The Lonely Encyclopedist

One of the few, the proud, the several centuries out of date

Spinster encyclopedists


Do you hate that word — spinster? The connotations of being dull, prissy and generally unpleasant are part of the stereotype. It is a word not considered kind or politically correct. But its roots in Middle English meant simply “a female person who spins thread,” a spinnestere.

Very romanticised spinster W. A. Bouguereau

Very romanticized spinster
W. A. Bouguereau

In previous centuries, women who did not or could not marry and set up their own households had to earn their keep somehow. A respectable and valued way to do so was to spin thread. This product was then used in weaving textiles that became clothing for the entire family.

A married woman running a household did not often have time to spin. Her days were filled from dawn to dark and often beyond. An amiable spinster would be welcomed and valued. When she wasn’t spinning, she helped out in many other ways a woman could contribute to the common good, cooking, churning, gardening, child mending, tending the sick, cleaning, laundering, etc. While dependent on the family for food and shelter, she was valued for her work.

It was only later, when spinning was lost to factories and even poor households had a maid of all work, that the work of unmarried female family members became less valuable. Gradually, spinster came to mean a woman who could not be got rid of in the marriage market, a burden, a failure. She was a drain on resources, not a contributor to them.

Most unfortunate were those without a family to rely on. If they had few skills or little education they often worked as servants. Those with some education might survive as governesses. A tiny handful wrote and found the courage to be published. They wrote poetry, pious works, stories and novels, recipes for cooking, home remedies and household products, tips for sewing and mending.

lady-at-deskIn the most unusual cases, they wrote encyclopedias. Some were compilations of texts published by others, some were vast books of original ideas. In the area of 19th-century needlework, there are several outstanding works written by unmarried women in France (Thérèse de Dillmont), England (Sophia Frances Anne Caulfeild and Blanche Catherine Saward), and the United States (Florence Hartley and Sarah Annie Frost).

Most of these women wrote more than needlework encyclopedias. But a glance at their bibliographies indicates a decided trend toward compilations, dictionaries and other encyclopedic works, on varied subjects.

Did they make encyclopedias because they needed to survive and earn their livings? Or did they create them because that is who they were at heart? Or both?

Did they work alone? Was freedom from the obligations of marriage and motherhood what made their efforts possible? Could the papers and books and half-finished bits of needlework be left on the dining table overnight, in no danger from hubby’s tea or junior’s morning oatmeal? Could all day be spent at the library without rushing back to retrieve the child from school and get the evening meal started? Could meetings with the publisher in a distant city be arranged without tantrums at being left behind or outrage that she might travel alone?

How did the married women encyclopedists of the time manage it at all? Jane Gaugain, Ann Stephens and Isabella Beeton were married to men in either the textile or publishing businesses. Their husbands undoubtedly saw the value in the knowledge their wives possessed. Eliza Warren (twice widowed, no children),  Matilda Marian Pullan (widowed and then separated, one child) and Lydia Maria Child (wife to a gentle spendthrift, no children), apparently wrote to survive, like the spinsters.candleburner

I wonder about all these women. Did they have a room to themselves? Did they have other women, servants, to help them with daily chores? What did they live on while getting their encyclopedias prepared? How did they pay for the paper and ink and pen nibs? Were they afraid at times? Or cold or hungry? Virginia Wolf exhorted women writers to have “A Room of One’s Own,” but few recall she also said an independent income was also required.

What about the women no one knows of, lost to time, never in memory, irretrievable to us, who might have outshone them all with the brilliance of their ideas? Women who never had a chance to even try being what their hearts longed for or who never knew they were encyclopedists at their cores.

Lost to disease or childbirth or hardship, lost to customs that denied them educations or dictated marriage and children as their only realm, lost to fear of public exposure and diminished respectability, lost to never knowing what they truly wanted even if it couldn’t be had.

Well, this ramble certainly took a sad turn, didn’t it? Best to stop and count my blessings, not necessarily in this order.

  • I know who I am and what I need to do.
  • Although the savings account is getting low, we still have food and shelter and the bills are mostly being paid.
  • My health is better than it has been in some time.
  • For several hours each weekday, I have a room of my own.
  • Most weeks I get to make music.
  • I have a loving family which includes a cat.

Time to stop and write more of the encyclopedia.


2 thoughts on “Spinster encyclopedists

  1. Interesting as always! I’ll never think of the word ‘spinster’ in the same way again.

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