ANY reservations I’d felt about diving into Kate Bolick’s debut work of non-fiction, Spinster, vanished after I read its first sentence: “Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice.”
Bolick’s elegant, restrained first sets the tone for what follows, which is part memoir, part mystery novel-esque treasure hunt. Only, the thing Bolick’s searching for isn’t gold or coin, it’s something far more elusive. She’s looking for an answer to the question implicitly asked each day as we negotiate the trappings and triumphs of modern life: What’s the best way to be a woman in this world?
A spinster by choice: the road less travelled
Kate Bolick is a 40-something woman living in Brooklyn, New York. She’s a writer and magazine editor, and so far she’s had a successful career. What’s unusual about her is that she’s made the choice, again and again, to avoid marriage and remain single. This, despite a string of steady boyfriends, and a seemingly endless supply of suitors.
In doing so she’s upset the general notion that women crave marriage, seek commitment and are generally happiest when paired off. During her 20s, Bolick correctly noted that most women she knew who were single hadn’t “actively chosen her state, or even simply failed to meet ‘the one.’ Each had come to it through some form of bad luck, whether death or divorce. Most were on the lookout for love, only one or two swore they were done with it, but all of them behaved as if their married selves had been their true selves, and this present-day version a peculiar aberration.”
|Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of Bolick’s ‘awakeners’. - Photo by Arnold Genthe. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons|
Knowing this, Bolick wonders why she’s consistently valued freedom and solitude above security and domestic comfort. What if, she wonders, my ‘spinster self’ were my true self, and my ‘coupled self’ a mere mirage? This kicks off an insatiable curiosity that becomes a consuming goal: to find women who desired similar independence, and created for themselves a world wherein they could live on their own terms.
And so Spinster isn’t just about Bolick. It’s also about her five ‘awakeners’ — five writers who embodied the spirit of independence; intellectual and physical, that Bolick aches for.
In this way we’re introduced to lesser-known figures such as Maeve Brennan, an essayist who wrote for The New Yorker in the 1950s, and Neith Boyce, a writer-reporter in the early 20th century. We also get Bolick’s take on more familiar literary minds like novelist Edith Wharton and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. A nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an activist and revolutionary striving for women’s rights at the turn of the 20th century, nicely rounds the whole lot out.
Bolick discovers each of these women almost by accident, during crucial moments in her own life. She weaves their stories seamlessly with her own so that at each step we’re aware of how Wharton or Millay or Brennan inspired her — or cautioned her, depending on the situation.
For someone like myself, who’s incredibly curious to know how writers organise their lives, practically, to be able to continue producing material, Spinster is a goldmine of useful observations.
Bolick’s telling of these women’s lives is a large part of what makes Spinster so engrossing, so readable. For someone like myself, who’s incredibly curious to know how writers organise their lives, practically, to be able to continue producing material, Spinster is a goldmine of useful observations. Though Bolick does realise that each of her ‘awakeners’ veered off the spinster path at some point in their lives — to marry, have children or live in partnership with a lover — what binds them together is how they sought to place their commitment to their craft, and so, themselves, first. They repeatedly made decisions that allowed their creativity to flourish and grow. In this way they present a model for how a woman might exploit her creative potential while remaining reasonably happy with her choices.
All this might give you the impression that Spinster is an inspirational read, something like a do-it-yourself manual for aspiring writers and today’s clever, ambitious young women. It isn’t.
Bolick makes clear that granting yourself the “spinster wish” — her shorthand for “the novel pleasures of being alone” — is a sure way to invite anxiety, insecurity and sometimes, outright hardship into your home. Bolick almost weds her boyfriends several times. When she walks away from these partnerships (they never quite feel right) we can sense her fear and regret. And though the singular pleasure Bolick takes in being the master of her own destiny mostly trumps her indecision, we feel for her. As she says, “Nobody was making me marry anybody. But the pull towards it felt as strong as an undertow, the obvious next step in a mature and orderly existence. And when I thought about being alone at 40 — the inconceivable far future — I froze.”
What we talk about when we talk about being alone
Spinster’s greatest achievement is the challenge it presents to how we view ‘being alone’. Despite America’s commitment to individualism, as a woman, if you don’t have romance in your life you’re kind of a failure. Through movies, sitcoms and music videos mainstream American culture teaches us to fear ‘aloneness’: the single girl is lonely, uncared for and generally a picture of unhappiness.
‘Aloneness’ is even more sinister in a Pakistani context. We’ve been taught since girlhood that a woman alone is vulnerable and insecure, an invitation to do violence to. And so a woman living in Pakistan is very seldom alone for long, uninterrupted stretches of time; she’s passed from guardian to heir until she’s postmenopausal and therefore irrelevant. Only then can she fully claim the pleasures of being alone.
In these versions of ‘aloneness’ a woman hasn’t achieved ‘personhood’ until she’s paired off. Unwed, she hovers in limbo, incomplete and in a perpetual state of anticipation, as if only romantic love can unlock the life that’s meant for her.
The sexism that bolsters this view is centuries old. We live it every single day. Without really meaning to we’ve even become complicit in ensuring it endures. Bolick describes it best when she says: “What is haunting about the bag lady is not only that she is left to wander the streets, cold and hungry, but that she’s living proof of what it means to not be loved. Her apparition will endure as long as women consider the love of a man the most supreme of all social validations.”
It’s a pretty bleak reality, and one that leaves women with little room to manoeuvre: you’re either a dotty, sidelined spinster or ensconced in suffocating yet socially accepted coupledom.
Bolick proves, again and again, with anecdotes from her own life: being unattached does not engender loneliness. Being misunderstood, being creatively unfulfilled, regretting your choices or simply not making choices at all — these states induce loneliness far more frequently than being uncoupled ever could.
Bolick’s version of ‘being alone’, however, doesn’t directly oppose traditional notions of coupledom. She’s not forcing the single life down your throat. She’s never preachy, she doesn’t have an anthem. She’s far too clever to take that route. Also, she’s kind of addicted to love. She doesn’t eschew affection or the attentions of men — not at all.
What Bolick does present as a way forward is living with a mindful eye on your spinster wants, whether you’re single or coupled. Being hypersensitive to her desires helps Bolick meet her emotional needs in the absence of a live-in romantic partner. Over the years she quietly constructs a “metaphorical architecture” that allows her to live life on her own terms. Her cornerstones are financial independence, a home of one’s own, friendships both lasting and light, close family ties and of course, optimism. In this way she’s able to steadily pursue creative projects and long-term personal goals even as she’s buffeted by the inevitable ups and down of romantic love.
Bolick proves, again and again, with anecdotes from her own life: being unattached does not engender loneliness. We assume it does, but we’ve got it all wrong. Being misunderstood, being creatively unfulfilled, regretting your choices or simply not making choices at all — these states induce loneliness far more frequently than being uncoupled ever could.
The spinster life, then, doesn’t mean giving up on companionship or love. It’s about paying attention to that small parcel of your soul that requires time and solitude to knit together something wonderful, whether it’s a perfect sentence or a piece of painted porcelain. We seldom allow ourselves this indulgence. We’ve absorbed and made our own the lie that only men may brood and dither as they toil away at achieving greatness.
How do you know a spinster? She questions the assumption above.
We all have a little bit of spinster in us
Spinster’s been criticised for whitewashing the single woman’s experience. It’s true that Bolick refers almost exclusively to a set of women who happen to be upper-middle class, white and well educated. She admits that she was drawn to her awakeners because each had something in common with her: growing up in America’s northeast corridor, for instance, or living near Washington Square Park.
But I don’t grudge her this, and I don’t think Spinster’s worse off for her omissions. The book is, after all, a memoir. I’d rather Bolick be honest in her observations than falsify her experience to be inclusive. And quite apart from being revelatory in its reimagining of singledom, Spinster should be read because it’s exceptionally well written.
Bolick began the writer’s life with aspirations to become a poet, and the poet in her shows. Though her language is economical it still manages to achieve maximum impact. There’s something about how she turns a phrase that makes me want to stand up and applaud. Early on in Spinster, she admits: “To write a sentence, then a paragraph, then another, and to have someone read those lines and immediately understand what I meant to express — I wanted to try to do that.”
She certainly succeeded.
I credit the spinster life for her coup.
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
By Kate Bolick
Hamna Zubair is the Culture Editor at Dawn.com and co-curator of The Unpublished Reading Series in New York.