5 Memorable Spinsters From Books

May Whitty as Miss Froy
Category: Reading
Tagged: reading, spinsters

It’s Old Maid’s Day! And what better way to celebrate it than paying tribute to our favourite spinsters from books (and films).

Some people might still think of spinsters as sad, lonely old woman perpetually sat in their favourite easy chair with a cup of cocoa in one hand and a sour-faced ginger tabby in the other, keeping warm in their moth-eaten chunky cardigan with nothing to look forward to but the inevitable call from the reaper. But we think otherwise.

So we decided to bring together a selection of our favourite spinsters and reassess how we think about women who live independently.

Miss Jean Brodie from Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

We couldn’t very well leave Miss Jean Brodie out, could we? Independent, educated and political, Miss Brodie defies the traditional cultural expectations placed on women in the early 20th century. A teacher at Gillespie’s School for Girls, she is the self-appointed leader of the Brodie set, a group of carefully selected girls in her class that she aims to cultivate and turn into extraordinary women.

It’s not that Jean doesn’t have options when it comes to men. During her time at Gillespie’s she is at the centre of a love triangle between the handsome art teacher, Mr Lloyd, and the uninspiring bachelor, Mr Lowther. She is attracted to Mr Lloyd but, as he is married with six children, refuses to pursue her feelings toward him and instead decides on a pragmatic and short-lived relationship with Mr Lowther. It is only when Sandy, one of the girls from her set, starts an affair with Mr Lloyd in her final year at school that things go awry for Miss Brodie. When Sandy realises Mr Lloyd is still drawn to Miss Brodie she schemes with the head teacher, Miss McKay, to have the unconventional teacher dismissed.

Lexie Sinclair from Maggie O'Farrell's The Hand that First Held Mine

Even if you don't particularly love her (she isn't, after all, a particularly cuddly person), you really have to admire Lexie. This is a young woman who will make a life for herself and refuses to be tied down by conventionality. Instead of embracing 1950s domesticity, she escapes her stifling family home to 'live in sin' with a married magazine editor in bohemian London and establish herself as a journalist. Tragedy, other affairs, success, and a son later follow. Even pregnancy and motherhood don't slow her down: she continues to eschew marriage and embraces single parenthood in a way that would have been fairly shocking at the time, while also developing her career and winning the begrudging respect of colleagues and interview subjects alike. She's a fierce mother (in a good way), a groundbreaking career woman, and a lover who isn't afraid to jettison any man who tries to tie her down or tell her, 'no, you can't do that.' She's amazing, is what we're saying.

Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

Miss Havisham is one of those characters that everybody knows, even if they’ve never read Dickens’ book. After being abandoned on her wedding day by a conniving suitor, Miss Havisham falls into crippling isolation and suffers a complete mental breakdown. She refuses to leave her mansion or take off her wedding dress and leaves the wedding cake uneaten on the table. (Waste not, want not, and all that.) Alone and embittered, Miss Havisham exacts her revenge on the unsuspecting Pip by attempting to have him fall in love with her adopted daughter, Estella. Inspiring characters like Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s celebrated film Sunset Boulevard, or Jane Hudson from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Miss Havisham undoubtedly belongs in the iconic character canon. And yeah, she may be a bit mad, but she’s definitely got her reasons.

Miss Froy from The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White/Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes

An elderly governess who’s also a spy – pretty cool, right? We know she’s technically from a film but the film is based on a book, so it’s all good. In one of Hitchcock's early masterpieces, Miss Froy is the amicable governess whom holidaying bride-to-be Iris Henderson befriends whilst travelling home to merry old England. When Miss Froy inexplicably disappears from the train, Iris takes it upon herself to solve the mystery, revealing a much more sinister plot of espionage as a result. Undermining what people would expect from an elderly woman in tweed, Miss Froy is intelligent, capable and one of our favourite pensioners.

Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

Okay, okay, we might be going a bit mad on the Maggie Smith love but Professor McGonagall is all kinds of cool. From inspiring students in the subtle art of transfiguration to opposing Dolores Umbridge's reign of terror as well as protecting Hogwarts from a band of Death Eaters led by Voldemort, it seems McGonagall can do it all. Add to that a stare that could stop an angry bull in its tracks and you’ve got one pretty badass professor. And we’re fairly confident if it wasn’t for her, the overzealous Potter may never have made it to the last book and had the chance to face off against his arch-nemesis.

If you need more fiercely independent women in your life check out our Strong Women from Scottish Fiction book list.

Subscribe to our monthly e-updates for book lovers