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  • Stylish Spinsters: Spark, Pym, and the Postwar Comedy of the Object
  • Hope Howell Hodgkins (bio)

[S]ay what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the ever-changing and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs. . . .

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

[A]n artist is only an artist on condition that he is a double man and that there is not one single phenomenon of his double nature of which he is ignorant.

—Charles Baudelaire, “D’Essence de la rire”

It is style that makes us believe in a thing—nothing but style.

—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

“The position of the unmarried woman—unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the reader of modern fiction.” So comments Barbara Pym in her diary. Then she adds cheerfully, “The beginning of a novel?” (Very Private 269). Certainly by the mid-twentieth century the classic British spinster seemed a relic of the past associated, as George Orwell noted, with nostalgia for an England of “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning” (75). And yet unmarried women, including spinsters, abound in modern fiction, and in modern [End Page 523] fiction by women the spinster often takes pride of place as never before. This essay analyzes the uses of fashion, narrative style, and the spinster in novels by Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, especially noting those fictions’ intersections with the post-World War II literary world of Great Britain. The question of why Spark, in particular, has not been regarded as a “Movement novelist” (despite her similar use of an ironic, understated narrative style) may be answered through examining her use of such trivia as dress both to celebrate individual female perception and to satirize traditionally grand literary ideals. Comedy’s necessary self-objectification (dédoublement, as Baudelaire called it) is amply illustrated when the spinster—usually the object of pity, neglect, or scorn—becomes the subject of a novel.

On the surface, few women look less alike than the self-dramatizing Jean Brodie and the modest Mildred Lathbury. Where Spark’s famous novel describes The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Pym allows her humble spinster to be subsumed into the unenviable category of Excellent Women. Where Miss Brodie celebrates her prime, Mildred pours tea and observes the romantic vicissitudes of others. And where Jean Brodie romanticizes her own sex in a kind of myth-making gigantism, Mildred engages in comic deflation of all pretensions—including idealized gender stereotypes of any sort. Nevertheless, each woman is a spinster surprised by her own longings. And just as the style of each spinster presages her substance, whether Brodie’s splendid “Roman profile” (6) or Mildred’s “mousy” plainness (7), so female self-presentation through fashionable dress serves as a cameo for each narrative’s style.

In following fashion, a willing self-objectification is a necessary component, as Karen Hanson has noted: “A personal interest in dress and open responsiveness to the changing whims of fashion depend upon a recognition that one is seen, that one is—among other things—an object of others’ sight, others’ cognition” (70). And of course modernist fiction entails a vexed interpretation of subject-object relations. Thus Spark constructs her stylish novel as a complex free indirect confessional. The narrative never tells us Jean Brodie’s thoughts, always showing her through the speculations of her young students or a bemused larger world. Yet Miss Brodie, so ostensibly the risible object rather than the narrating subject of Spark’s book, triumphs through her own overtly ridiculous, vivid style: “I wore my silk dress with the large red poppies which is just right for my colouring,” she tells her girls. “Mussolini is one of the greatest men in the world” (46). The inappropriate juxtaposition shows the teacher’s delusive charm as well as the book’s juggling of affections and ethics. In contrast, Pym’s novel, with its more straightforward first-person narration, indeed is plain, but its protagonist both observes and seeks [End Page 524] to validate her own subjectivity. To the condescending salesgirl behind the makeup counter...


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pp. 523-543
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