Spinsters in England

Review: Peters on Hill

Bridget Hill. Women Alone: Spinsters in England, 1660-1850. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. viii + 220 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-300-08820-5.

Reviewed for H-Albion by Belinda Peters, Irvine, California. Published by H-Albion (June 2003).

Surviving Without a Husband

Having made use of Bridget Hill's previous work in my own research and in the classroom, I approached Women Alone with high expectations. In this text, she has constructed a detailed account of the working and living conditions of single and widowed women in a rapidly changing society. Her analysis of the complex web of constraints and restrictions on spinsters and widows- economic, social, political, and cultural--provides a useful resource for professors of British history broadening the scope of social history lectures on the period. And, with a gift for story-telling, Hill combs the diaries and letters of these women as they seek to understand themselves, to form relationships that sustain soul as well as body, and to develop a consciousness in response to the social expectations surrounding them. Regrettably, these positive aspects of her text never entirely overcame my sense that Women Alone was hurried into print and in need of more revision and editing, making it less useful for students and researchers alike, and that Hill herself was never entirely engaged with her subject.

Hill organizes her material around issues of work and housing, methods of social control, and paths to personal fulfillment, dividing the experience of laboring "women alone," who were concerned primarily with food, housing, and physical safety, from that of middling and gentry classes, for whom respectability was inseparable from economic and social survival. If, as she points out, the "position of spinsters changed relatively little" between 1660 and 1850, in that marriage remained the expected norm, rural and urban women nonetheless adapted to often dramatic economic changes during the period (p. 11). Enclosure, for example, which deprived all the rural poor of necessary resources, left "women alone" in especially dire straits with few options, especially since many communities preferred to employ married women as agricultural laborers. Meanwhile, changes in manufacture brought mixed results. The rise of new cottage industries such as lace-making and button-making did not always compensate for labor losses in agriculture or the spinning industry, the traditional occupation of "spinsters." Rapid fluctuations in the market as a result of foreign competition or changes in fashion meant that laboring women's wages often fell precipitately, forcing them on parish relief or on the support of their birth families. Hill's analysis of women in domestic service is sadly limited; though she admittedly covered the subject fully in her last book, the problems of servants, who made up such a large proportion of the female working class, would seem essential to an overview of laboring spinsters. Furthermore, servants, whose lives were necessarily involved with those of their employers, might have provided some connection between laboring women and the middling and gentle women who appear next, beginning with businesswomen. As Hill points out, historians have been surprised by the number of women in trade during this period, whether they were involved in the clothing industries, traded in tea, established or inherited inns, or served communities as grocers or shopkeepers. These "women alone" should be especially interesting to those exploring the formation of the English middle class, since they existed in that social sphere between elite and commons where losing "respectability" could end business success. This ideal was essential to "genteel women of the middle and upper classes," whose economic choices were seriously constrained by cultural assumptions that they should never be involved in business or physical labor (p. 54). The ones who entered the "governess trade," Hill suggests, probably saw their experience much as did Mary Wollstonecraft's character, Fanny Blood: "I am treated like a gentlewoman ... but I cannot forget my inferior station--and this something betwixt and between is rather awkward" (p. 61). For them, as for teachers and ladies' companions, employment was no more secure than that of laborers in cottage industry.

Nor were unmarried women of any class, who stayed with their birth parents or went to live with brothers or married sisters, always assured of stability, since they remained dependents and, as such, faced destitution if the male head of household died. Hill's best stories involve these women: the patient Elin Stout, who helped in her mother's home and loaned money to her brother, William, before moving in with him to manage his household; the poet Mary Leapor, dismissed from service for her "scribbling," who returned home to care for her widowed father; and particularly the scholar Elizabeth Elsop, who had assisted her brother in his Saxon studies only to discover after his death that patrons were appalled at the idea of a "learned lady" (pp. 87-92).

Hill's three chapters on policing of "women alone" are quite useful. Beginning with Poor Law administration, she shows that the wealthy and powerful of a community tended to view single women on parish relief as cheap labor, but also as the primary "source of abnormal sexual appetite" (p. 101). The economic sources of crime and prostitution, Hill demonstrates next, reinforce this connection. A single woman employed as a domestic servant or laborer was often charged with theft. Dismissed from employment, she often turned, at least temporarily, to prostitution. When this necessity left her pregnant, she was more likely to be charged with infanticide if her infant died than was the married woman next door. Although these images have become very nearly cliches within women's history, Hill shows in her next chapter on surveillance that economic pressures and social prejudices denied single women even a legitimate standing in the community. To escape such constraints, or to establish a sense of identity within them, Hill argues, women made use of every avenue available. Some, even among the middling classes in the nineteenth century, emigrated to Australia and New Zealand. Others formed small, independent communities or found freedom of a sort in writing. A few, like the remarkable Dr. James Miranda Barry, dressed and lived as men. More, however, chose religious service or nursing, or maintainedfriendships that provided some sense of identity in the face of the intense social restraints.

Despite her fascinating stories and useful threads of evidence, Hill's overview never quite forms a coherent whole. She gleanswonderful material from primary and secondary sources, but only occasionally uses the evidence to construct her own argument about why these forgotten women are so important for historians to know and understand. This absence of a powerful historical voice leads in many chapters to a bewildering list of facts and individuals--modern historians and historical figures who have written about a particular subject, but who are often impossible to identify. Dr. Julia Hunter, for example, had quite interesting things to say about the "moral or decent tone of the peasant girls," but I could not be sure who she was nor why I should care about her opinion from either text, endnotes, or bibliography (p. 21). Usually, Hill distinguishes historians from historical figures through discrimination of verb tense, but occasionally this pattern fails, a serious difficulty for students unlikely to know that Alice Clark and Arthur Young are not contemporaries. Confusing transitions undermined the development of significant arguments, and there were recurring problems of organization: a paragraph on the limits of the Census, for example, that might have been useful at the beginning of the chapter, disrupted an analysis of women in manufacture. Students would find it difficult to maneuver through these sections. If such problems were simply the result of a rush to print, Yale University Press has done a disservice to women's history and to a scholar whose work often brings such vivid life to women's past.

Finally, I will not complain about the absence of women's political theory. It was a surprise, however, to find that Mary Wollstonecraft's political classic on the rights of woman was quoted primarily for her critique of embroidery. And I wonder, however, if single working women petitioned Parliament in the 1670s or participated in grain and factory riots or fought alongside their married counterparts in the Chartist movement of the 1840s. Certainly single women of the middling classes who supported abolition in the United States recognized that freedom for slaves might eventually offer equal rights for themselves, but I had no sense that abolitionist Englishwomen had similar views. Since, as Hill points out, political constraints were felt more keenly by single and widowed women in this period, perhaps there were only "ways of escape," not the means to fight back. But it is difficult to imagine that no one tried.

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