“Spinsterhood needn’t be unhappy”, or words to that effect, said Amanda Vickery during tonight’s At Home with the Georgians on BBC2. Being a historian, I don’t normally watch history programmes on TV as it’s too much of a busman’s holiday, but I made an exception for this new series & I wasn’t disappointed. If you didn’t see it, then I’d highly recommend it: funny, engaging, educative – an admirable combo.
Vickery made the statement above in relation to Jane Austen’s life. Having explored the diaries of a miserable C18th spinster, Vickery went on to discuss Austen’s experiences & her fulfilment through writing. When watching this, and the section of the programme about C18th bachelors, I couldn’t help but compare their lives with my own experience of singledom (a far more pleasant phrase than spinsterhood, albeit one still loaded with a raft of connotations). One of the things that struck me most about the C18th characters featured was their sense of not belonging to a domestic set-up; they felt like interlopers, not fitting in properly. I certainly share that sensation. My web of relations are extremely important to me. The family roles ascribed to me – daughter, sister, auntie, niece, great-niece, cousin, second cousin – are all hugely integral & central facets of my identity. By and large, I also feel valued by my family. Yet I am aware that these perceptions are not always shared by others. Often, so often, it seems that the only familial identities considered important for adults in our society are those relating to marriage and parenthood. Yes, there are occasional articles on the lifestyle pages of women’s magazines celebrating the rise of the PANK (Professional Auntie No Kids – seemingly epitomised by Jennifer Aniston & her relationship with Courtney Cox’s children) or other similar acronyms. On the whole, however, it is the role of husband/wife and mum/dad that are most highly prized and valued.
Aside from marriage (or similar) and children, there is a distinct lack of credibility surrounding familial roles and identities. In fact, I would go as far as to say that to admit that one is close to one’s family when one isn’t married or a parent risks a strong chance that one will be labelled a bit of a saddo. As a grown woman who still socialises pretty regularly with her parents, I know that many people’s secret reaction to many of my social plans is probably ‘Hasn’t she got anything better to do?’ and/or ‘Hasn’t she got any friends of her own?’. This makes me cross. Frankly, I like spending time with my parents & in most cases there is nothing at all that I would rather be doing than the activity in question. Moreover, I know full well that reactions would be very different if I were doing the same things with a husband and/or kids in tow: then it would be seen as jolly & cosy, rather than a bit sad and pathetic.
Much of this seems to come down to some strange dichotomy that we seem to have developed between singledom and family life. Being single somehow seems to mean that you are therefore not part of a family, unless you have children of your own. If you get married or have a ‘serious’ relationship, then you change sides, moving from “Team Single” to “Team Family”. Clearly that is nonsense. I am single but I am still very much part of a wider family, while many who are in couples do not feel like a family. Worse still, there always seems to be the assumption that if you are single but family-orientated then that means you are a desperate spinster who longs to get married and have kids – as in the awful phrase have a family of your own, as if the family around me are not my own family but some kind benefactors who are caring for me until Mr Darcy turns up.
Other similarities between being single in the C18th and the C21st? You are a thorn in the side of people making seating plans.