Sunday, 15 April 2018

Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson

In the spring issue of Oh Comely, four writers shared the books that inspired change in their life. I wrote about Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. 

It’s something of a cliché that history gives lessons for the future. But I never thought I’d find mine in a social history book, especially in one about a generation that suffered the carnage of a world war. Singled Out is about the “surplus” women – the estimated two million more women than men left in Britain after the Great War.

It made me consider my family history in a new way: offering one explanation as to why my grandmother wed someone nine years her junior, why she didn’t become a mother until she was 40, and conjured up half-remembered tales of fabulous great aunts who simply never married.

But it also made me interrogate myself. Having spent my early twenties consumed by the desire to be with someone, by the time I read Singled Out I’d both achieved this aim and subsequently realised that being with someone wasn’t the magic fix for happiness. I’d been sold a lie – even a relationship could feel lonely.

Nicholson weaves together a host of personal accounts to tell her story. I smarted for these women, who – in the vast majority – had been raised to believe that their sole purpose in life was marriage and children, only to find their chances had been smothered by circumstances. And then, due to their almost inevitable childlessness, be branded by the likes of the Daily Mail “a disaster to the human race” (some things never change). As they readjusted to their new prospects, sought new ways to be happy – through friendships and career – and fought a political system geared towards the patriarchy, commentators (both men and women) described them as “soured”, “disappointed” and “withered”, apparently “seeking to revenge themselves for their fancied grievances on men”.

Sadly, such hyperbole has never gone away. Thanks to Singled Out when I see hysteric headlines directed against single, childless women, I now read a desire to constrain and to control. I’m equally suspicious of so-called fairytale endings. Like the best books, Singled Out made me want to read many more – from interwar novelists, the likes of Winifred Holtby and Sylvia Townsend Warner who wrote their own experiences into their work, to further non-fiction such as Betsy Israel’s Bachelor Girl, which pulls apart decades of the bullshit thrown at single women. It made me attempt to prioritise what I really want, rather than simply what’s the most convenient for the rest of society. That’s in no way easy but – regardless of whether I’m in a relationship or by myself – like the two million women discussed in Singled Out, it’s a battle in which I’ll never be alone.

Read the other three books that inspired change in the spring Oh Comely magazine. I'll be speaking about the portrayal of single women in the 20th century at Cotesbach Educational Trust on 8 May. More details here

Photo: Cathy McKinnon

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