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Victorian Spinster Replies Surprised Tit-Bits Editors

Victorian spinster replies surprised editors of Tit-bits magazine in a competition held in 1889. Entrants had to answer the question: Why are you still single? The tsunami of irreverent responses made it impossible to choose one winner. Instead, editors published a full page of hilarious retorts. Each winner received the equivalent of approximately $25 today.

Marry Early, Or Else

Yes, it was difficult for unmarried women of a certain age to walk in respect in the Victorian Era. But that age was somewhat murky. Generally, shelf life lasted to the early or mid-twenties. Much after that, a woman’s opportunities dwindled as she slid the slippery slope into spinster-hood.

According to writer-historian John Simkin of Spartacus-Education, in the 19th century women, cultural perceptions of women were dictated by Victorian ideals of womanhood. quite simply, were expected to marry and have children.

“The idea was that upper and middle class women had to stay dependent on a man: first as a daughter and later as a wife. Once married, it was extremely difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce.”

When a woman married her wealth was passed to her husband. If a woman worked after marriage, her earnings also belonged to her husband. It wasn’t until the passage of the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 that a wife could keep some wages, investments and inheritance independent of her husband.

But there was a problem with societal pressures on women to marry. Simkin writes:

“However, there was in fact a shortage of available men. Census figures for the period reveal there were far more women than men… By 1861 there were 10,380,285 women living in England and Wales but only 9,825,246 men.”

With this surplus of marriageable women, it’s no wonder that Tit-bits received such a barrage of snarky Victorian Spinster Replies.

Some Women Fled From Marriage

Society underwent massive upheaval through the Industrial Revolution. By the late 1800s, women were finding new freedoms both in their personal lives and outside the home. Typical male professions, such as Private Investigator for the Pinkertons, were opening up to women.  Bicycles were offering new mobility. Lone lady travelers were striking out on their own, even climbing major mountains. And Trailblazers were showing the world just what a woman could do without a man at her side.

Many great examples are in our Trailblazers and Strange Times sections. Consider Nellie Bly. In the same year that TitBits published Victorian Spinster Replies (1889), she set out to beat Jules Verne’s fictional record around the world in eighty days. She made it in 72 without the company of a man. And she did not have a husband waiting for her at home.

Racing Bly in the opposite direction was Elizabeth Bisland, then 28 and also unmarried. Both had highly successful careers in journalism and both married later in life, well into Spinster Status.

Tit-Bits Responded To The Spinsters Of Britain

Tit-Bits was a weekly British magazine founded by the publisher George Newnes, first issued in October 1881. It included serial fiction, opinion, comics, and encyclopedic information.

“It pioneered modern forms of popular, low-brow journalism, but despite the suggestive title and some sensational elements it was not in the least pornographic.” (The Joyce Project)

In 1889 the magazine held a competition for the best answer to the explosive question: “Why am I a spinster?” Cultural Historian Dr. Bob Nicholson re-published the outrageous Victorian spinster replies on Twitter.

Miss Emaline Lawrence wrote: “Because men, like three-cornered tarts, are deceitful. They are very pleasing to the eye, but on closer acquaintanceship prove hollow and stale, consisting chiefly of puff, with a minimum of sweetness and an unconquerable propensity to disagree with one.”

Annie Thompson’s submission was a favorite. “Because I do not care to enlarge my menagerie of pets, and I find the animal man less docile than a dog, less affectionate than a cat and less amusing than a monkey.”

Sarah Kennedy from Ashton-on-Ribble, Lancashire wrote: “Like the wild mustang of the prairie that roams unfettered, tossing his head in utter disdain at the approach of the lasso which, is once round his neck, proclaims him captive, so I find it more delightful to tread on the verge of freedom and captivity than to allow the snarer to cast around me the matrimonial lasso.”

Lizzie Moore from Mile End, East London took this literary approach. “My reason for being a spinster is answered in a quotation of the Taming of the Shrew: “Of all the men alive I never yet beheld that special face which I could fancy more than any other.”

A favorite among the Victorian Spinster Replies: ‘I have other professions open to me in which the hours are shorter, the work more agreeable and the pay possibly better.”

The response from Jessie Davies, of Sparkbrook, Birmingham was inspired by the wave of women from America whose parents wed them to landed English aristocrats, usually in need of their dowry. She wrote:

‘I am unmarried because I am an English lady, and the Americans monopolize the market.’

Laura Bax, of Wood Green, North London, joked: ‘Because matrimony is like an electric battery, when you once join hands you can’t let go, however much it hurts; and, as when embarked on a toboggan slide, you must go to the bitter end, however much it bumps.”

“I am now only a dairymaid. If married I should be wife, mother, nurse, housekeeper, chambermaid, seamstress, laundress, dairymaid, and scrub generally.”

“Because I have other professions open to me in which the hours are shorter, the work more agreeable, and the pay possibly better.”

“For good men are scarce, but fools there are plenty, that’s why I am single at seven-and-twenty.”

And this one could have been written today as a commentary on the job market.

“John, whom I loved, was supplanted in his office by a girl, who is doing the same amount of work he did for half the salary he received. He could not earn sufficient to keep a home, so went abroad; consequently, I am still a spinster.”

Thanks to Dr. Bob Nicholson for bringing these gems back to us. 

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