The old maid in the garret: Representations of the spinster in Victorian culture

Anna Lepine, Université D'Ottawa / University Of Ottawa, Université D'Ottawa / University Of Ottawa
Investigating the often paradoxical ramifications of the spinster's insistent embodiment in Victorian representations, "The Old Maid in the Garret: Representations of the Spinster in Victorian Culture" traces the ubiquitous but overlooked trope of the "old maid" in a set of discourses and fictions from the mid to late Victorian period. It explores the negative terms in which the spinster was figured (either as a grotesque body or as a homeless wanderer to be feared, ridiculed, and banished from
more » ... , and banished from sight) but it also asks how the figure nonetheless became a powerful force in the cultural imagination. The thesis argues that because the Victorian understanding of "woman" was so strongly associated with the qualities of fertility and domesticity, the celibate and "homeless" spinster absorbed such characteristics to become in effect a more powerful (if frightening) version of womanhood. Beginning with an analysis of Victorian culture's representation of the spinster as a grotesque body to be hidden from sight, the thesis shows, in a discussion of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, H. Rider Haggard's She, and George Gissing's New Grub Street, how fiction troubles this notion of banishment. It then considers the anxieties raised in the public imagination by the spectre of multiplying spinsters, looking at the motif of self-replication in Margaret Oliphant's Hester, George Gissing's The Odd Women, and Israel Zangwill's The Old Maids' Club. Turning to how the spinster unsettled established notions of domestic space by seeming to be "at home" anywhere, the thesis studies the spinster's ability to infiltrate home spaces in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, Charlotte Bronte's Villetle, and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. Finally, it considers how the spinster's unease within the traditional Victorian marriage plot prompted authors to imagine forms of escape in Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, Henry James's "The Third Person," and Charlotte O'Conor Eccles's The Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore. What emerges is a portrait of a compe [...]
doi:10.20381/ruor-19750 fatcat:jftr7ugadrcptaepmnu5rnbmt4