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.

15 Responses to “Failures: Spinsters & Old Maids in Victorian England”

  1. Hels says:

    Nuns in convents had double the average life expectancy of fertile married women. So marrying and having endless babies was not necessarily bliss on earth for women.

    What makes me angriest was that many women really DID want to marry and would have, had the opportunity arisen. But so many potential husbands went off for years on colonial service, as you mentioned, or were slaughtered in one war or another :(

    Damned if they did, and pitied for the rest of their lives if they didn’t.

  2. Women were really coming into their own back then, wanting and desiring to take positions as authority figures. Men took this idea as a means to an end. A women should never desire to be anything but a housemarm. I respect the women of this time, striving for their dreams and not looking back,

  3. garbarble says:

    It took women from the birth of humanity until the 1800′s to ‘come into their own’? Jesus, talk about being insulting to one’s cause. Even I find that to be in poor taste, and women annoy the hell out of me.

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  5. Ellen P. says:

    Go Charlotte Bronte! We women deserve to marry men who are our “intelluctual moral equal”. Too bad a lot of Victorians didn’t see it that way. But I guess one must factor in all the opressions of their time period. Although Charlotte Bronte was married in her mid-30′s, she was already considered a spinster at this point beforehand.

  6. Daphne says:

    Don’t you think it was wonderful when women obeyed their husbands?

  7. Holly says:

    I would like to use your information for my Brit Lit research paper. How can I cite it? I definitely need a last name for my teacher to accept it.

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  9. Sarah says:

    Charlotte Bronte married Arthur Bell Nichols at age 39. Who is your fact checker?

  10. Enjoyed the essay, but pointing out just one error — Charlotte Bronte did marry. Her father’s curate, Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls fell in love with her. Her father felt that as a famous writer, Charlotte was too good for his curate. Also, her father was concerned about Charlotte’s health and did not think she was healthy enough to be married.

    Charlotte was not initially in love with the curate, but developed a sympathy for him because her father so opposed the romance and treated his curate coldly for proposing to Charlotte.

    I believe that she initially refused Rev. Nicholls, but he finally persuaded her to marry him. Rev. Nicholls looked like a Bronte hero — dark hair, beard and eyes, intense emotions under a stoic surface.

    Charlotte and Nicholls were happy, and Charlotte became pregnant. She started work on another novel.

    Unfortunately — opinions vary on the medical cause — she became deathly ill halfway through her pregnancy and died along with her unborn child. Charlotte was very unhappy about dying as she had become attached to Nicholls.

    Nicholls and her father were devastated. Charlotte’s father felt vindicated in his view that Charlotte should not have married. Nicholls unselfishly remained at the parsonage, caring for Rev. Bronte until the old man died, as Charlotte had been Rev. Bronte’s last surviving child.

    Then Nicholls went back to his native Ireland, married a cousin, and lived a long life very happily.

    Robin Elizabeth Margolis

  11. hello says:

    why old maid dont marry

  12. Blog author says:

    Apologies if I was not clear. Yes, Charlotte did marry, but very late in life (by contemporary standards). And she considered herself, and was considered, an old maid before that.

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