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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.