Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson’s latest social history, sets out to document what life was like for women after the First World War. The book details the lives of women for whom the expected life plan of marriage and children had been sabotaged by the enormous human loss- the ‘lost generation’- which resulted from the Great War. Virginia Nicholson utilizes a lot of evidence in her construction of Singled Out, allowing us to glimpse into the lives of the “surplus women” of the 1920s from many different angles. Nicholson draws our attention to contemporary adverts, questions and responses from contemporary problem pages in womens’ magazines, contemporary literature by women and about women, popular images of the time, cartoons and photographs, as well as hundreds of diary entries and biographies of the “superfluous women”.
The book is a moving memoir of the upper middle class women who felt unable to fulfill the life they had always wanted and envisaged, and also pays tribute to how difficult being single was made for them. It details the way they had to live, the paths they had to find to satisfactory and meaningful existence (missionary work, university courses, teaching, friendship, becoming a universal aunt).
But the book cannot claim to explore the whole culture, the many layers of society, as it chooses from the onset to focus on the extraordinary as opposed to the ordinary; the women who changed the conventions, not those who were merely victim to them. Nicholson seems to only be interested in those women who turned into semi-lesbian bohemians, those who went on to be great scholars and writers and those who were industrious with their femininity, and all for obvious reasons (not least that it makes more uplifting reading.) Little is said about the working classes who did not have the opportunities to make a successful single life, and even less of those women who lived unhappy lives- because who wants to read about that gloom and doom which pales in significance when seen next to the bloodbath of the First World War?
Singled Out highlights much about our contemporary culture of single life, as well as that of the 1920s. It reveals how women are chastised both for being too overtly sexual and berated for being frigid, something which is prevalent now in magazines, soap operas, and contemporary attitudes to pornography. The book shows that these problems are not unique to the noughties but are problematic attitudes, deeply rooted in fear of single women, of promiscuity and of a feminised society.
Singled Out shows the extent to which the “superfluous women” found their generally virtuous lives constantly undermined by the fears of men who were suspicious about everything from an interest in science to a sex drive. Although much has changed, it strikes me that men are still just as suspicious of single women, of their lives, their work and their friendships- perhaps this would go some way to explaining the enormous success of programmes like Sex and the City, not only with women, but also, perhaps surprisingly, with men (and the fact that men are more fascinated by Cosmopolitan magazine than women are). Sex and the City and Cosmo are the suspicious male’s chance to glimpse the life of a woman who doesn’t need him, and a woman who doesn’t need him is a very suspicious specimen, fascinating but dangerous.
Nicholson certainly doesn’t sell single life. Although it may aim to show that a single woman can shape her own life and change contemporary attitudes -attitudes which still have significance today- it in fact shows what a grueling existence a single woman once had; attacked from all sides and denied almost every opportunity for happiness. It shows how women were made to pay for the strained patriarchy which was no more their fault than the First World War, and how a single woman is such an easy scapegoat for a decline in general morality.
The only real optimistic perspective in Singled Out is the little stories of the ‘best of a bad job’ careers and lifestyles a small number of (generally wealthy and well supported) women were able to create, but even these are not very encouraging. I would have to disagree with The Sunday Times’ verdict that this book was “inspiring”, and instead say depressing – informative, interesting but disenchanting the reader to the eternal problem of women without men.