Fiction is full of spinsters, each one greater and more terrible than the last. Here are some of the more common species seen in the wild.
Ready To Defrost (Harmless/Temporary)
There is nothing wrong with these women. More to be pitied than censured; they simply were not born for the Cause. They are more likely to be librarians than anything else. Their glasses exist only to be whipped off. Their hair is up only to be coaxed down. They are soft.
Type I: A Warning
Mary Bailey, from It’s A Wonderful Life, is briefly and happily a member of our sisterhood, but only in a fantastic alternate reality George is permitted to visit for a few hours. She returns to married life, and slips from our fingers. The fate of Wives is not known to us. They have been given a strange gift, and dwell not in the Halls of Mandos, and their path is utterly sundered from ours.
Type II: The Melter
Look at her. She is practically melting already. Everything is soft edges and limpid eyes and no fox coats with her. Go to your man and be happy. You were never meant to be a spinster.
Selma and Patty (To The Manner Born)
Some spinsters are made, others born. Selma and Patty were born. They are more archetype than individual — the female equivalent of the Ancient Mariner.
“But Mallory,” I hear you cry, “Both Selma and Patty enter into relationships. What of Troy McClure? What of Principal Skinner?”
My darling idiots. A spinster can do anything she likes, except marry, and I am not entirely convinced that even then she is entirely lost to us. A woman who owns an iguana named Jub-Jub, who wears her hair in an enormous gray beehive and does not shave her legs, who thinks nothing of riding on a white horse stark naked behind her twin sister — this is a woman with the heart of a spinster, and no amount of secondary characters she dates can change that.
A spinster in her prime can frighten a child with a single word, or a glance. The frozen terror on Lisa’s face tells you everything you need to know about these powerful spinsters. A good spinster is but one step removed from a witch, after all.
A Selma-and-Patty-style spinster is irrevocably set in her ways. She is incapable of change, but capable of greatness. She does not know how to compromise. She likes everything to be arranged just so. She is surly and combative at work, but infinitely gentle towards her iguana.
The Harmless Eccentric
“But the Beales were real people, not fictional,” I hear you say (Christ, you are mouthy). They have entered the realm of fiction by virtue of being eternal, my short-sighted poppet.
A key component of the Spinster Mythos is financial independence — or at least the appearance of it. It’s very difficult to be a spinster when you can’t afford to live on your own, when you depend upon the income or the goodwill of others. This is why so many fictional spinsters are as wealthy as they are eccentric: it’s their money that allows them to behave strangely. Without money, without a home of your own, society will find a way to be beat the strangeness out of you. (It will still try even if you do have money, but then you can build a door of pearl and of onyx to keep society away from your house.)
When I think of all the women — real and fictional — who simply could not afford to become spinsters throughout history, my heart aches. There should be a Spinster Dream Fund for women who need a small apartment overlooking a river or a cottage on stilts propped on the side of a mountain that is continually wrapped in fog.
Marilla had her own house and a surrogate daughter whose diapers she never even had to change. This woman went through the entire life cycle without ever having to pick someone up or have a non-grownup-conversation with, and I have enormous respect for that.
The Chessmaster goes beyond mere self-sufficiency and begins to absorb the life force of others. She may dictate their fates, or she may simply toy with them. Other people’s lives are the ultimate game.
Catwoman is a spinster. She dates, but she never marries. Catwoman is always perfectly and blissfully alone. Look at that woman. She wants for nothing. She controls everything. She needs no one.
“I will wear a man’s bowler hat, and I will solve mysteries.” Miss Marple had the greatest life plan of all.
Look at how happy short hair and cigarettes and draping yourself in simple dark fabrics and not getting married can make someone. Tell me you don’t want that for yourself (cigarettes optional, of course, but it’s a key component of the lifestyle pictured here).
Miss Havisham is the spinster qua spinster. Who could help but love her? She controls time. She stays in wedding dress shape 365 days out of the year — well into her fifties, which is no mean feat — and turns a boy into a gentleman for the sole purpose of expanding his hopes and dreams, that he might feel sorrow all the more keenly when she finally crushes them. Spiders live in her hair, and in her heart. Nothing can touch her, and she never apologizes for anything (in my version of Great Expectations, she dies in a Mrs. Danvers-style house fire rather than ask Pip to forgive her. I recommend you do the same).
The Hermit Queen
“But Mallory,” I hear you say again (you are complaining a great deal today), “didn’t Galadriel have a husband?”
No. She didn’t.
“Yes, she did — his name was Celeborn.”
No, it wasn’t.
“I’m sure it was. He was even in the movie for a minute.”
Think about it, though. Really think about it, and I think you’ll realize that Celeborn was a collective hallucination brought about by a brief fever dream, and not an actual husband to Galadriel. Galadriel had no husband. She was a handmaiden of the Eternal Sisterhood. Once she made out with Sailor Moon, and it was incredible, but the two of them realized they could never be together because their work was so important, so they remained friends with the deepest mutual regard for one another.
There are several contradictory schools of thought on this issue — is it better for a spinster to kill men, or simply to ignore them? Would not killing men require one to think about them, even hold multiple conversations with them?
The debate lives on, but the men do not.
“Oh, Mortimer, don’t be so inquisitive. The gentleman died because he drank some wine with poison in it.”
Elinor from The Haunting of Hill House, certainly. She wears frumpy wool coats and out-of-style Peter Pan collars and wouldn’t say bo to a goose, but she manages to commit suicide in a way that feels like a murder. She becomes the house, and the house becomes her, and no one who met her can ever forget it.
The Heiress with Olivia de Havilland could just as easily be renamed The Spinster’s Triumph. Look at how masterfully she ascends the stairs. The house is hers, and everything in it, including her own self.
This image, right here — this is the defining tableaux of compulsory heterosexuality.
Norma Desmond marries (how ironic!) the best qualities of every other category of spinster. She is richer than the devil’s mother, she is vicious, she is eccentric, she is isolated, she is paralyzed by her own sense of grandiosity, she leads men to ruin and death.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.