It is not often that we get a good spinster novel. Too frequently the figure is portrayed with great pity, or twisted and tormented by a lost love (a la Miss Havisham).
That does seem strange given the fact that after every significant war women have outnumbered men, and many have had to do without the loving (or not) attentions (or not) of a husband. After the Civil War, there was a tremendous imbalance of the sexes, and yet the only truly great document we have of the era is the diary of one such spinster, the Bostonian Alice James.
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Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter is set during another time of great gender imbalance, also war-induced, Wales during and after World War I. Polly is in some ways raised specifically to end up a spinster. After the death of her mother, her father sends her to live with two strange matronly aunts, who are also boarding an older maid and the widow Mrs. Woods. It is an all-female island, in a big yellow house built right on the beach, where the terrific winds nearly bury the only exit out of the house on the most tumultuous of days.
And the aunts, her mother’s sisters, are quite strange. Polly sees them as aged and infirm, although eventually their ages are revealed to be around 40. But for such women to remain unmarried into their 40s, in the age of British etiquette and social manners, must have aged them prematurely. They kept their house snug and lived meagerly, saving coffee as a once-per-week treat to be savored deeply, and devotedly participating in the parish church, three services on Sunday.
The Church serves as the first point of rebellion for dear Polly, still a young child. She adamantly refuses to be confirmed to the consternation of her aunts. She is a girl of nature and sees the church as confining and cut off from the true divinity. “All the dreary people dirging away. And the sad music. On such a lovely day...That awful giant crucifix with the dead body and the blood-drips all carved in wood. And that ghastly face with the thorns all hung over one eye...”
You see, Polly has become obsessed with the book Robinson Crusoe, and that is all the religious text she ever needs throughout the years. The book follows her as she ages from a child into advanced spinsterhood, as her beaus are killed in war or emigrate to help rebuild the ravaged continent. It’s a book that teaches her to be alone—and it’s a book that for her repeatedly comes in handy. It keeps her from becoming a figure of pity, or a figure of thorny regret. She explores and inhabits her island much like Robinson Crusoe himself, with the family library perhaps being the heart of her camp.
Gardam is much more respected and widely read in her native UK than in the States, and as a result much of her backlist has been unavailable for a long time here. In her preface to this new edition of Crusoe’s Daughter, she writes that she became fascinated with the priorities of the women of her mother’s generation. “Their success in life in these immovable, unrelenting country places was judged by their ability to get married as soon as possible to a suitable man who could support them, to breed, to live chaste and never to think of working for a living. They must not show any hankering after intellectual knowledge—to hide it if they had it.”
Gardam removes her Polly from this society and its pressures as securely as Daniel Defoe removed Robinson Crusoe. She is as shipwrecked by the forces of fate as her beloved fictional character, but both survive with a measure of dignity and a love for the adventure of it.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.