worked in Lahore, and then Allahabad, from 1882 until 1889, when he returned to London.


Kipling’s marriage and family

Josephine Kipling, in 1895

Josephine Kipling, in 1895

In 1892, Kipling, then 26, married Carrie Balestier, who was 3 years his elder.

They moved to Vermont, in the United States of America, and lived there for 4 years, before returning to England to live in Devon.

The couple had 3 children, Josephine, born in 1892, Elsie, born in 1896, and John (known as Jack) born in 1897.

Josephine died of pneumonia in 1899, aged 6.


Kipling’s Writing – a very brief summary

Kipling wrote for children and adults, and composed a huge variety of prose, poetry, and non-fiction history and literary analysis. Among his best-known works are:

For children:

  • The Just So Stories
  • The Jungle Book


  • Kim
  • Stalkey & Co


  • Tommy
  • My Boy Jack
  • The White Man’s Burden
  • If-
  • Mandalay
  • Gunga Din
  • The Female of the Species
  • The Last of the Light Brigade
  • For All We Have and Are


Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack

Rudyard Kipling in his study, in about 1895

Rudyard Kipling in his study, in about 1895

Jack Kipling seems to have been an amiable, sociable, like-able boy, but not to have taken after his father in intellectual or cultural terms. He had to have a lot of coaching in order to pass the entrance exams for secondary school.

At the age of 14, Jack hadn’t read any of his father’s work himself, although books such as the Just So Stories had been written for, and read to, Kipling’s children.

It wasn’t teenage rebellion, though. Father and son had a very close relationship, and the letters which survive between them show a real affection and closeness.

There are quite a lot of letters, as Jack (typically for boys from his type of family at the time) was at boarding school, and therefore away from his parents a lot of the time.

Kipling’s best known poem, If- was written for Jack when the boy was about 12 years old, to instruct him in what being a man was all about.

Jack suffered from very poor eye-sight, and had to wear very thick glasses to be able to see anything at all.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Jack (then only aged 17) was desperate to join up and “thrash the Hun”. But when he tried to volunteer, he was turned down because of his poor vision.

His eye-sight was terrible; he couldn’t even read the second line on a standard optician’s chart without glasses.

He turned to his father for help, and Rudyard Kipling pulled strings among his military friends. Jack was enlisted as a trainee officer, still under age. Officers were supposed to be at least 18 years old, in order legally to join up.

He trained as a Subaltern in the Irish Guards, and on completion of his preliminary training, was then posted to France. Just after his arrival, he wrote to his father:

Dear F -
Just a hurried line as we start off tonight. The front line trenches are nine miles off from here so it won’t be a very long march. This is THE great effort to break through & end the war.

The guns have been going deafeningly all day, without a single stop. We have to push through at all costs so we won’t have much time in the trenches, which is great luck.

Funny to think one will be in the thick of it tomorrow.

One’s first experience of shell fire not in the trenches but in the open.  This is one of the advantages of a Flying Division, you have to keep moving.  We marched 18 miles last night in the pouring wet.  It came down in sheets steadily.  They are staking a tremendous lot on this great advancing movement as if it succeeds the war won’t go on for long.  You have no idea what enormous issues depend on the next few days.

This will be my last letter most likely for some time as we won’t get any time for writing this next week, but I will try & send Field post cards.


The Battle of Loos

This was the eve of the Battle of Loos. The Battle was fought over 3 days in September 1915, and represented a victory for the Allied Forces – but one bought at a terrible cost, and paid for in blood. The British Army suffered 50,000 casualties. Jack’s regiment of the Irish Guards suffered particularly badly, with an 80% casualty rate from just this one short battle.

And the victory didn’t last, either, as a few weeks later the Germans counter-attacked and drove the British Army back to where they had started.

Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of the future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, died at Loos.

And so did John Kipling. The letter above was his last, as he was killed on the third day, 27th September 1915.

Accounts of how he died varied; Rudyard Kipling spend years investigating after the war, and interviewed hundreds of other soldiers. He was either shot by a machine gun, or had the side of his head blown away by a shell. Either way, he was dead, and his body was never definitely recovered. He had just turned 18 at the time of his death.


Rudyard Kipling’s guilt

Had it not been for his intervention, Kipling’s son Jack would not have been in the trenches in the first place. And Kipling knew it, writing in a poem after the end of the First World War, ”

If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied

He wrote a much-admired two-volume history of the Irish Guards, his son’s regiments; he also wrote the almost unbearably poignant poem, My Boy Jack. The final verse of this poem:

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!


Kipling’s work with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Duhallow Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. The series of crosses, with one Jewish Star of David, can be seen.

Duhallow Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. The series of crosses, with one Jewish Star of David, can be seen.

Kipling became an influential member of the Commission (then called the Imperial War Graves Commission, later renamed), which established the standard gravestone of Portland stone, seen all over northern France and Belgium.

He was particularly concerned that Hindu, Jewish and Muslim troops were remembered in ways suitable and compatible with their religion and culture.

It was Kipling who came up with the phrase “”Their Name Liveth For Evermore” for memorial stones, and “Known unto God”, for the graves of those soldiers who bodies couldn’t be identified.


Later Life

Kipling died in London in 1936, and has no descendants today.  The only one of his children who made it past the age of 18, Elsie, died childless in 1970.


Accessing Rudyard Kipling’s poetry and prose

Because Kipling’s work is now out of copyright, it is possible to find free versions of both his poetry and his stories online. There are also Kindle versions.


There are many versions of Kipling’s work available free online, as well. Here are a few examples:

The wonderful novel Kim, available from Bibliomania CLICK HERE

The charming, whimsical Just So Stories, with MP3 versions available for streaming CLICK HERE

The 1911 novel Puck of Pook’s Hill CLICK HERE

And a selection of poetry, Departmental Ditties and Other Verses CLICK HERE

There is a great selection of books, DVDs etc also on Amazon (this lot is sadly not free).



Panorama theme by Themocracy