A year ago, I wrote about my search for various things, including stories about single ladies living their lives without worrying about their singleness:
But Susan’s story (and Hannah Coulter, and The Princess Bride, and any given article on Boundless) suggests that there is no other narrative, that no lady can ever be happy without The One, that the only ending possible is marriage. This ground has been trod by a lot of women in tiresome family-vs-career arguments, but the fact remains that I want a story: a different story than my usual fare, something involving a woman who is content with a different sort of happy ending. I’m looking for a female character who is content to live her life on her own, if only to show me that it is possible.
This turned out to be a bit difficult, such that I am returning to it now with what little bit of insight I’ve gleaned over the past year. Since readers and friends all suggested one or two books at most, and that with some amount of struggle, I was reassured that I hadn’t missed an entire section at the library or bookshop. Initial suggestions included:
Miss Marple stories – Agatha Christie
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
The Thirteenth Tale – Dianne Setterfield
The Story of a Soul – St. Therese of Lisieux (autobiography)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc – Mark Twain
It’s a small field, one friend suggested, because for centuries, a lady’s singleness didn’t just mean loneliness, awkwardness amongst the society of couples, or agonizing over whether she was fulfilling her telos. It meant being without provider or protector, in a time when it was much more difficult, if not impossible, for women to provide for or protect themselves. Thus, she said, the only stories of that type to be expected would focus on nuns – living within the provision and protection of an abbey – or great queens, who held enough power to concern themselves with affairs and interests beyond their marital state and household management.
I later learned that, unbeknownst to me, The Atlantic had published an editorial on the same subject about a month before I addressed it. Ms. McKinney’s concerns were somewhat different from mine; she seemed to call for a story with a female protagonist and no love subplots whatsoever, which is a rather formidable task. She made a few suggestions, not all of them equally hopeful:
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Help – Kathryn Stockett
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
The Devil Wears Prada – Lauren Weisberger
Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward
More useful than McKinney’s musings were the comments. Normally, the comments section of any given article online is a wasteland of hatred, name-calling, and poor grammar, but these responses contained thoughtful criticism and a plethora of recommended titles. Here are a few comments that struck a chord:
Lasting love is perennially hard to find… for both men and women, so it makes for good story and character development in literature.
Girls too young to be interested in boys made good stories.
I think there are probably more love-plotless books in the YA category than the adult category
It’s not spite [on the part of publishers]. They won’t choose it simply because it doesn’t appeal to them, so they think it won’t sell. It doesn’t appeal to them because they aren’t used to it. They aren’t used to it because there are NONE IN THE SYSTEM.
I also disagree with your premise that self-discovery is always a solitary process. Why can’t a woman’s process of self-discovery include a little romance? That doesn’t mean that the entire purpose of her life is now to be married and have kids.
…To some extent human biology, and psychology, cares about reproduction because otherwise the species dies. So it’s likely at least some characters will have a drive for heterosexual love or sex unless there is a reason none of them do. (It’s a children’s book or they’re all children, it’s set in a monastery or convent, they’re all gay, it’s some kind of futuristic unisex setting where people reproduce by cloning, etc) But this isn’t really a male/female issue. I think there’s likely few novels, for adults, with male protagonists where love or sex has absolutely no role.
The author overlooks the fact that in the past looking for a man was more than about looking for love; it was about looking for a secure future–the equivalent of a job. For this reason many female authors such as Jane Austen are quite unsentimental when it comes to husband hunting…
I grew up reading the lives of saints. That is as diverse a group of women as you could ever hope to meet. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a strength of character that allowed them to face the unknown, challenge norms – even lead men into battle if that is what God called them to do.
Yes, we need more female protagonists that represent the modern woman. No, I don’t expect to find them in the Victorian Era.
I went through the various recommendations to see if they were, indeed, what I was looking for. Admittedly, I am working from secondhand sources, because I wanted to share the possibilities before reading through all of them; precedent suggests that I wouldn’t have posted this for another 5 years if I read them all first. But based on Goodreads, the following books show some promise in depicting women whose stories are not romances:
The Crow Trap (and other tales of detective Vera Stanhope) – Ann Cleeves
A Field of Darkness – Cornelia Read
Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
Clan of the Cave Bears/Valley of Horses – Jean Auel
Deed of Paksenarrion Trilogy – Elizabeth Moon
Friday – R. Heinlein
Titan/Wizard/Demon – John Varley
Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons
Little Bee – Chris Cleave
The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark
The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf
Perhaps in another year I’ll be able to report back on how happy or fulfilled these characters are.
Please let me know if you have any additions, corrections, or thoughts on this list!