Let’s Get Critical: Single Ladies in Literature
11th Feb 2011
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!