Caroline: Every age has had a different way of describing a woman who exists alone, rather than as part of a couple. Today, she might just call herself “single”, but at different times in the past people might have referred to her, often with contempt, as an “old maid”, a “bachelor girl”, a “spinster”, or a “singleton”.
For most of history, this has been considered to be a pitiful state, against the natural order of things, as if a woman without a man — because until the very recent past it would have been thought that it was a man she needed, of course — was somehow incomplete and lesser.
After the First World War, there was a great flowering of female independence as more women chose to live single lives. This change, and the backlash to it, is all there to be found in the murder mysteries of the period, if you just dig a little below the surface. From self-contained, professional women like Mary Whittaker in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death to dear, fluffy Miss Marple, there are a multitude of single women’s lives to discover.
But let’s go back to the beginning. This particular story starts with the surplus women.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
In 1921, the British government published the results of a census. It recorded that there were just over 44 million people in total in the country, an increase of around two million from a decade before, despite the loss of life during the First World War. The figure that attracted the most attention at the time, though, was a striking disparity between the numbers of men and women. For every 1,000 men, there were 1,100 women, or “an excess that amounts to 1,906,284”, as one newspaper put it at the time.
At this point, the First World War had been over for three years. 700,000 British men had been killed. The casualties were disproportionately young, unmarried and from the middle or upper classes. Another 250,000 people in the UK died in the global Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919. In the decades before the 1920s, there had been campaigns luring young unmarried men to emigrate to British colonies like Australia and India with promises of far greater wealth and luxury than could be obtained by staying at home.
Given all of this, it shouldn’t have been very surprising that in 1921 the country contained more women than men. Many women found themselves single either because fiancés and sweethearts had died in the trenches, or just because all the casualties meant that there was no one left in their circle to pair up with. Some characterised these women as ‘imaginary widows’, unmarried yet mourning the husbands they should have had. A socialite named Isie Russell Stephenson, whose husband died in 1918 from his war injuries, recalled many years later how she went to a party in 1919 and thought it was a women-only affair until she spotted a single suit among all the evening frocks. “It was as if ever man you had ever danced with was dead,” she said.
Helen Parkinson’s great aunt, Mary Shallcross, was another woman who lost the man she might have married to the war.
Helen: Certainly not affianced or anything like that but somebody she was fond of, and then that’s it. She led a solitary life other than being ‘aunty’ and things after that.
Caroline: Mary was a factory worker who worked variously in munitions and confectionary plants throughout her life. She never married, or to Helen’s knowledge even came close.
Helen: She was very shy. I would imagine if the pool of available men was much reduced there’d be other people possibly her younger sister, thinking about it, who’d be better at nabbing what was left.
But for all that she’d lost someone important to her, Mary was happy — at least as far as Helen knows she was.
Helen: She was actually she took content in small things. Because my granny certainly ran round my grandad all her life doing exactly what he wanted. So maybe Auntie Mary was quite glad she didn’t have to.
Mary Shallcross was just one of thousands of women who found their circumstances irrevocably altered by the First World War, but refused to give into spinsterhood and despair. Yet even before the 1921 census confirmed Britain’s gender disparity, the plight of those like her had become the focus of much outrage and indignation.
A medical doctor named Murray Leslie had given a widely-reported lecture to the London Institute of Hygiene in February 1920, in which he warned that women would soon be scrapping like cats over “the scared and elusive male”. This in turn would lead to a lowering of moral standards, more infidelity and clandestine sexual relationships — which in his view, would result in a national crisis. Reporting on his talk, a Leeds Mercury newspaper writer linked Britain’s post-war economic depression directly to the terrible behaviour caused by the mere existence of these extra females. “No wonder the value of the pound has become so depreciated abroad,” he mourned.
Of course, women wrote in to these newspapers, often anonymously, to point out that they were, in fact, also human beings with a right to their own lives. In response, men penned opinion pieces proposing solutions to this supposed problem such as increased female emigration, and special care for that scarce commodity, male infants.
Throughout all of this fuss, one phrase was repeated more than any other. Surplus women.
Rosemary: The phrase surplus women came about in the press in the early 1920s in response to the 1921 census.
Caroline: This is Rosemary Cresswell, a senior lecturer in global history at the University of Hull.
It isn’t just as simple as to say that the First World War unbalanced the population, she says.
Rosemary: The trend in there being more women than men in British society goes back to the Victorian and the Edwardian period and some factors around that are emigration to Empire but also that infant mortality was higher amongst boys than amongst girls.
Caroline: The reductive idea that everyone in the nation was supposed to pair off, boy girl, boy girl, is fraught with problems — not least because not everyone is straight. Male homosexuality was a criminal offence at this point in history, although of course gay and lesbian people existed and had relationships in spite of prejudice and the need for secrecy. Part of the reaction against the so-called surplus women is connected to this, as women would often set up house with their female friends, causing alarm among those who hated the idea that they might love each other, rather than a man. We’re going to talk much more detail about how the private lives of queer people find their way into detective stories in a future episode, so listen out for that.
Rosemary Cresswell first started researching the surplus women as part of her work on the Overseas Nursing Association, an agency that recruited British nurses who wanted to work abroad. Large numbers of women were applying to do this in the early 1920s, a trend that could well be a result of so-called surplus women wanting to seek their fortune abroad, as an alternative to remaining in a Britain that regarded them superfluous.
Rosemary: I would think there if they did want to marry and hadn’t found somebody in Britain, there would be this awareness that there’s more men — more choice in Empire. But also I think it is an adventure to go overseas so there’s more to it I think than just seeking marriage. I think it’s about independence, autonomy, a different lifestyle to that which you had had in Britain.
Caroline: During the First World War, the number of women in the workforce had increased by nearly a million. Women had stepped into traditional male roles in factories, on farms, in hospitals, and in offices, and many had found it to their liking. In 1918, British women received partial suffrage for the first time, when the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met certain minimum property standards. When the war was over and there was pressure to step aside so that returning soldiers could have their jobs back, many women were reluctant to relinquish the independence and autonomy that their new working lives had provided. Being labelled as “surplus” was just an additional insult, along with the lack of equal pay or proper pension provision.
There was an additional incentive for working women to remain single at this time, in the form of what was called a “marriage bar”. Here’s Rosemary Cresswell again:
Rosemary: If you got married and you were a teacher, for example, then you would have to leave your job. This was a trend that started after the first world war, because there were men coming back with demobilisation who needed employment, so there was much more emphasis that women could not work if they got married. So if people wanted a career, if they wanted to be a teacher and become a headteacher, if they wanted to be in nursing and become a matron and progress up, then it could be a choice not to get married and in the civil service it was the same as well. It was legal to do this at that time, to force women to resign their job if they married.
Caroline: In many cases, these marriage bars were informal — just an unspoken understanding that married women wouldn’t work, as opposed to an actual rule or law. It worked though: 90 per cent of women gave up their jobs when they got married. If you were someone who wanted a career, therefore, it was in your interests to remain unattached.
It’s always been the case that women with any degree of power or autonomy become objects to be feared or dismissed as “unnatural”, and the scaremongering in the 1920s around the idea of “surplus women” only exacerbated this existing prejudice. There are plenty of examples from other literature of the time — Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé in the war, wrote a poem titled “The Superfluous Woman”, in which she described them as “ghosts crying down the vistas of the years”. Her friend Winifred Holtby, another post-war single woman with whom Brittain lived, wrote several novels with characters who struggled with the loneliness and futility of their lives. There are loads more works like this too, and together they suggest that Britain was stuffed full of maiden aunts, a tragic lost generation of British womanhood.
This literary stereotype of the spinster is one manifestation of the many ways in which independent women have been stigmatised down the years. Even as society has become more tolerant and fair, that caricature remains.
Camilla: I know that we’ve tried to retrieve spinster as a word to try and sort of flip it on its head but it still it retains that kind of connotation. To me it’s a pernicious kind of a word. . . It’s a word that’s hard to reclaim.
Caroline: This is Camilla Nelson, an associate professor of writing at the University of Notre Dame Australia. She’s made a study of all the ways in which single women are portrayed in literature. And she’s found that some of the most sympathetic and positive versions exist in the detective novels of the 1920s and 30s.
Camilla: What’s wonderful about many of those stories like Miss Marple or Miss Lemon or Miss Climpson is that they’re stories about women who are leading full and satisfying lives, who are working, who aren’t reliant on men, who are characters in novels who aren’t just sort of a satellite of the male character or a conduit to their husband, and who are leading full lives which are separated or divorced from marriage and romance.
Caroline: In her 1927 novel Unnatural Death, Dorothy L Sayers explicitly addresses this notion of the surplus women. In chapter three, which is entitled “A Use for Spinsters”, her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, invites his Scotland Yard chum Inspector Parker to visit a “little flat in Pimlico” with him, where there’s a woman Wimsey wants him to meet. Parker, surely a proxy for the 1920s reader here, immediately jumps to the conclusion that this is Wimsey’s lower-class mistress, housed at a comfortable distance from the luxury of Piccadilly for his lordship’s convenience.
Sayers then pulls the rug out from under us by introducing the woman herself — a single middle aged woman called Miss Climpson, who Wimsey is employing as a kind of private enquiry agent. “She is my ears and tongue and especially my nose,” he declares to his friend. Although Miss Climpson is very smart and sharp, she is very good at giving the impression that she’s merely a gossipy middle aged lady. As a result, if Wimsey sends her in to a delicate situation to ask questions, it doesn’t arouse suspicion the way a man doing the same would. More than that, it’s expected that she will be nosy. He’s taking advantage of the way society looks down on her — it’s like she’s in permanent disguise. For Miss Climpson, being a spinster is a kind of superpower.
Wimsey congratulates himself on having found this “use for spinsters” as stealthy private detectives. The nation should erect a statue to him, he says, with an inscription that reads “To the Man who Made Thousands of Superfluous Women Happy without Injury to their Modesty or Exertion to Himself”. In subsequent Sayers novels like Strong Poison, Miss Climpson appears as the head of a bureau of surplus women, who are deployed by Wimsey in roles like secretaries, companions, nurses and governesses in ways that will help solve his cases.
What makes the novels of Dorothy L Sayers stand out particularly in this regard, I think, is the wide variety of single woman characters she includes in her plots. They’re not just maiden aunts or elderly companions, but academics, nurses, socialites and revolutionaries. Her spinsters are real people, beyond the negative stereotype of a shabby, grumpy old maid.
Of course, the most famous mystery-solving spinster is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Like Miss Climpson, her status as a single woman means that everyone underestimates her, and confidences are shared with her that would never make their way to a male detective’s ears. Here’s Camilla Nelson again:
Camilla: I think that what makes her Miss Marple a stand-out is that she’s pink cardigan on the outside but she’s got a mind like a steel trap and the men in the books around her actually respect her. The policemen defer to her. The policemen can tell that she is a woman who is intelligent, who is rational, who is not hysterical who doesn’t imagine things which makes her an interesting, quite a unique character particularly for that for that period where more usually a spinster character is a prattling character or is a sour or desiccated character.
Caroline: In creating Miss Marple, Christie turned all of the unfavourable assumptions about spinsters on their head. Miss Marple is very nosy and gossipy, and deeply interested in the lives of her servants and everyone in her village. But in these novels that’s a good thing — she cares about people and is empathetic. Again and again in the books, she finds the solution to the puzzle when nobody else does because she pays attention to tiny domestic details like the toppings of a trifle, or how a curtain was hung. Because she’s so involved in the village life of St Mary Mead, there’s not much about human nature that she doesn’t know.
Both Sayers and Christie lived relatively unconventional lives for women of their period. In her 20s, Sayers had affairs with men she didn’t marry, and even had a child out of wedlock. She later married a divorced man and continued to work full time as a copywriter and author. Christie got married to her first husband in 1914, but divorced in 1928 after he was unfaithful to her. She later went travelling in the Middle East on her own, eventually marrying an archeologist who was 14 years younger than her. These experiences made their single women characters more nuanced, Camilla Nelson says.
Camilla: You wonder if the life experience of writers like Christie was divorced or Dorothy Sayers as well for her Miss Climpson and that she married much later in life and of course she worked as an advertising copywriter and you wonder if that struggle of doing a job and living a life and wanting to live a full life really comes through in that fiction. I do think that if Agatha Christie hadn’t divorced that maybe Miss Marple may not have grown in the way that she did.
Caroline: We might like to think that today’s society is free of prejudice towards single women, but it isn’t quite that simple.
Camilla: What’s interesting about some of these characters is that when they’ve been adapted to television recently — Miss Marple, ITV gave her a romantic backstory which I think was was ludicrous because it sort of ruined the character but it’s almost like the way we think about story and plots seems to involve the way you round out a female character seems to be that you marry them or you make them unhappy in love.
Caroline: We might not talk about “surplus women” anymore, but society still struggles sometimes with viewing single women as whole beings, independent and self sufficient. Single friends who have travelled in more remote parts of the world have told me that it’s sometimes easier to wear a fake wedding ring than face endless questions about their lack of a husband. Female celebrities are still asked about their love lives and their children in a way that men rarely are. Unmarried women are still asked by relatives and colleagues when they’re going to ‘settle down’.
Perhaps there are still spinster sleuths among us, even now.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. My thanks to Rosemary Cresswell, Camilla Nelson and Helen Parkinson for their contributions. For more information about the subjects discussed and links to all the books mentioned, visit shedunnitshow.com/surpluswomen, where you can also find a full transcript. If you enjoy the podcast and you’d like to do me a good turn, consider telling a friend who likes mystery stories about it, whether that’s in person or on social media. You could also tell a stranger by leaving a review on iTunes. I’ll be back in two weeks with another episode, so make sure you’re subscribed.
Next time on Shedunnit: Crippen.