Victorian Spinster and Emerging Female Identities: A Critical Study of fin de siecle literature and Culture

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A fresh point of inquiry on the ‘spinster figure’ that offers a compelling reconsideration of gender, literature and culture in late nineteenth century England. This interdisciplinary approach to sources, including novels, popular press articles, book reviews, medical and psychological texts, as well as travel narratives reveals the ubiquitous nature of the ‘spinster figure’, which was invoked in creative, critical, political and medical debates of the late nineteenth century.


“…this study is particularly timely and relevant to both Victorian studies as a discipline as well as current feminist efforts to revise cultural narratives about women’s social roles to include increasing numbers of women who do not ultimately fall into the identity categories of wife and mother. What this project offers readers… is the opportunity to understand the history and legacy of the Victorian spinster and to begin charting her relationship to modern Western society’s single woman.”
-Lisa Hager,
Assistant Professor of English and Women’s Studies
University of Wisconsin-Waukesha

“Carrie Wadman’s book makes a clear contribution to the scholarship on 19th century literature. Wadman shows how the often under-acknowledged figure of the spinster was central in the debates about the roles of women in Victorian England.[It] makes a compelling case that the construction of the spinster in the cultural discourses of the day was inextricably connected to the appearance of new identities for women. Beyond this, Wadman’s analyses clearly demonstrate how the figure of the spinster reveals the contemporary society’s cultural anxiety about woman who broke gender norms. [It] offers a fresh take on the subject by analyzing how the spinster figure was connected to other figures appearing in the popular literature of the day, namely the new woman, the female academic, the invert, and the traveler. Wadman’s text takes into account previous work on the topic and adds her voice to the critical conversation. She offers an extensive lit review that contextualizes previous readings of the spinster. Ultimately, though, Wadman’s text makes the argument that spinster is a more central figure than recent critics have acknowledged. With her excellent readings of literature and history, the reader will soon agree.”
-Kate Haffey,
Assistant Professor
University of Mary Washington

“Although the Spinster is one of the key antecedents to the New Woman, this figure has been neglected in literary studies and Wadman’s book helps rectify that omission. [It] makes a significant contribution to the study of late 19th century discourses around women and education, sexuality, and travel through a series of careful , compelling readings of novels by George Gissing, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Annie Edwardes; primary texts by sexologists such as Havelock Ellis; as well as travel narratives by authors such as Isabelle Bird. In addition, Wadman’s book offers valuable historical context for several key concepts in contemporary queer theory.”
-Dr. Meridith Kruse,
The New School University,

Table of Contents

Foreword by Dr. Lisa Hager
Preface / Acknowledgements
The Victorian Spinster
Scholarship and Methodology
Primary Material
Chapter Overview
Chapter 1: The New Spinster
George Gissing’s The Odd Woman
Back to the Future: Debating Young Women
The New Woman Gets Married
Chapter 2: The Academic Uterus
Liberal Theory and the Establishment of Women’s Colleges
Feminine Nature and Science
Fiction and the Education Dilemma
Reproductive Futurism and the Spinster Scapegoat
Futures and Foreclosures
Chapter 3: Queer Juxtaposition and the Perils of Single Life
Theorizing Female-Female Desire
Historical Records and Pre-sexological Sexualities
Sexology, Masculine Female Inverts and the New Femininity of Spinsters
“Something too vague to name yet to real to ignore”: The Rebel of the Family
Chapter 4: “A Traveler in Skirts” The Spinster Explorer
Narrative, the RGS and the Explorer
Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan
The Spinster and the Imperial Archive
Home and Away: The Limits of the Spinster Figure

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