So before I launch into my book review (not really a formal review, more like a reflective review… oh hell I don’t know what exactly to call it)  I want to address the changing nature of the blog.

Dear Reader, you can tell from the last post  that I now have a co-blogger, a partner in crime, er, books, someone who has joined the 52 books in a year adventure with me. My friend J (as he details in his post) has decided to come along for the ride, so I imagine that this will be great fun as we go through this year, as J and I will have different tastes in books and therefore will cover a broad range of topics.

Okay, so onto the first book. This book was chosen in a rather haphazard fashion. Before I got the idea for this project I caught up with an old friend from college on Facebook. She offered to do a book swap with me where I would send her a book I had read but didn’t want to keep around and she would do the same. Curious as to what I would receive in the mail, I agreed to the swap.

After coming back from my Christmas holiday the book was on top of my pile of accumulated mail that the mailman dropped off. Curious, I unwrapped it and upon seeing the cover I fell back on my sofa, laughing hard. The book is “Spinsters Abroad, Victorian Lady Explorers” by Dea Birkett. So why did I laugh so hard? Well, first of all, as a 30 something single woman who actually owns a spinning wheel that I make yarn on, I am a spinster, so to speak. The term, by the way, came (in America anyway, I imagine it was the same in Britain) into use because in the pre-Revolutionary colonies there was a wool tax. Each family had to produce so many pounds of spun wool a year, and since the task of spinning wool for an entire household was a full-time job (I know, it takes hours of work to make enough yarn to knit a hat- I cannot imagine the work it took to make enough to weave cloth for an entire household) it was a job that often went to a young unmarried female member of the household. (And in case you think that all of this type of work was only women’s work, you are wrong. In England the master knitters and weavers were men who belonged to guilds and in the colonies it was the little boys in the family who would knit socks and mittens while they were out watching the sheep, but I digress.) Anyway, that is where the term “spinster” came from- the unmarried women who spun and spun and spun…

So as an unmarried woman who spins my own yarn, I started to read “Spinsters Abroad” as my first book for the challenge. It is essentially a light women’s studies/history sort of book. The author (who is British) focuses mainly on Victorian women who set out to travel in the glory days of the British Empire. These women were middle-class, white women who used travel as a way to escape their feminine roles in Victorian Britain.  Many of them ended up unmarried because they were forced (as youngest daughters) to care for ailing family members. Others were considered “plain” and could not make a good “match.” (Thank God those days are behind us.) A few were widowed after short and often unhappy marriages. All of these women approached the idea of marriage with trepidation, because the ones that they saw around them (and experienced themselves, in some cases) were difficult and unfulfilling. Upon being freed by the deaths of elderly parents or of a cantankerous husband, these women (who had the means) fled Victorian England for Africa, the Americas, the Far East, The Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The book, which is written from an academic point of view, considers many themes, such as colonialism  and gender roles (perhaps the two largest and overriding themes) patriarchy, women’s roles in politics and professional societies. All of these chapters in the work are interesting and important but what struck me about the book is how much sadness shaped the women’s lives and haunted them all the way to their exotic jaunts. Restless, living as contradictions, (they were women who often were addressed by the local natives, as “men” because of their roles as travellers) without a real sense of home, belonging, or intimate love, these women rebelled against their roles in society and also embraced them. (Many of these progressive travellers were against women’s suffrage for example- some of the contradictions that Birkett uncovers are startling.) They are women who fit neither here nor there, and  the society that they lived among (actually, often outside of) regarded them as a curiosity–similar to how the women regarded the faraway lands that they visited.

The book is rich, and well worth looking at if you are interested in women’s history, and I have left many, many details out. I, however, felt a big relief when I finished this book–not at actually having finished the book, but relief because I am a spinster in the 21st century, not in the 19th. While society, in some ways, would regard me as a bit outside the norm, there is now a place for women who are unmarried, educated, like to travel, and challenge conventions. It is not a total ideal (and the number of times I have been grilled by people I don’t know as to why “a nice girl like you isn’t married” is beyond me. Like the time the car dealer was loath to sell me a Honda Civic because surely “I would get married soon and want something to haul kids around in.” I think the look I gave him clued him in because he shut up and sold me the red Civic.) but society has come much further in regards to the variety of roles for women, and that is something that gladdens my heart.

Lots of food for thought in this book, and I am glad that my old friend S (who was famous for sitting in the dining hall reading the New Testament in Greek while were in college. For no particular reason, mind you, just to understand the text in its original language–J, you would have gotten a kick out of her) sent the book. I enjoyed it, throughly. The book is, however, a bit academic in its style, so a warning out there for those of you who are not used to academic writing.

The next book will be a novel. Something really different from this particular work. I am also excited to see what J is reading and what he thinks of his book.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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