Fama, Katherine and Jorie Lagerwey (eds.). Single Lives: Modern Women in Literature, Culture and Film. Rutgers University Press, 2022. ISBN 9781978828551. $36.95 (e-book). 240 pp.
Situating itself within the burgeoning field of “interdisciplinary single studies,” this ambitious collection of essays on representations of single women’s lives, edited by Katherine Fama and Jorie Lagerwey, spans a broad temporal and geographic range. As the subject of literature, film, and media, as well as a prominent aspect in the lives of writers, artists, and other public figures, singleness presents an opportunity to ask new questions about women’s lived experiences and cultural constructions of femininity. Divided into three parts – the first focused on archives and methods, the second concerned with representations of single womanhood in a range of cultural objects, the third examining singleness and domestic spaces and identities – the volume presents a constellation of interpretations of singleness, covering a chronological and geographical remit of the nineteenth century to the contemporary period, and of British and North American authors and texts.
Cultural anxieties regarding singleness are front and center in Single Lives. The capacious framework highlights the endurance of these anxieties across time and space, setting up productive opportunities for cross-comparison. Emphasized throughout is the longevity of anxiogenic discourses and representations of singleness. While ideas about singleness in the contemporary period appear to have developed since the Victorian era, the dominance of framing singleness as a deficient or undesirable category has not waned. Singleness as a problem in need of a solution is a recurring theme throughout the volume. As Andreá N. Williams notes in her chapter on searching for Black women’s singleness in the archives, the question of “why” haunts the figure of the single woman: a diagnostic kind of rhetoric which pursues “explanations, as though singleness needs a justification.” Instead, she argues that by “shifting from questions of why to how—how, experientially and qualitatively, women were single—we can examine the organic patterns, trajectories, and tropes of unmarried women’s lives” (15). For Williams, whose chapter encapsulates the collection’s ethos, attention to singleness in an archive, literary text, or film requires a willingness not only to see and read beyond the status quo, but to engage in acts of imagination in our scholarship.
Singleness is understood throughout the collection as a rich and fruitful category of analysis, and this unites the wide range of methods, texts, and periods under consideration. The contributions to this volume are successful in making space between wholly negative interpretations of singleness and its contemporary valorization via the figure of the financially independent young woman. While singleness is often conceived of as a state of disconnect from others, Single Lives works against a prevailing idea of singleness, whether chosen or not, as tantamount to a rejection of or by the world. Each contribution illustrates that being outside of the institution of marriage does not automatically entail isolation, loneliness, or an inability to form bonds with others and sustain communities.
Heterosexual, “premarital” images of singleness tend to dominate the cultural landscape, as Fama and Lagerwey make clear in their introduction (2), and an acknowledgement of the dominance of heteronormative iterations of marriage as the inevitable and hoped-for endpoint of singleness recurs throughout the individual contributions. Although there is clearly expressed resistance to this conception of singleness, the collection does not exclude these normative categories; rather, it aims to read singleness in relation to marriage, heterosexuality, children, and domesticity, with these being equally constitutive of singleness as a category. Kristin Celello’s chapter on divorced mothers in American novels, autobiographical and advice texts, films, and television programs between 1920 and 1965 illustrates how, in discussing singleness, marriage and motherhood cannot be ignored. Motherhood in these representations of divorce nearly always obscured a woman’s status as single, although she was no longer married, and concerns of childcare and domestic practices were routinely emphasized. Similarly, the final section’s focus on domestic labors, practices, and spaces of single women – often underexplored in studies of domestic space through the near-dominant focus on “family life” – counters the prevailing separation of singleness from kinship and community. As Emma Liggins’s chapter on British “spinster fiction” from the 1920s to the 1940s explores, the experiences of spinsters and “odd women” were left out of and posed a challenge to dominant understandings of domesticity. By highlighting these relegated or neglected figures, the collection augments existing work in literary and cultural studies on domestic space and domesticity by Kathleen Anne McHugh, Susan Fraiman, Diane Negra, Joanne Hollows, Stéphanie Genz, Lynn Spigel, and Joanne Meyerowitz, most of which incorporate a feminist lens or critique but do not always include the experiences of single women.
As a social and identity category is the central concern here, categorization is an ambivalent process in Single Lives and in singleness studies more generally. This is evident not only in the volume’s envisioning of “the text” as incorporating the literary, the cinematic, and ephemeral objects, but also in its exploration of the ways in which categories and classification help or hinder the scholarly identification and cultural construction of singleness. Williams notes the difficulty of identifying the full spectrum of single women as a demographic in an archive due to the many ways to understand and signify singleness through self-disclosure and others’ interpretations of titles. For example, the widowed Mrs. Y is as much a single woman as the never-married Miss X, although one may be understood by the state as “more” single than the other.
Throughout, this collection showcases in differing ways that singleness requires attention to fictive kinship, homosocial relations, and the supposedly oppositional categories of family and marriage. However, the suggestion put forward by some contributors that non-marital unions can also be understood under the banner of “singleness” – for singleness to mean, essentially, the state of not being married – overstretches the category and risks undercutting its effectiveness. In Benjamin Kahan’s “Afterword,” this expansive way of thinking about singleness is applied to the English writers and lovers Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley, who published under the pen name Michael Field. While this might be apropos for reparative readings of historical figures, it might also be less apt for studies of contemporary representations of singleness in which refusing or being refused the institution of marriage no longer holds the same degree of social censure. This focus on opening up categories and terms and expanding borders of scholarship, laudable and necessary though that goal is, can sometimes lead to imprecision in practice, particularly in the format of an edited volume where a number of methods, lenses, and objects of analysis are brought together.
The equally ambitious methodological scope of Single Lives aims to “expand the definition of text well beyond the borders of a film or a piece of literature to material artifacts like photographs, manuscripts and ephemera, correspondence, memos, and personal writing” (13). The collection implicitly brings a range of texts and methodologies into close relation: Ann Mattis’s and Martina Mastandrea’s respective chapters examine literary texts and film adaptations side by side, Ursula Kania’s chapter on American cookbooks targeted towards single women and those cooking “for one” employs critical discourse analysis, and a number of chapters on literary texts utilize close reading. Jennifer S. Clark’s contribution, which focuses on the process of adapting Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything from page to screen and draws on archival materials to do so, perhaps most successfully achieves its aim to “[bring] to light the connective terrain between texts” (28). Such comprehensive thinking about methodology should be welcomed. However, given this ambitious communion of texts and ways of interpretation, it would have been exciting to see a more prominent theorization of these overlapping methodologies in individual chapters.
But the collection’s strengths are many. Fama and Lagerwey’s “Introduction” functions as an excellent primer for those approaching singleness studies for the first time. Their overview of scholarship produced in this area to date will be useful to those with an emerging interest in singleness studies and representations of singleness, as it covers not only its own field of film and literary studies in English, but also scholarship on singleness across the humanities and social sciences, in Cultural Studies, Legal Studies, Psychology, and Sociology. Single Lives will be particularly useful for American Studies scholars employing a transatlantic or transnational framework with a focus on cultural analysis, offering a sample of the new directions in the field of singleness studies, and/or suggesting a number of starting points for successive and more extensive work to emerge from these perspectives. As a whole, the collection reads singleness differently by not only moving away from dominant cultural understandings and anxieties of singleness, but also by looking beyond the usual frameworks and ways of reading archival materials, literary texts, cookbooks, films, and personal and autobiographical accounts. Single Lives advocates for attuning our existing ways of interpretation to be more receptive to the varying volumes and manifold expressions of singleness.
Fraiman, Susan. Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins. Columbia University Press, 2017.
Genz, Stéphanie. “‘I Am Not a Housewife, but…’: Postfeminism and the Revival of Domesticity.” Feminism, Domesticity and Popular Culture, edited by Stacy Gillis and Joanne Hollows, Routledge, 2009, pp.49-62.
Hollows, Joanne. “Can I Go Home Yet? Feminism, Post-feminism and Domesticity.” Feminism in Popular Culture, edited by Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley, Berg, 2006, pp.97-118.
—. “The Feminist and the Cook: Julia Child, Betty Friedan and Domestic Femininity.” Gender and Consumption: Domestic Cultures and the Commercialisation of Everyday Life, edited by Emma Casey and Lydia Martens, Ashgate, 2007, pp.33-48.
McHugh, Kathleen Anne. American Domesticity: From How-to Manual to Hollywood Melodrama, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Meyerowitz, Joanne, editor. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, Temple University Press, 1994.
Negra, Diane. What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism, Routledge, 2009.
Spigel, Lynn. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs, Duke University Press, 2001.
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