The Prose Practice – Single Ladies With A Twist

It’s been a while since we all got out thinking caps on in order to help another fellow reader with a prose problem. So when I got this email last week from one of my lovely reader Jodie, who also has a blog here, I thought ‘oooh I must put it up straight away’ and have now left it a week – sorry Jodie!! Now this latest reading conundrum I thought initially was really easy… only I have become quite stumped. So I wonder if you can help, well I know you can, answer this…

Hi Simon,

I might have a bit of a tricky one for you and the Savidge Readers. I’m looking for happy novels about single women who stay single. Yep, women who don’t marry, but stay single and happy. Sounds simple doesn’t it, but I think it might be a bit of a challenge as I’ve already asked for recommendations on my blog and people reading there have managed to turn up about ten. All the recommendations were gratefully received (and some were bought), but ten is not many for a whole world of books.

The women should be single by the end of the book (although it would be fab if they were single throughout the entire book) and living, or about to go off and live, happy lives. Preferably they should be the main characters of their novels/novellas, but I’ll take secondary characters if you can rustle them up. Any genre works for me.

Thanks for any help you and the readers can provide.

 Jodie

Beyonces video still was the only image that sort of summed this problem up... sort of!

Simon Says: My instant reaction on hearing the  words single lady were of Bridget Jones but the whole point of that book is that she isn’t totally fulfilled until she has two men chasing after her, some people are never happy are they, ha?  It is hard to think of books where people stay single and like it though, really hard. Currently the closest that I can come up with at the moment is ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ though it doesn’t quite fit the criteria… I/we wont say why as it would spoil the plot. I am trying to think of others and may come back and add a few more titles into the comments as the day progresses! What can you all suggest?

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74 Comments

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74 responses to “The Prose Practice – Single Ladies With A Twist

  1. How abotu Excellent Women by Barbara Pym about a self-proclaimed spinster called Mildred who is happy to be a spinster?

  2. jane

    Depressingly unable to think of anything for this one. A great question though. The only person who springs to mind is Mary Bennet – !! Shall look forward to some slightly more inspiring replies. Oh, Mira in the Women’s Room is a great and very interesting character in a controversial and now slightly dated (but still excellent, imo) novel who ends up single after a bit of a personal journey, but she starts off far from it and I think may not be quite what Jodie was looking for.

    • Hahaha Mary Bennett – oh dear! Its a much harder question than you initially think isn’t it? The Womens Room is a book that I MUST read at some point, I heard Andrea Levy talking the other day and she was raving about it.

  3. That’s got me thinking… I’m sure there must be a chick-lit or two out there (that came to mind first) but they’re few and far between.

  4. I want to help but I can think of nothing – this is something that annoys me too about books. The ‘happy ending’ is always when previously single lady finds a man and therefore ends up happy ever after, as of course, a woman can’t ever be happy unless she is part of a couple.

    Thinking, thinking…how about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

    • I never think of Jean Brodie as being happy really, hmmm I might need to reaquaint myself with her.

      It has been interesting to see just how many of these ‘happy single’ books there AREN’T!

  5. In reference to Rachel, most of Muriel Spark’s female protagonists are/remain single so some of those would make appropriate reading.

    The compulsion for writers to make every woman want a man is disillusioning and frustrating.

    I’d suggest The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby, not quite a happy “spinster” but a spinster nonetheless.

    Great question from Jodie and one I wish I could readily give more answers to.

  6. bookgazing

    Simon is that a picture from ‘Put A Ring on IT’ – Noooooooo!;) just joking, it’s impossible to be offended by Beyonce, she tries so hard for the single ladies but sometimes she gets it so wrong.

    Just wanted to drop by and say I’ve nothing against Bridget, or chick-lit or romance (in general – there are the exceptions). It’s just that it is wearing sometimes to begin to feel like a significant aspect of your life is seen as treated exclusively as a plot problem to be solved. Love independent women to find the partner of their dreams in books, but sometimes a single gal could do with a bit of hmm realism maybe, maybe just an acknowledgement that we don’t all find lasting love and we’re not all permenantly dying inside because of it?

    Adding the suggestions so far to my list. A reference to ‘Excellent Women’ is what sparked this quest in the first place – but I fear she may not stay a happy single lady throughout the book. Can anyone confirm or deny?

    • Hahaha it is a picture from that very video. It was the only thing I could think of for images for Single Ladies am afraid.

      I hope I didn’t make it sound like you had anything against Bridget Jones as I read it and loved it, in fact I know that lots of people have.

  7. I was thinking about this again over tea and also came up with Muriel Spark.

  8. Hmmm…. wow. I hadn’t really thought of this, but how completely and utterly depressing! I am happily single. Aren’t a lot of us happily single? But I can’t think of any books where the author stays and wants to stay happily single. Oh my.

    • It is a bit depressing isn’t it, but then would a book about a happy single woman sell? Even Carrie in Sex and the City is looking for someone! Samantha might be a good example.

  9. novelinsights

    Difficult one this. I can’t remember the ending of The L-Shaped Room (by Lynne Reid Banks) but it is about a single woman coping with an accidental pregancy in the 60′s and I don’t think there is any formulaic relationship tosh in it.

    Also The Dud Avocado is about a single female who encounters a variety of men but I don’t (think) that she ends up with any of them (my review here http://tiny.cc/5ftbf)

    I may be wrong. Clearly too many stories have made me forget all the endings to the books I’ve read!

    Ooh, also maybe Miss Garnet’s Angel?!

    • Miss Garnett’s Angel!!!!!! Spot on Polly, why on earth didn’t I think of that one. Excellent suggestion.

    • I love The L-Shaped Room a lot, but I’m afraid Jane isn’t that happy about being single – she has her eye on Todd (is that his name?) throughout, and dates him for a while. Does end the book single, I believe, but not happily single…

      Only yesterday I was reminded AGAIN of how much I need to read Miss Garnet’s Angel

  10. novelinsights

    Oh how could I forget the best one!!!

    It’s a kid’s book but very enjoyable from a grown-up point of view – The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paper_Bag_Princess
    :)

    • Hahaha I saw your post (and commented) that mentioned The Paper Bag Princess, sounds brilliant. I wonder if any original fairy tales have women who stay single and happy, Princes are always the purpose arent they?

  11. Darla LaRoche

    I just finished a wonderful book called Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith. The main character is a botanist who goes on a research trip to Yellowstone National Park to study and catalog the botany in the park. It is set in the late 1800s and grapples with the role of women in a scientific field and meets a woman who chose science over marriage and is struggling with that issue as well. No marriages at the end of the book!

  12. Wow, I’m going to spend all day racking my brain for an answer to this. I’ll second (or third or fourth) the Muriel Spark recommendation in the meantime. Great question.

    Also, love the Beyonce shot…

  13. Here’s my little list and my reviews. Great question, Jodie!

    The Seige by Helen Dunmore. Anna tells the doctor that she is too busy getting food and wood to think of a serious relationship.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2010/07/books-book-review-siege-helen-dunmore.html

    Most of the female characters in The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood. Sometimes being with guy is more trouble than it’s worth in this world.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2010/01/books-book-review-year-of-flood.html

    Leaving Home – Anita Brokner
    She starts off as the perfect candidate for marriage, but she resists it.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2009/12/books-book-review-leaving-home-anita.html

    Middlesex – Jefferey Eugenides

    In this novel, a girl becomes a man later. But, he is happy to be alone for awhile.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2009/08/books-book-review-middlesex-jeffrey.html

    The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
    A single mom in Boston of the 1660s. She survives without child support or many friends.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2009/01/books-book-review-scarlet-letter.html

    Never Let Me Go – Kazou Ishiguro
    Kathy and the other kids in her school never get married. She is somewhat content driving around England.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2008/07/books-book-review-never-let-me-go-kazuo.html

    The Red Letter Diary – Lilly Koppel
    A journalist found a young lady’s diary and tracks down the now old lady. In the diary, Florence is not married yet and is enjoying life, despite it being the Great Depression.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2008/04/book-book-review-red-leather-diary.html

  14. The Millstone by Margaret Drabble about a single mum in the sixties. Cant quite remember if she stays single at the end – I think she might.

  15. There are lots of single women in thriller/mystery type books. How about Agatha Raisin? I think most of the women in Sophie Hannah’s books are single.

    The woman in Beside the Sea is single at the beginning and the end, but not sure that is a positive thing :-(

    I am struggling to think of more main stream characters. It is quite sad that single people aren’t reflected in fiction that much.

    • Agatha Raisin definitley doesnt want to be single it adds to some of the hilarious scenario’s that follow. Not sure any of the Sophie Hannah characters or the woman in Beside the Sea could be called ‘happy’ by any means and thats whats a sad state with literature, single women aren’t often too happy. I think there are lots of single people in fiction though. Its generally the story of how they stop being single thats part of the plot or scenario.

  16. Dan P.

    I second The Millstone. Just read it recently and thought of it instantly. I was sad to see that someone beat me to it.

  17. Definitely the novels of Mavis Cheek (my guilty reading pleasure). She writes intelligent chicklit, so lots of comic romantic situations, but her endings are wonderful and unexpected and you find a lot of her women characters chucking the whole relationship thing out the window in favour of living a stress-free life. Three Men on A Plane and Getting Back Brahams are my favourites. She likes to throw in a lot of literary references too. Perfect summer reading.

  18. Wow. It really is sad that this question is so hard to answer.

  19. Heather Bond

    My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin. And as a bonus you can watch the excellent film by Gillian Armstrong. I know there must be more…

  20. Excellent question! Miss Read’s heroines are frequently single and very happily and the books are definitely of the hot-water variety. The entire Village series has its heroine remaining happily single. Miss Marple and Miss Silver are similar – though interestingly Miss Silver particularly is frequently responsible for successful romances of others. I think the heroine of The Country of the Pointed Firs is single.

    • I have never read a Miss Read though saw them lots back in the days of charity book hunting. I should have tried a collection, it might not have been very me, but then again it might.

  21. Sorry for multiple typos above. Computer throwing fits as it crashes constantly. Meant “hot-water bottle variety” of course!

  22. Pingback: Favourite Female Protagonists? « Novel Insights

  23. Ooh, excellent prose practise question! I honestly couldn’t think of any when trying to think up answers, but would definitely like to read some books where a relationship is a necessary part of being happy for women (whether or not it’s the main focus of the story).

    I’ll be taking up some of these reading recommendations. I have no idea why I haven’t as yet read anything by Muriel Spark. It seems like a huge oversight.

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  25. Urbana

    Loitering With Intent–Muriel Spark
    Summer Birdcage–Margaret Drabble

  26. Geraldine

    O Douglas wrote some novels where her heroines remain unmarried and live fulfilled lives.

    • I have never heard of O Douglas.

      • Geraldine

        That’s a shame, O Douglas was the pen name of Anna Buchan, a sister of the more famous John Buchan.

        Ann and her Mother, is one title of hers that I can pick out without too much thought as having the requisite for this poser, a single heroine who cheerfully remains single.

  27. kimberlyloomis

    Okay, this is obviously not a recommendation about the heroine being single throughout, but what about “Ahab’s Wife”? The character evolves past an abusive relationship, marries the famed captain then becomes widowed. This is one of my very favorite works and struck me as nothing if not a book about the ultimate in empowerment for a woman. One who triumph in the face of all difficulties.

  28. On the crime/mystery front: Phryne Fisher in the series by Kerry Greenwood (Cocaine Blues; Flying Too High; etc.) remains single and happy. It helps to be rich!

    What about Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes?

  29. Stephanie Plum, the bounty hunter in the mysteries by Janet Evanovich? She’s divorced and has two hotties she occasionally tangles with but I don’t think she gets hitched (I haven’t read all the books, up to no.9 anyway). She’s feisty and funny and has a crazy family.

  30. mee

    One that came to mind is Marian from The Woman in White, though I was quite disappointed she stayed single at the end. But she is really content throughout!

    I completely disagree with Potato Society, Middlesex, and Never Let Me Go. All the main characters are very discontent with not finding their right half.

    • Hahahaha, I hope that hasnt given to much away should anyone not have read The Woman in White hee, hee. I do think Collins is very good with single ladies though actually the more I think about it. I wonder if thats because he lived with two? Thats all I am sating lol.

  31. Hmm.. off the top of my head, I don’t remember any of the single women in Richmal Crompton’s novels caring at all about being single, it’s not even an issue – check out Matty and the Dearingroydes by RC, if you can track down a copy.

    The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, I think as well?

    The heroine of All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West is much older, but positively delirious to be single!

  32. bookgazing

    Thanks so much for all your answers! There were many more than I thought I’d get and am writing them all into that battered TBR notebook.

    It’s funny that Simon T mentioned ‘The Bookshop’ because although it fits, the thing I remember most strongly from that book is her crying on the train at the end because nobody wanted a book shop, so sad. But I think that raises a nice point because when I said I’d prefer the heroines to live happy lives, I wanted to avoid heroines whose unhappiness was related to them being single. I’d forgotten there are lots of unhappy characters that are more concerned with other unhappinesses. Like, as Isabel said, Kathy from ‘Never Let Me Go’ – other bad things happening (that I just remembered not to reveal for spoilers), so not exactly bothered about being single. And those girls work for me too.

    And yes I agree with Simon that the very point of chick-lit is to find the woman a partner. It’s very rare one ends without a romantic resolution. It’s actually the books that are marketed most exclusively at women that tend to feel the single woman must be neutralised. I’m not including romance here, by it’s very definition romance must end with a happy, romantic ending and I’ve no problem with that, because it’s what the genre’s designed to do and as long as the romances published are varied and smart – rock on. I’m more concerned about chick-lit, which claims to be for ‘chicks’, yet can exclude a large segment of women.

    And that says some interesting things about the assumptions marketers and publishers make about why single women read. It suggests that if you’re single you’re reading for escapism, or you must buy into the need for a partner that the book suggests (because they’ve designed this marketed genre to appeal to women, so we can assume these assumptions relate to everything else they think we read). Or worse, you’re not worth reflecting in the literature that gets published in the genre specifically created to appeal to your gender and you’d just better get on with it, or stop reading chick-lit – the very genre that claims to be ‘for you’ as you’re a woman.

    Ahem – anyway that was a rant and a half right?;) Thanks again for your great suggestions and Simon I hope they’ve added lots to your list as well!

  33. I think Maria, the main character of Banana Yoshimoto’s Goodbye Tsugumi, is single throughout. Her cousin Tsugumi gets a boyfriend, but I’m not sure romance is even on Maria’s radar during the duration of the story.

    The Dud Avocado was mentioned above and though I love that book, the protagonist isn’t single at the end.

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  35. Oh, wow, I’m stumped. A little late to the party here, and with no recs to boot. I am enjoying writing the titles down. It’s kind of odd that I have read so little — or unmemorable — books with single ladies all throughout [and yes, Beyonce's song was playing in my head while I read this thread].

    Maybe it’s because I like reading romance, either as the book’s central focus, or what romance there is in a book.

  36. Eva

    Like Sasha, I’m late to the party, but I was surprised no one had suggested Cranford!!! Especially w/ its opening line: “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.” Granted, a couple of the women have past flames/regrets, but most of them seem pretty happy in their spinsterhood. :)

    As a happy single lady myself, the lack of contented bachelor women in fiction drives me a bit insane.

  37. Offhand, I’d say that one of the ultimate novels about single ladies (who are not seeking husbands) is Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. It’d be a great read for women who like the Georgian period of Jane Austen, but are sick to death of couplings.

    Glancing through the list, I don’t think anyone has mentioned Lily Briscoe from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I think her struggle with painting throughout the novel is ultimately a struggle to gain perspective and personal acceptance. She does not marry, and she spends and awful lot of time reflecting on Mrs. Ramsay’s mania for matchmaking. All in all, however, the book leaves me feeling so sad that it is hard to recommend as “a happy novel about single women who stay single.”

    This is a great question, and I think it’ll have me scrolling through my librarything listings for strong, single ladies all afternoon.

  38. Sally

    The book by Sloane Crosley, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, falls into this category AND it’s hilarious. They’re short stories though, so not a novel.

  39. Hi, Savidge, I found the contributions helpful. I was doing a similar search after suffering a dearth in happy single women characters in African literatures too. http://wp.me/p3oZsw-bI

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