Sunday, January 6, 2008

Spinster Novels

Moonlight Ambulette recently wrote about Lolly Willowes, a novel published in 1926 by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I had never read it but thought it sounded exactly like what I wanted to read, so I got one from and had them send it to me via speedy mail. (I was desperate. Another book I was reading self-destructed 1/3 through. More on that one when/if I finish it.) It's every bit as good as she says (no surprise; MA has great taste) and it occurred to me that Lolly Willowes belongs to a type of book I love: the spinster novel, or novels about women who don't find happiness in love and have to approach life from a different direction. It's probably an inevitable novel type; so many women writers are, if not spinsters, women who feel at odds with traditional expectations for them.

Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House is another great novel of this type -- it's about a librarian's unrequited love for a boy giant. Rachel Cusk's The Country Life -- in many ways the funniest novel ever -- is another, about a woman with a mysterious past who gets a job taking care of a hilariously sharp-tongued disabled boy. And of course there's Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal about the awkward friendship between two women, one of whom falls in absurd love with a teenage boy (the movie of this book, though starring Judy Dench, was not as good). Also, Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter (Welty is the Queen of Spinsterish Writers), Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and much of the oeuvre of Anita Brookner, just off the top of my head. Though I'm not technically a spinster, being married, I do identify quite powerfully with these characters, perhaps in the same way children with two living parents identify with literary orphans.

It seems to be a favorite type of novel among British women writers, actually. Now, why would that be?


jrlennon said...

Let us spare poor Zoe Heller the small indignity of using the super dumb American-market-only title for her awesome novel...

I dunno if it's, like, cool for a big hairy married manly man like me to dig those novels, but every one of them is a knockout, in my book. I should add that a lot of Ruth Rendell's non-police-procedural crime novels are about spinsters.

Gotta read "The Country Life" again. As I remember it was hugely flawed but pretty endlessly hilarious. And of course it contains that one stunning, impossible piece of dialogue...

moonlight ambulette said...

Ha! This is an excellent list -- full of books I've never read that I'll have to check out. The Giant one sounds AMAZING. I guess I love spinster novels too, even though, right, I'm not one -- I think it's the sense of possibility they offer, and the weird, interesting women they end up being about.

moonlight ambulette said...

Oh and I'm so glad you're liking LW!

rmellis said...

If you go to, you'll find that Zoe Heller's book shows up under both the longer version and just "Notes on a Scandal," which actually appears to be the earlier one. No indignity there, Bub.

Hey -- whoever you are who borrowed my copy of The Country Life, mail it back, pls.

rmellis said...

OMG, Ambulette: you need to read The Giant's House, and also McCracken's Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry. You will love them.

jrlennon said...

What ZH told me was that the book was called "Notes On A Scandal," but her American publisher wanted a chick-littier title. Thus, "What Was She Thinking?"

In any event, I think the movie, which I thought was pretty good, vindicated her, title-wise.

Ambulette, you will like "The Giant's House" a lot...

zoe said...

I love Rachel Cusk's writing even when the novel is a bit wonky. Her recent one was pretty lacking in plot, but I still loved her prose. I think a lot of that has to do with her ability to describe a woman's mind. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's an everywoman mind, but it's often pretty close to mine.

Her book about having a baby is also excellent and should be required reading for all intelligent pregnant women (and anyone else who's interested).

I'm not a spinster either, but loved these novels and agree that it's the depth of the female character that interests me.

Also, I hate that ZH title. It's so women's magazine.

5 Red Pandas said...

I've got another spinster novel for you that also features a librarian character:
Jincy Willet's "Winner of the National Book Award"

If I remember correctly this one was funny and had a very distinctive narrative voice.

My husband, who's a librarian, introduced me to The Giant's House, so I think you're safe JRL.

It occurs to me that my soon-to-be-new profession is pretty spinster friendly. At least the traditional image we have of librarians is pretty spinsterish. Then again, the two other people in my band are both male librarians (and I'm married to one of them). People are always surprised when they hear that for some reason.

max said...

Barbara Pym, British spinster, wrote gentle, perceptive, humorous novels about "ordinary" people. (Who's ordinary, if looked at closely?) But editors decided her work wasn't right for the swinging sixties, and for 16 years she went unpublished.
Then, in the Times Literary Supplement, her name appeared twice as "the most underrated writer of the century." Quartet in Autumn was published shortly thereafter, and thus the world got her masterpiece.
She died 3 years later.
Though her later years were spent with her sister in Oxfordshire, writing books no one wanted to publish and occupying herself with church matters, she was a WREN during WWII, posted in Naples, and then worked for many years in London for the International African Institute.
Her diaries and letters, A Very Private Eye, were published posthumously (with sections deleted by her sister, though it's clear that Barbara had romantic attachments).
The long period during which she was in the literary "wilderness" is especially interesting. She sometimes expresses, in her quiet way, sadness and disappointment, but there are also flashes of resentment, anger and bitterness.
Yes, it can do that to you.
I doubt if anyone will be moved to read Quartet in Autumn. It has no giant or tiger on a raft. It's about four unmarried office workers moving into old age. Just real people. And who wants to read about them?

jrlennon said...

Everyone who likes literature does, that's who.

Thanks for the recommendation!