Literary Spinsters: The Single Heroine in 19th-Century Literature

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

Female protagonists in 19th-century novels were customarily used to facilitate the marriage plot. So the single woman, then commonly referred to as a spinster, wasn’t traditionally given heroine status. Here we’ll look at the concept of literary spinsters, and how they presaged the New Woman novels of the early twentieth century.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the single heroine begins to emerge in her own right. Some authors began to challenge the marriage plot and experiment with single female protagonists. Giving the single woman agency in the novel helped alter the traditional narrative trajectory for heroines.

Before the twentieth century, single female protagonists in novels were typically young and socially or financially powerless until “rescued” by marriage.

Energetic and exciting while single, marriage often silenced the heroine’s voice or ended her story.


Minor roles in the shadows

There were a variety of stereotypical roles for a very few single female protagonists: she could be depicted as a jealous schemer (Cousin Bette, Honoré de Balzac, 1846) or worse, a dangerous sexual siren (Nana, Emile Zola, 1880).

However, more often she was given minor roles in the shadows of the protagonists. For example, she could have been a foolish garrulous woman like Miss Bates (Emma, Jane Austen, 1815), a tragic jilted-at-the-alter mad woman like Miss Havisham (Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, 1861). The image of Miss Havisham’s burning figure reminds readers of the fate of a woman who cannot keep her man!

Rarely did any single woman at that time hold authority in a narrative. By the early twentieth century, the empowered single female protagonist remained uncommon, but she had become much more accepted, and sometimes reverenced.


“Redundant women”

So, why were single women largely invalidated while heroines driven by the marriage plot were so adored? One may speculate that the marriage plot is simply a tried-and-true conflict which turns a plot into a best seller, or that women have fallen into a cultural trap which encourages limitation of her own freedoms, or that married, powerless women are a convenience to a patriarchal capitalism.

However, art does not always imitate life and marriage was rarely the key to happiness in as depicted in the nineteenth century. Also, single women who were unable to marry were not necessarily the sad spinsters who readers enjoyed condemning or pitying.

The truth was, in the nineteenth-century there was an “oversupply” of women, so there were not enough men to rescue all the “spinsters.” Jails were full of male prisoners and thousands of single men were drifting to the colonies to improve their lives.

These “redundant women,” a term coined by William Rathbone Greg, were doing more than hiding in parlours, nursing the sick, pining for marriage or tempting the pure.


Inspirational real-life “spinsters”

Many of the real “spinsters” of the nineteenth century contrasted markedly with their literary counterparts, but rarely do we meet them in novels:

There were  scientists such as Mary Treat (1830 1923), a naturalist and entomologist; Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 –1910), a British-born physician and the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States; and Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910), the English social reformer and founder of modern nursing.


Brave authors begin to break rules

Some brave authors in Britain and elsewhere were not entirely bound by literary tradition however, and successfully experimented with heroines who sought more out of life than wedlock. These novels are few but they represent the first possibility in literature of esteeming single women as worthy of close analysis.

Novels such as Anthony Trollop’s Miss Mackenzie (1865), The Story of an African Farm (1883) by Olive Schreiner, and Eyes Like the Sea by Hungary’s Mór Jókai, (1889) were published, often against the demands of their publishers who insisted that unmarried women held no interest to readers and were morally unsound.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, as the women’s movement began to demand better roles for women in western society, “New Woman” novels began to emerge, in which empowered heroines who threatened the cultural status quo by insisting on a career, sometimes even at the expense of wedlock!

This revolutionary fiction may have obscured earlier novels in the nineteenth century, but it did not render them irrelevant.


The Story of an African Farm

One novel that foreshadows the plethora of New Woman novels in the early twentieth century offers a depiction of a controversial single heroine in The Story of an African Farm. 

Lyndall, the protagonist, who determines never to cede her power through marriage, becomes empowered as a heroine, not through inheritance or marriage, but through self-education, developing her own brand of feminist ideology which shapes her decision to remain unmarried.

In this novel, the “conflict” revolves around Lyndall’s rebellion to remain single and the illegitimate pregnancy she insists on experiencing alone. This posed a problem for the novel’s publishers, Chapman and Hall, because “the British public would think it wicked.”

Fortunately, her novel caught the attention of George Meredith, who demonstrated great interest in women’s power in his own novels. He recommended Schreiner’s book for publication to Frederick Chapman.

Chapman interviewed Schreiner, who, in a rage at his suggestion that Lyndall marry in secret, emphatically refused, declaring in a letter, “of course I insisted on saying she was not married to him, it must be so.”

Fortunately for generations of readers, Chapman and Hall accepted Schreiner’s novel without the resolution of marriage. The Story of an African Farm novel is still quite relevant to today’s literature, with some considering it to be the first “New Woman” novel.

Due to the brave pioneering by the authors cited above, heroines in literature and film today enjoy their independence more freely and face a variety of dilemmas needing far more complex resolutions than marriage.


The empowered spinster heroine emerges

By the 1920s, readers could enjoy the popular spinster heroine and veteran detective, summoned all over England to solve crimes — Miss Marple, who was created by the best-selling author of all time, Agatha Christie.

Also, there was Mary Poppins, published in 1934, in which the role of the spinster is transformed from that of a humble servant into a flying Nanny, who sees into the hearts and minds of all adults and children, takes charge, and offers magical solutions to families’ problems.

This ingenious character, invented by the Australian-born P.L. Travers, reclaimed the role of the single woman and the carer/servant all in one wonderful narrative.

Contributed by Linda Moctezuma, M.A. Linda writes: “I am an Australian teacher at a New South Wales Government High School teaching English as a Second Language to newly arrived migrant, international and refugee students in Sydney. Our lucky students in NSW receive a specialized year of intensive English to prepare them for their High School studies.

I love my work, however, my true passion is literature. I completed a Masters by Research thesis in 2019 called “The Singularity of the Single Heroine in the Nineteenth Century Novel” at Sydney University. I had previously completed a Masters by Coursework at The University of NSW in 1991, where my thesis was entitled “The Portrayal of Female ‘Madness’ in the Novel.”

I am hoping to publish a more extensive study in the future which traces the depictions of single women throughout the ages, and within different cultures.”


  • Why Are Women Redundant? by William Rathbone Greg (London: N. Trübner and Co, 1869)
  • “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” North American Review (March 1894)
  • Olive Schreiner by Ruth First and Ann Scott (1989)

2 Responses to “Literary Spinsters: The Single Heroine in 19th-Century Literature”

  1. Dear Writer
    I am working on the child figures in Schreiner’s oeuvre ..the trauma of growing up just as interesting as your single women idea! If you have any ideas on child figures please send them to me!

    Kind regards
    Lucille Cooper

    • Lucille, I’m not well-versed on Olive Schreiner, but her biography on this site may have some leads for you, especially if you scroll down to the resources section after “More about Olive Schreiner.” Good luck on your project!

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