Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Odd Women? Spinsters, Lesbians and Widows in British Women's Fiction, 1850s-1930s

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Odd Women? Spinsters, Lesbians and Widows in British Women's Fiction, 1850s-1930s

Article excerpt

Emma Liggins, Odd Women? Spinsters, Lesbians and Widows in British Women's Fiction, 1850s-1930s. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2014, pp.vii + 259. Hardback £70.

ISBN 978-0-7190-8756.

This wide-ranging and well researched book examines and compares the lives of spinsters, lesbians and widows in their letters, diaries and autobiographies as well as in their fictional representations. The title, Odd Women?, encapsulates both the stigmatisation of single women as 'redundant, superfluous, anomalous, incomplete, odd' (p.1), and the ways in which, through their personal and fictional writing, they mounted a challenge to the cultural heteronormativity that persistently excluded them.

In her introduction, Liggins sets out her argument for her chosen time frame which allows for a continuous interrogation of texts across the Victorian and modern period, incorporating key events in twentieth-century history such as World War I and the obscenity trial of Radcliffe Hall's lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928. She argues that women writers from Charlotte Brontë to Virginia Woolf used their portrayals of single women to disrupt the ideologies of middle-class femininity and heterosexuality and to offer new models of behaviour and sexuality that celebrated eccentricity and independence and normalised the single woman, whether spinster, lesbian or widow. She points out that the 'labels of "queer" and "odd" are used almost interchangeably from the Mid-Victorian period onwards to signal a disruption to the norm' (p.3). In other words, such descriptions embraced the idea of singularity and difference as well as the possibility of an alternative sexuality. The introduction comprehensively sets out the theoretical underpinning to her study in her examination of the relationship between the fictional 'odd woman' and contemporary non-fictional discourses that addressed the reality of a single woman living outside heterosexual marriage, including variations on female pairings such as mother-daughter and aunt-niece relationships, as well as female communities and erotic female friendships.

Chapter 1 deals with the mid-Victorian period beginning with the startling statistics revealed by the 1851 census that showed for the first time 'the imbalance between men and women of marriageable age in British society' (p.29). The fact of approximately 400,000 'surplus' single women became a cause for concern, but it also enabled pioneering middle-class women to erode the concept of the single woman as a problem or a threat to heterosexual and cultural stability and to re-position her as a useful and productive member of society, including through the establishment of female social and sexual alliances. Liggins gives a useful overview and analysis of the cultural discourse around the 'redundant' woman that is well grounded in contemporary sources. The chapter includes an interesting section on Victorian women's autobiographies and other life writing. She argues that from the 1860s onwards, women increasingly challenged the cultural prohibition that prevented them from undertaking public roles and suggests that the possibility of alternative lifestyles not necessarily based around marriage and the family opened up a range of alternative presentations of self that were both complex and nuanced, if still apparently coded within cultural norms.

Liggins briefly discusses The Life of Charlotte Brontë and Cranford in this chapter. Her assessment of the Life is disappointingly reductive, focusing on Gaskell's presentation of Brontë as a dutiful domestic daughter and arguing that the suppression of Brontë's illicit sexual attraction to Constantin Héger was typical of the auto/biographical strategy of the time. …

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