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Choosing spinsterhood: enacting singleness in Persuasion.

READERS LEARN FROM Emma that '"[a] single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else"' (91). The single woman in question is Miss Bates, the foil to the heiress, who declares that she need never marry. Miss Bates falls prey to the degradations of spinsterhood that Emma avoids by reneging on her anti-marriage stance and following the path dictated by the bildungsroman-marriage plot. Emma features the most overt discussion of old maids in Austen's work, and Miss Bates is the most famous of Austen's spinsters--but the heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, is the most overlooked.

Anne is not a spinster by the novel's close. She does, after all, finally reunite with Wentworth. Austen introduces Anne as an old maid, however, through her family's definition of her as past her prime and unmarriageable. Sir Walter believes, "All equality of alliance must rest with Elizabeth" (6). The reader meets Anne as the middle child, whose opinions are ignored and whose appearance is plain, the consequence of an "early loss of bloom" (30). (1) Though no one attaches the label "old maid" to Anne, she performs the spinster's function in her social circle. In Amanda Vickery's words, "she is on the shelf at twenty-seven" (137). From the outset, Austen consciously evokes the conventions of spinsterhood in describing Anne and, in doing so, challenges the stigma against old maids. Persuasion shows spinsterhood to be a construct imposed on unmarried women and, more radically, that spinsterhood can be a position adopted by choice. Before she recovers her bloom and reunites with Wentworth, Anne chooses to enact spinsterhood and in doing so destabilizes the contemporary notion of spinsterhood as an identity and a permanent state of being.

Anne's eventual marriage has blinded most critics to the fact that she plays the role of spinster for most of the novel. The notable exception, Jean B. Kern, includes Anne in her article investigating old maids in women-authored novels. She recognizes that "Anne Elliot, the heroine, is twenty-seven--that dangerous age for the unmarried female--as the novel begins" (210--11). Laura Fairchild Brodie has also focused on Anne's singleness, though she treats Anne as a widow, claiming that Anne's sense of loss following her abortive relationship with Wentworth is akin to the death of a spouse: "she enters the novel as a metaphorically 'widowed' heroine--a woman who has lost her fiance and who now shares the company of widows.... For Anne, memory has succeeded anticipation.... [She] finds consolation in a widowed devotion to the past" (699). Brodie situates Anne within an eighteenth-century social context bent on fitting her into a binary identity position. British culture of the time understood women as either married or unmarried: wives or widows, maids waiting to marry, or spinsters doomed to their fate by an inability to attract a husband. Brodie thus places Anne into the socially acceptable position of widowhood. Aligning Anne with widowhood, however, seems flawed; it denies Anne the agency she has exercised by rejecting Wentworth, even under persuasion. In Persuasion Austen problematizes contemporary notions of spinsterhood by refusing these binary categories and placing Anne in the exceptional position of choosing singleness. Anne has already intentionally eschewed marriage by the beginning of the novel, having rejected proposals from both Wentworth and Charles Musgrove; instead, she performs behaviors characteristic of spinsterhood by withdrawing from courtship rituals in favor of acts of service.

Austen wrote Persuasion just after the eighteenth century, the period in which the spinster figure developed her stigma. The term "spinster" had risen relatively recently from the literal occupational meaning indicating the non-gendered employment of spinning thread, becoming in the seventeenth century a neutral term for unmarried woman. (2) Early eighteenth-century authors quickly began to define spinsterhood as a failure to marry. "Old age" was a universally acknowledged determinant of such failure, but the point at which a woman became "old" varied widely, from early twenties all the way to fifties, depending on the author. (3) The stereotype also strongly hinted that such women were sad or bitter due to their failure to secure a husband. This failure was generally attributed to ugliness or faded looks. Austen invokes this meaning with the common eighteenth-century term "bloom," a cultural conflation of beauty and age.

Austen's use of the term "bloom" cues the reader that she is entering the conversation about old maids. "Bloom" occurs in eighteenth-century texts to describe young women, specifically the youthful period of health and beauty that society equates to marriageability; after the bloom fades, the woman in question may be termed a spinster. As William Hayley says in his 1785 Philosophical, Historical, and Moral Essay Upon Old Maids, and specifically in a chapter entitled "On the Affectation of Old Maids," a spinster is someone who has "found that her natural charms have not, in the short period of their bloom, been so fortunate as she wished" (54). (4) Thus, spinsterhood begins when any beauty that could have attracted a husband withers. Being past the period of bloom is a defining trait of spinsterhood. Because Anne has suffered an "early loss of bloom" (30), the reader is meant to understand from the very first chapter that Anne is unmarriageable and therefore a spinster. But Anne is an established spinster by twenty-seven---stretching even the most flexible definitions of "old." Moreover, Anne is the middle child, and her elder sister Elizabeth is still blooming and on the market at age twenty-nine (6). This disparity divorces rule from reality, revealing that spinsterhood is less about age and more about a failure to attract a husband--a failure from which one is not expected to rebound.

Thus, Austen demonstrates that defining bloom and marriageability by age is a construct. As Janet Todd and Antje Blank remind us in the notes to the Cambridge Edition, Austen even commented upon her own faded bloom in her letters; writing just a few months before her death (and also soon after completing Persuasion), she said, "I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again" (23-25 March 1817; P 337 n.17). At forty-one, Austen was already past the perceived threshold of marriageability; she refers not to the age limit applied to "bloom" but instead to her failing health. In both her description of herself and her characterization of Anne, Austen critiques social reliance on universal (yet subjective) categories like age or beauty to define marriageability, saying it depends on the individual's circumstances rather than any essential or inherent quality. Anne is a spinster by twenty-seven and a bride by twenty-eight. She has lost her bloom before the novel's opening and started to regain it by the beginning of volume 2. Spinsterhood, like bloom, is a matter of perception rather than of immutable fact. Austen challenges both the stigma and the notion that spinsterhood is inevitable for women with personal failings like unattractiveness or a prickly personality.

This understanding of spinsterhood, however, stands in sharp contrast to Austen's representation of Miss Bates. An incessantly chatty gossip, Miss Bates represents the socially tiresome aspects of the inherently unmarriageable spinster. In Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850, Devoney Looser claims that Austen makes Miss Bates a caricature of spinsterhood, a familiar treatment cueing eighteenth-century readers to consider Miss Bates as yet another pathetic old woman (77). While Looser suggests that Austen supports stereotypes, Kern rightly points out that Austen makes Miss Bates the vehicle of Emma's character growth (210); as Mr. Knightley reprimands Emma at Box Hill, Austen correspondingly chastises the reader for laughing at Miss Bates, indicating that even pathetic spinsters deserve respect. In Persuasion, however, Austen unequivocally treats Anne's singleness with nuance and possibility, and in doing so she shows that spinsterhood is not a state in which women must embody caricatures.

Though Anne's spinsterhood is well-established by her family's disregard, she also performs spinsterhood herself in two ways: she refuses to participate in the marriage market, and she opts instead for a devotion to helping others, enacting behavior typical of the spinster aunt. Austen reveals that spinsterhood is a position rather than an identity and even suggests that to choose spinsterhood is valid and even desirable, a marked deviation from her contemporaries who mocked or pitied spinsters. Contemporary writers like Thomas Gisborne, William Hayley, and James Fordyce agreed that spinsters were either pathetic or despicable. James Fordyce, whose stuffy conservatism Austen mocks in Pride and Prejudice, claims in Sermons to Young Women (1766) that "a woman [who] live[s] to grow old in the single state ... will be regarded with a mixture of hatred and contempt" (252). He presents this statement not as judgment but simply as reality. William Hayley betrays his pseudonymous sobriquet "a friend to the sisterhood" by focusing on "the particular failings of Old Maids"--curiosity, credulity, affectation, envy, and ill nature--far more heavily than "on the particular good qualities of Old Maids"--ingenuity, patience, and charity (ix). Though Gisborne's Enquiries into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797) illuminates valid reasons for women to decline a proposal (405), he still determines that women's lives depend on husbands (116). These widely read eighteenth-century authors formed the image of spinsterhood that Austen challenged by representing spinsterhood as choice.

We know that Anne makes the decision to adopt spinsterhood. She has had opportunities to avoid it. Austen bookends the novel with Anne's two acceptances of Wentworth, but the novel revolves around her two rejections of marriage. Lady Russell argues that Wentworth's lack of fortune or prospects, combined with his bachelor-like spending patterns, make this match dangerous (29). She prompts the refusal, supported by Anne's belief that Wentworth's prospects would be better without the burden of a wife to support. This rescinded acceptance is a carefully measured and considered decision: though Lady Russell's advice is a significant factor, it is counterbalanced by Captain Wentworth's sense of hurt and betrayal. Anne's retracting her acceptance takes strength, and there is pressure on both sides. Her actions are indeed choice, not capitulation. By refusing Wentworth, even if under the influence of persuasion, Anne sets herself on the path to lost bloom and self-imposed spinsterhood. She then continues this pattern by refusing her second proposal--even though she has by now had a taste of spinsterhood's many privations.

Anne's easy dismissal of Charles Musgrove is jarring in contrast. We learn that she "had been solicited, when about two-and-twenty, to change her name, by the young man, who had not long afterwards found a more willing mind in her younger sister" (31). Charles has none of the repugnant qualities of Austen's other rejected suitors. He is neither a pompous buffoon like Mr. Collins nor a sly, social-climbing Mr. Elliot. Musgrove shows none of the moral failings of Henry Crawford, and he has suitable wealth and social status to solicit a gentlewoman's hand. In Austenian logic, there is no discernible reason not to marry him.

Anne rejects not just Musgrove himself but also marriage as a whole: "No second attachment ... at her time of life [from nineteen to twenty-two]], had been possible to the nice tone of her mind, the fastidiousness of her taste, in the small limits of the society around them" (30-31). Anne thus forgoes an opportunity that would have immensely improved her material and familial condition. This act of refusing Musgrove's proposal is her statement that she has consciously retreated from marriage. Kern underlines this point: "Anne resists persuasion [to reject Wentworth]] at twenty-seven when she was unable to resist at nineteen, because she knows now that marriage is preferable to being neglected and exploited as a spinster" (211). While Kern suggests that Anne's distaste for the spinster's life encourages her to accept Captain Wentworth in the end despite past familial opposition, her point also applies in photonegative to Anne's rejection of Musgrove; she declines his proposal in spite of Lady Russell's "lamenting]] her refusal" (31) and despite her growing understanding of the spinster's diminished social position. She could have married Charles Musgrove and succumbed to familial pressure, while also avoiding the grim scene Kern paints. She could have escaped her neglect and ill-treatment and joined the ranks of women, like Charlotte Lucas, who marry without love to flee the clutches of spinsterhood. She could have married and enjoyed the security and position of a gentleman's wife. Instead, she chooses to remain single and live as a spinster.

Anne demonstrates spinsterly behavior in her refusal to participate in activities related to the marriage market. She prefers to dedicate herself to becoming useful to her family as a caretaker, the primary role of the upper-class spinster. Though some employment opportunities were available to the spinster of the wage-earning class, women of the gentry were more socially constrained to depend on husbands, fathers, or inheritances. Ladies without such resources often turned to other family members for support, joining their households in a liminal position of family-servant. In gentry homes of middling affluence, the old maid compensated for the additional burden she placed on the household by service to the family. (5) Aunts served as companions and caretakers, assisting in times of illness and crisis or in more daily roles as de facto housekeepers or governesses.

Though a daughter still a part of her father's household, (6) Anne assumes these servant-like functions whenever she visits Mary. She neither behaves nor is treated as a guest but instead as someone present exclusively to help and serve others. This situation is partially due to dismissive social treatment of spinsters, but it also demonstrates Anne's conscious and continual choice to function as a spinster. Though Mary "exploit[s Anne] to act as a nurse during [her] hypochondriacal illnesses or as a 'sitter' and disciplinarian of her two unruly sons" (Kern 211), Anne allows her to do so. Adopting that role delays her dreaded move to Bath and later supplies her "with a pretence for absenting herself" from social gatherings with Wentworth (P 68). While her family's neglect and exploitation steal her agency, service sometimes suits her own goals as well as giving her the dubious pleasure of being appreciated, even if only "[t]o be claimed as a good, though in an improper style," when Mary declares she '"cannot possibly do without Anne'" (36). Austen cleverly demonstrates Anne's social status as spinster using a device that both elucidates the unpleasantness of a spinster's life and proves Anne's choice in the matter. Kern points to the Elliot and Musgrove families' treatment of Anne as Austen's representation of the difficulty of being an old maid: "all the unpleasant tasks are assigned to Anne; she is the one who must play the piano while the others dance at a family gathering; she is left behind when her father and older sister take a solicitor's daughter with them to Bath despite the Lady's lower social position; she is the one to nurse her small nephew when he breaks his collarbone" (211). While it is clear that her family exploits her, however, Kern fails to acknowledge Anne's choice in the matter. Taking on these unpleasant tasks reinforces Anne's chosen unmarriageability.

Anne most clearly demonstrates her withdrawal from the marriage market through her abstention from dancing, the central site of socialization among eligible youths in the eighteenth century. Instead, she volunteers to play the piano for the marriageable members of her acquaintance, the Musgroves and the Hayters: "very much preferring the office of musician to a more active post, [she] played country dances to them by the hour" (51). Playing allows Anne to circumvent the courtship ritual and self-display; it is her symbolic declaration of her own unmarriageability as well as a physical removal from the pool of available ladies. Henrietta tells Wentworth that '"she has quite given up dancing'" (78). That Anne has resigned from dancing signals her refusal to marry, reminding those in her circle of her decision. Anne even uses her office as musician as a screen that hides her from social pressures and expectations: "she was extremely glad to be employed, and desired nothing in return but to be unobserved" (77). The piano provides a physical barrier between her and the dancing, enabling her to avoid unwanted attention. Anne's performance of spinsterhood thus serves to shield Anne from the marriage market, both visually and socially. The move from dance floor to piano bench indicates a conscious turning away from the young lady's social activity and toward the spinsterly office of service. The language of labor ("employment") shows how she serves the family party instead of participating in it. She is paid with the marital invisibility she desires.

Though Anne does reunite with Wentworth and marry in the end, she willfully embodies the spinster figure for the majority of the novel. Austen's Persuasion might be read as a radical exploration of the value of spinsterhood; with the spinster figure in Persuasion as the heroine rather than a minor character, Austen offers not a stereotype but a study. Austen's attitude toward spinsterhood in Persuasion is more complicated than simple support or condemnation; this position suggests both that spinsterhood is a fluid state and that it can be an active choice as opposed to a necessarily passive fate. Austen treats Anne's spinsterhood with a depth of attention that acknowledges her complexity of character. While Austen still represents her lack of bloom as one reason for her spinsterhood, she also makes the progressive move of showing Anne's humanity. Anne embodies not the old maid characterized by the physical signs of aging and dimming beauty but a person marked by sorrow recovering from loss (albeit self-inflicted) of a hoped-for union. The fact that Anne is a fully rendered character and a spinster informs readers that her emotional complexity and agency define her spinsterhood; she enacts the role of spinster by choice, not by inevitability.

Anne becomes a compelling character not because of her eventual happy marriage but, arguably, despite it. Though she does eventually marry, we are drawn in by her psychological complexity and interiority: her motivations, desires, and beliefs. Spinsters of eighteenth-century fiction like Tabitha Bramble, Aunt Leonella, or Grace Rayland--the spinsters from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), The Monk (1796), and The Old Manor House (1793), respectively--are figures so shallow they barely even qualify as characters: they are the literary equivalent of cardboard cutouts. Anne is an utter departure from this pattern--a woman who shows a capacity for growth, independent thought, and even subversive behavior. Her refusals show from within the character's subjectivity why spinsterhood can be justified and even appealing. Austen powerfully intervenes in the conversation about marriage by exploring spinsterhood beyond the stereotypes to show the single woman as a subject, a radical notion in the period's fiction, and to demonstrate the marked advantages to choosing spinsterhood.

Dashielle Horn is a doctoral candidate at Lehigh University and is writing a dissertation titled "Preferring the Single State: Representations of Spinsterhood in Eighteenth-Century British Novels." She received her M.A. from Lehigh in 2012 and a B.A. in English and History from Salisbury University in 2010.


(1.) For further discussion of the links between age, beauty, and marriageability (a confluence known to readers as "bloom"), see Stephanie Eddleman.

(2.) Stephanie Coontz provides a history of the word "spinster": "Originally an honorable term reserved for a woman who spun yarn, by the 1600s it had come to mean any woman who was not married. In the 1700s the word took on a negative connotation for the first time, the flip side of the new reverence accorded to wives" (147). Devoney Looser (82) and Katherine Allen (22) have also written about the eighteenth-century development of the spinster stigma.

(3.) Historians indicate that the average age of marriage among women in the eighteenth century was between twenty and twenty-five years old (Razzell 752; Kowaleski 342). Any unmarried woman over this age could thus be labeled an old maid. Eighteenth-century authors disagree greatly as to when old age, and therefore spinsterhood, begins. In The History of Miss Ravensworth, the old maid is "about forty" and the maid is "a pretty young girl about sixteen" (Skinn 4). Another contemporary work, the 1761 play The Old Maid, defines the age at which an unmarried woman becomes a spinster as some point between twenty-three and forty-three (Murphy 4). This range being both wide and specific points to the arbitrary nature of those age lines; for Murphy, it is not so much a line as a zone.

(4.) David Gilson indicates that Austen knew Hayley's work, having acquired Poems and Plays on 3 April 1791 (442).

(5.) Bridget Hill asserts that such arrangements were widespread: "it was fairly common to find unmarried women acting ... as servants to their own kith and kin" (232).

(6.) For more on spinsters' living conditions, see Amanda Vickery: "Spinsters were expected to be absorbed within the households of their families, not to be householders in their own right.... Without a home of their own, spinsters were at the mercy of whichever of their relatives would have them" (142).


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Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Gen. ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: CUP. 2005-2008.

--. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Brodie, Laura Fairchild. "Society and the Superfluous Female: Jane Austen's Treatment of Widowhood." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34.4 (1994): 697-718.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking, 2005.

Eddleman, Stephanie M. "Past the Bloom: Aging and Beauty in the Novels of Jane Austen." Persuasions a7 (2015): 119-33.

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Kern, Jean B. "The Old Maid; Or, 'To Grow Old, and Be Poor, and Laughed at.'" Fetter'd or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670-1815. Ed. Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Athens: Ohio UP, 1986. 201-14.

Kowaleski, Maryanne. "Appendix: Demographic Tables." Singlewomen in the European Past. Ed. Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania 1', 1999. 325-44.

Looser, Devoney. Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.

Murphy, Arthur. The Old Maid. A Comedy in Two Acts. London: Vaillant, 1761.

Razzell, Peter. "The Growth of Population in Eighteenth-Century England: A Critical Reappraisal." Journal of Economic History 53.4 (1993): 743-71.

Skinn, Ann Emilinda. The Old Maid; or. History of Miss Ravensworth. In a Series of Letters. London: Bell, 1771.

Vickery, Amanda. "No Happy Ending? At Home with Miss Bates in Georgian England." Persuasions 37 (2015): 134-51.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Horn, Dashielle
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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