In 1917, the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls told her sixth form: "I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of 10 of you can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess. It is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can. The war has made more openings for women, [but] you will have to fight. You will have to struggle."
One of her pupils, Rosamund Essex, writing her memoirs 60 years later, recorded: "How right she was. Only one out of every 10 of my friends has ever married. Quite simply, there was no-one available... We should never have the kind of happy homes in which we ourselves had been brought up. There would be no husband, no children, no sexual outlet, no natural bond of man and woman. It was going to be a struggle indeed."
Rosamund's social class was particularly hard hit, because a far greater proportion of officers than privates were killed in the First World War. But women of all classes are included in the generation of spinsters that Virginia Nicholson has taken as her subject in this book about "how two million women survived without men".
The "Surplus Two Million" were, in their own way, casualties of the war. Some had lost their sweethearts at the Front; others never had the chance to fall in love. Many, at some point, experienced despair. "I'm nothing but a piece of wartime wreckage living on ingloriously in a world that doesn't want me!" wept Vera Brittain.
What is uplifting about Singled Out is how these women managed to make new lives for themselves in a world that often ignored, blamed, ridiculed and even reviled the spinster. From making careers in the "caring" professions to taking advantage of the previously inaccessible opportunities due to a lack of men, few failed to make a success of an alternative lifestyle.
Through a combination of empirical evidence and individual narratives, Nicholson conjures the lives of moneyed flappers who travelled and partied, lacking nothing but a father for their never-to-be-born children and a partner for their old age, and also the lives of working girls in menial occupations. These young women, while beguiled by the ideal of a woman's true fulfilment being a wife and a mother, worked 10- and 12-hour days in dirty, dark and overcrowded conditions, only to return at night to cold, damp bedsits and hostels, rotten food they could barely afford and no prospect of anything changing unless the dead could rise again. The recurring feature of these often lonely lives is the laughter, sympathy and warmth of the company of other women in the same boat and a determination to make the best of things. As a result, in old age, many of these women did not wish their lives had been any different.
Nicholson is candid not only about the drawbacks of enforced singleness, but its potential advantages. After all, marriage for working-class women could condemn them to "a kind of house-arrest", sentenced to a lifetime of servitude, while the enforced leisure of upper-class wives meant they often led lives of "exemplary futility". Many unmarried women made the most of the freedom they had not necessarily chosen. Singled Out is both a pleasure and an education; a historical document and a lesson in life.
Sarah Burton's 'A Double Life' is published by Penguin
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