Odd women

  • Niamh Baker


One of the characteristics of traditional stories is that living happily ever after is always seen, for women, as living happily as a married woman. In these stories the unmarried woman, if ugly, is seen as a witch, if beautiful, as an evil force. Ugly women — witches — live on their own, often in grotesque houses, like the Russian witch Baba Yaga, who lived in a house that had chicken legs and could walk around. Their activities take place at night and are connected with the moon, black cats, toads, spiders. Their unmarried status is linked with their antisocial behaviour, which frequently results in harm to others. Beautiful single women, like the Snow Queen, are attractive but deadly, associated with ice and cold, sexually frigid. The witch in Snow White combines the beautiful and the hideous in one person. Behind these stereotypes lurks the fear and hatred men feel for women uncontrolled by them. The fear is often masked in contempt and ridicule and the suggestion is that these women are evil, either because they have been sexually rejected by men, or because their frigidity impels them to reject masculine love. These stereotypes, often disguised, still haunt male fiction, whereas women writers, some of whom are spinsters themselves, view the matter of singleness quite differently.


Married Woman Sexual Attraction Single Woman Unmarried Woman Feminist Ideal 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour (London: Chatto & Windus, 1947. Reissued 1969) p. 101.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Barbara Pym, A Very Private Eye. The Diaries, Letters and Notebooks of Barbara Pym, eds Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym (London: Macmillan, 1984) p. 1.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn (London: Macmillan, 1977).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Barbara Pym, The Sweet Dove Died (London: Macmillan, 1978).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle (London: Panther, 1981. First published in 1950).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid, p. 136.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Barbara Pym, An Unsuitable Attachment (London: Panther, 1983. First published, posthumously, in 1982) p. 102.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1980. First published in 1958) pp. 216–17.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Mildred Lathbury is in Excellent Women, Ianthe Broome in An Unsuitable Attachment and Belinda in Some Tame Gazelle.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980. First published in 1958) pp. 120–1.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Ibid, p. 11.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Barbara Pym is frequently very pointed in her references to the difference not just in the sort of food available to men and women, but also the conditions in which it is eaten and who prepares it. See, for example, Jane and Prudence, especially pp. 44–5 and pp. 55–7, where she also satirises the conflation of masculinity and the consumption of meat.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Olivia Manning, School for Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982. First published in 1951).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ibid, p. 192.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Even Simone de Beauvoir was wilfully negative about lesbianism. See The Second Sex (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    For the concept of ‘other’, see de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.Google Scholar
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    Kate O’Brien, The Land of Spices (Bath: Cedric Chivers, 1970. First published in 1941).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Kate O’Brien, The Flower of May (Bath: Cedric Chivers, 1971. First published in 1953).Google Scholar
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    Kate O’Brien, Presentation Parlour (London: Heinemann, 1963).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Antonia White, Frost in May (London : Virago, 1983. First published in 1933);Google Scholar
  21. Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986. First published in 1960).Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    Kate O’Brien, That Lady (Bath: Cedric Chivers, 1971. First published in 1946).Google Scholar
  23. 22.
    Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1958. Reissued 1979).Google Scholar
  24. 23.
    ‘Gorgio’ is a Romany word for those who are not Romanies.Google Scholar
  25. 24.
    Kate O’Brien, Mary Lavelle (London: Virago, 1984).Google Scholar
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    Kate O’Brien, As Music and Splendour (London: Heinemann, 1958. Reissued 1964).Google Scholar
  27. 26.
    Susan Ertz, The Prodigal Heart (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1950. Book Club edition, 1951).Google Scholar
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    Colin Maclnnes, Absolute Beginners (London: Allison & Busby, 1959. Reissued 1980).Google Scholar
  29. 28.
    Susie Orbach in Bittersweet suggests another interpretation of this type of relationship. See Susie Orbach and Luise Eichenbaum, Bittersweet (London: Century, 1987).Google Scholar
  30. 29.
    O’Brien, Presentation Parlour, and Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography, The Joy of the Snow (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1974) p. 28.Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Wilson, Only Halfway to Paradise. Women In Postwar Britain: 1945–1968 (London: Tavistock, 1980).Google Scholar
  32. 31.
    See Janice Raymond, ‘Varieties of Female Friendship: The Nun as Loose Woman’, in A Passion for Friends (London: The Women’s Press, 1986) pp. 71–114.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Niamh Baker 1989

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  • Niamh Baker

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