Let’s Get Critical: Single Ladies in Literature

11th Feb 2011

Ah, Valentine’s Day, highlight of every unattached lady's year.

Being told constantly by successive governments, films, magazines, advertising campaigns and cultural norms that not having a partner is the most heinous crime a woman can commit , it is not surprising that we turn for solace to fiction.In books, we can find inspiration and assurance that it's okay to choose to live alone.

This is harder than it looks. Try to think of famous fictional women characters that are single by choice. You’ll be hard pushed to find ‘em.

Of course, there’s Lisbeth Salander, but she has a multitude of sexual and emotional partners throughout the Millennium Trilogy and is with Miriam Wu for a good proportion of the The Girl Who Played With Fire.That doesn’t count as single in my book.

It is not as if there are no single women in fiction; many of my fictional heroines are single. However, they all aspire to be otherwise, and there are a limited amount of female protagonists who do not link themselves, or are not linked with another person at some point during the book in which they star.

Many of the greatest single female protagonists have in fact lost their partners, discovering new sides to themselves when this happens. Sad and inspirational as this is, again it doesn’t count as single to me.

Why is this? It is not like we don’t exist! It is not like interesting things that don’t involve romance don’t happen in our lives! This may be why, upon hunting for examples, many of the few easily thought of characters come from genre, as opposed to general fiction.

Miss Marple is possibly one of the best-known single ladies in literature. Not being a huge Agatha Christie reader myself, I put my hypothesis to a friend who is, and it was agreed that apparently she is a happy, free old lady, and there is no hint of a romance throughout the books.

It’s a lot easier to construct a plot if the detective doesn’t have a family to go back to, kids to pick up, or an anniversary to remember.Detectives in general are characteristically single; this phenomenon was explained by Ian Rankin as being because “it’s a lot easier to construct a plot if the detective doesn’t have a family to go back to, kids to pick up, or an anniversary to remember”.

Another female crime-buster who proudly champion the ‘Miss’ is Miss Silver, created by Patricia Wentworth in the 1940s. But even my favourite detective, Daisy Dalrymple, succumbs to the charms of married life.

Of course, history is full of independent women. Elizabeth I is the classic example, so why do so many fictional accounts of her life focus on the alleged affairs and flirtations, as opposed to the massive economical and social changes her reign brought to England? For real single ladies in history, you’ll be better off looking to the nuns for inspiration; Karen Maitland’s The Owl Killers, for example.

Children’s fiction is full of liberated, independent women with better things to do than find a partner. Mary Poppins, the magical nanny from the series by PL Travers is as vain as a peacock and as random as a 16-year-old’s vocabulary.

She does exactly what she wants, when she wants, bringing fresh air into the stuffy Banks’ family home. Mary Poppins is defiantly single in the books, and her creator was adamant that there should be no suggestion whatsoever of a romance between her and her friend Bert in the 1964 film adaptation.

Whether this is achieved is up to the audience, personally I found Mary’s confident flirtations with Bert and his cronies to be inspiring; she commands the men who worship floundering at her feet. The book version is a lot colder than Andrew’s plays her, but still a good role model for the woman alone.

Miss Honey, the inspirational, loving teacher in Matilda is another great example, as is Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables. However, all of these women are carers; they all have roles regarding the protection, support or guidance of the protagonist.

In fact, most children’s classics have a single woman in that role; from Katy’s Cousin Helen to Harry’s Professor McGonagall. A lot could be read into this; a woman’s “true nature” must be that of carer or partner, anything else is unacceptable. Single women who do not have caring roles are often the enemy; The Trunchbull or The White Witch.

This year, when you’re having your social inferiority shoved down your throats by commercialisation yet again, think on. Even fiction is your enemy.

Of course, I might be wrong, not having read Every Book Ever Written Ever. Maybe I’m missing out on some great single woman protagonists that I could feel an affinity with. A shout on Twitter found me a few, do you have any more? Tell us your favourite single ladies in literature in the comments if so!


  • Jane Bradley says:

    Love this feature, Jess! It really got my racking my brains to see who I could come up with. I got as far as Lux Lisbon from the Virgin Suicides, but she has so many casual sexual partners that she probably doesn’t count!

    Sadly this seems to be yet another case of fiction reflecting mainstream ideology: women either have to be mothers (or take on aspects of a mother’s role, like the teachers and carers you’ve mentioned), or sex objects, with not much room for anything else in between…

  • Sarah B says:

    I’m a big Pratchett fan and I love Susan Sto Helit in the Discworld books. She’s independent and fiercely single. There’s the occasional flirtation from male characters but she rarely responds to these – treating them usually as an inconvenience. She’s a schoolteacher and governess but also Death’s granddaughter and thus has to go and save the world occasionally, inbetween guarding the stationary cupboard and inspiring her small and sticky charges.

  • Georgina says:

    Good piece! I’m racking my brains to think of a happily single and well-adjusted female character – who stays that way throughout the story! I’ve got nothing, sadly.

    The female characters I tend to come across are young, rather than being elderly and happily single like Ms Marple.

    The assumption is that Marple is old; why would she want romance? Everyone knows that old ladies don’t have sex! Young women do. A young woman in a novel must at least have some sort of sexual encounter, even if she’s not on a Relationship Quest. If she’s having lots of casual sex, she has to be shown to be caring someone or safeguarding someone, or else she’s just a hussy. And if she’s a hussy, then that’s all she is; she’s probably a villain or at least the heroine’s Slaggy Best Mate for comedy purposes.

    I’m being facetious, but still. The fact I can’t think, off the top of my head, of a heroine who bucks this stereotype, proves the point. *le sigh*

  • Carrie says:

    Great article. Another character that comes to mind is Dr. Robyn Penrose in David Lodge’s ‘Nice Work’. She is the reverse of the cultural norm (I don’t really want to explain any further in case I spoil it for you).

  • Ellen says:

    great post! i, like your other commenters, am struggling to think of single female characters…and so far am failing. even those that are single for the bulk of a book usually, as you note, have sexual partners (so aren’t really “single,” whatever they might mark on their tax forms) or are single not by choice. I’m going to keep thinking, but I can’t imagine any names coming to me soon.

  • Marie says:

    Lise in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Fab whydunnit!!

  • Jess says:

    Thanks for all your comments! Sarah B- yup Pratchett was brought up a lot when I had this discussion on Twitter. Granny Weatherwax FTW!
    Georgina-I think you making a cracking point. Even if the hero(ine) does have sex with someone its never just for fun, and thats immediatly all she thinks about.

  • Beulah Maud says:

    Virginia Nicholson wrote a fascinating book called Singled Out about the surplus of single women between the wars. Raised to be wives and mothers, many of them turned to writing and are probably the best place to look for happily single women.

    My personal favourite Lolly Willows, title character from the book by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

    Although having written this I’ve just realised how difficult it is to come up with any truly single women – well done Jess!

  • Beulah Maud says:

    Oh god, how could I forget the ladies of Cranford?!

  • Sarah says:

    Interesting post, and it does pose a tough question. Sorry, I can’t think of many other single ladies; in fact I can only further detract from some already-mentioned ones: Miss Marple DID have a romance in her past (soldier killed at war) and Katy’s cousin Helen selflessly gave up her true love so she wouldn’t be a ‘burden’ to him. Miss Bartlett and Miss Lavish in ‘A Room With a View’? Not sure either are particularly edifying … but there are some lovely single women in ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’, perhaps because of the lack of men in the aftermath of WWI?

  • Antigone says:

    Ooh, this is a complicated one. While I’m struggling to think of any single and happy-about-it women in literature, I’d say it was also difficult to think of women who are married but whose partners are background/invisible characters in the same way that married men’s partners are often depicted. Because it’s easier to imagine a man having a full life away from his wife than a woman ignoring her husband?

    Different marital status but perhaps part of the same problem – namely, what exactly *do* women do when not fussing over a man? Women have traditionally not been granted the same freedom to be rounded, independant characters.

  • Karen says:

    How about Excellent Women by Barbara Pym? Actually, most of her books feature “spinsters” as main characters. Ditto Anita Brookner.

  • Jess says:

    excellent point Antigone (wicked name btw, loved that play!) maybe we should instigate a Bechdel test for fiction on For Books Sake, eh Jane?

  • Sarah says:

    Interesting piece, and whilst I agree with much of the article I have to disagree with women having sexual partners not being included as single. Whilst there is this annoying ‘Bridget Jones’ perception of single women I don’t think it is a bad thing for women to have relationships and sexual partners in literature. I think it reflects life. One of the jobs as an author is to write realistically about human relationships and I don’t think it is a weakness on the woman’s part to have relations, it’s just what happens in real life.

    Of course there is a LOT of annoying stereotyping of women in literature. There is a lot of presumptions made that just because a woman is single she’d unhappy and ‘desperate’ to get married, which just isn’t true. But most single women do go on dates, do have casual flings or one night stands and enjoy it.

    It would be quite a cool idea to have a celibate protagonist though. I might try that one!

  • Alice says:

    How about Miss Climpson in Dorothy Sayers? In fact there’s a whole host of single women in the background of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, many of whom are happy and fulfilled.

    Your point about carer’s roles in children’s classics is an interesting one, but a lot of the examples are classics from a previous era and perhaps that’s an accurate reflection of the scope of employment for women at the time? Similarly, the more modern example, Professor McGonagall, is from a school book. Adult roles in school stories will unsurprisingly tend to be teachers – and there are characters like Amelia Bones in the background.

    Actually, looking along my (crowded) bookshelves and checking the protagonist state in each one, very few tend to be single to the point of having neither partners (serious, casual or otherwise) nor dependants, whether they’re male or female…

  • Jess says:

    Hi Sarah,
    I agree with you that authors should write realistically about human relationships. As to the definition of “single” that of course varies from person to person, are you still single if you have a significant emotional attatchment to someone but not living with them for example? If you ask the census then you are, but I’d say most people would say that you’re not.
    I have used the term “single” in the same way I describe myself. I am currently not having sexual or emotional (apart from friendships) relationships (though I’m not celibate, as if I were to want to have a sexual relationship with someone as a one off I would) and I’m not actively looking or aspiring to be in a relationship. I am in no way seeking to commit myself emotionally or physically to another person.
    Yes most single women do go on dates, but I would just like to read about one other woman in the entire world that doesn’t and isn’t 80 odd, living in the 1930s or a fantasy-witch!

    Alice- completly agree, it is a reflection on women at the time. Apart from Roald Dahl.

    Thank you all so much for your comments and suggestions, my To Be Read pile is now embarassingly large!
    Jess xxx

  • Aoife says:

    The one that springs to mind for me is Nan from Little Men/Jo’s Boys – admittedly she’s a doctor, so that puts her squarely into the carer bracket but in a pretty badass way for a nineteenth century lady. It’s explicitly stated in the roundup at the end of the series that she stays single and happy and is a good example of single, happy, useful and independent women. What’s more she’s always saving people’s lives and telling off young men for talking crap about women getting the vote.