On the shelf

Bachelor Girl: the secret history of single women in the 20th century

Betsy Israel <em>Aurum Press

When I was growing up, I had two elderly maiden aunts, Vera and Hilda. Vera was tall and beaky, with a fondness for strange, fruit-laden hats and a shrill terror of priests (my mother, her niece, was not allowed to talk to Catholics, not even at the bus stop). Hilda was softer, more rounded. She smoked Park Drives, and had a wheezy cough. She smiled a lot, but said strikingly little. Her needs seemed so unimportant - to her, to anyone. It was a miracle she even remembered to eat.

I used to spend a great deal of time wondering about their lives. Why had they never married? Were they virgins? Were they lesbians? Had their hearts never been broken? More prosaically, I was fixated on what they did for money, how they made their way in a world then so lumpenly dominated by men (this was north-east England of the 1970s). Hilda was a secretary, a scrimper and a saver. Vera lived first on her parents' money, then on thin air. Visiting their homes was upsetting. A pink dressing gown behind the door, a photograph of mother and father, a single, yellow apple in a bowl; to me, an almost-teenager, these objects were imbued with sadness and failure and a stubborn kind of pride.

Today, at the age of 34, I am myself still, officially, a spinster. Yet my life could not be more different from that of my aunts. There are times, I grant you, when I come in the door and it is dark and late and the house is creaky, and I long to hear another voice, preferably one quite deep and, you know, manly-sounding. Mostly, though, I think: hooray! Peace. Quiet. Fresh fruit from Marks & Spencer. These things, purchased by dint of having a career that I love, are not to be taken for granted.

Bachelor Girl charts the gap (as wide as the Tyne itself) between my universe, and that of Vera and Hilda. It is an American book, so some of the specifics are not quite right, but no matter: it does its work just the same, peeling back the sticky cultural imagery that surrounds the single state as deftly as a manicurist setting about a neglected set of cuticles. Occasionally, this is painful. Forget singletons, forget Sex and the City. Hags, scolds, sluts, slatterns - all are here. Not even the flappers (the first girls to wear wristwatches) were permitted to get away with being unmarried: they were told that their reckless party lifestyles would increase their chances of contracting tuberculosis by 100 per cent.

The first "spinsters", spinners of wool and cotton in 13th-century France, were widows of the Crusades. Respectable at first, by the 1700s spinsters were considered as worthless as a stale loaf, as repellent as a mad, drooling dog (a public discussion of the time established that an old maid's teeth rotted faster than average). In particular, the sound of women talking together seemed to evoke paranoia and fear; as late as 1894, the Strand magazine, only hinting at satire, was calling for the reinstatement of the brank, or scold's bridle.

But Israel really hits her (kitten-heeled?) stride when she gets stuck in to the 20th century. I loved reading about the working girls who poured into Manhattan, lusting after latchkeys and allowing themselves only ever to "spoon" with their men friends (they also had to be careful never to "loiter" on the pavement - such shilly-shallying was a sign of prostitution). In 1910, the Trowmart Inn opened, looking for "self-supporting girls tired of the tawdry lodging room and sick of the miserable little rookery". Single female life had at last been deemed grown-up. The only problem was all the horrible chicken croquettes on which these impoverished creatures had to dine.

This apparent sea change was, however, something of a false dawn. New York's working girls, it was claimed, began falling prey to the "white slavers" (fiends who were rumoured to drug unsuspecting girls and phantom them away to work in brothels). This myth, fan-ned by the press, functioned as a vicious cautionary tale. Later, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, working women were considered to be responsible for all kinds of social ills, from "job-hogging" (depriving the unemployed male of work) to husband-stealing. In the 1950s, failure to marry was seen as a "quasi-perversion". Even in the 1960s, single girls found that they were spied on by their brothers, and likened to "unwanted immigrants" by city officials.

Bachelor Girl winds up in the era of Ally McBeal, Bridget Jones and microwave meals for one. This is the weakest section. Israel is unwilling to articulate the backlash (millennium woman: lonely, barren, deluded by feminism) as waspishly as she might. Perhaps this is because she is married herself; more likely, she just found it too depressing. Still, this is not to take away from her achievement. Bachelor Girl is a wonderful book: thoroughly researched, tender and arch in almost equal measure. Give it to your daughter, or your little sister. As the author points out: there have been too many epitaphs for the single woman, and almost every one of them is pathetic. She is not.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer