The Spinster Book by Myrtle Reed ~ 1901. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903. Hardcover. 222 pages.
My rating: 5.5/10
Myrtle Reed, newly bestselling author in the second year of her ten-year contract with Putnam’s, turned from romantic fiction to advice-to-single-women, in what starts out as a light-hearted collection of essays to women on how to figure out men, and morphs into something quite a lot darker.
The mantle of spinsterhood looked like it was well settled over Myrtle Reed’s shoulders at this point, for at the age of 27 she was as yet unmarried, though she had been carrying on a long distance courtship mostly via letter for the past decade with the man whom she would eventually marry in 1905.
Myrtle Reed was cheerfully cynical regarding what she claimed were the predictable workings of the typical male mind, and her book is full of such as the following excerpt:
There is nothing in the world as harmless and as utterly joyous as man’s conceit. The woman who will not pander to it is ungracious indeed.
Man’s interest in himself is purely altruistic and springs from an unselfish desire to please. He values physical symmetry because one’s first impression of him is apt to be favourable. Manly accomplishments and evidences of good breeding are desirable for the same reason, and he likes to think his way of doing things is the best, regardless of actual effectiveness.
For instance, there seems to be no good reason why a man’s way of sharpening a pencil is any better than a woman’s. It is difficult to see just why it is advisable to cover the thumb with powdered graphite, and expose that useful member to possible amputation by a knife directed uncompromisingly toward it, when the pencil might be pointed the other way, the risk of amputation avoided, and the shavings and pulverised graphite left safely to the action of gravitation and centrifugal force. Yet the entire race of men refuse to see the true value of the feminine method, and, indeed, any man would rather sharpen any woman’s pencil than see her do it herself.
It pleases a man very much to be told that he “knows the world,” even though his acquaintance be limited to the flesh and the devil–a gentleman, by the way, who is much misunderstood and whose faults are persistently exaggerated. But man’s supreme conceit is in regard to his personal appearance. Let a single entry in a laboratory note-book suffice for proof.
Time, evening. MAN is reading a story in a current magazine to the GIRL he is calling upon.
MAN. “Are you interested in this?”
GIRL. “Certainly, but I can think of other things too, can’t I?”
MAN. “That depends on the ‘other things.’ What are they?”
GIRL. (Calmly.) “I was just thinking that you are an extremely handsome man, but of course you know that.”
MAN. (Crimsoning to his temples.) “You flatter me!” (Resumes reading.)
Girl. (Awaits developments.)
MAN. (After a little.) “I didn’t know you thought I was good-looking.”
GIRL. (Demurely.) “Didn’t you?”
MAN. (Clears his throat and continues the story.)
MAN. (After a few minutes.) “Did you ever hear anybody else say that?”
GIRL. “Say what?”
MAN. “Why, that I was–that I was–well, good-looking, you know?”
GIRL. “Oh, yes! Lots of people!”
MAN. (After reading half a page.) “I don’t think this is so very interesting, do you?”
GIRL. “No, it isn’t. It doesn’t carry out the promise of its beginning.”
MAN. (Closes magazine and wanders aimlessly toward the mirror in the mantel.)
MAN. “Which way do you like my hair; this way, or parted in the middle?”
GIRL. “I don’t know–this way, I guess. I’ve never seen it parted in the middle.”
MAN. (Taking out pocket comb and rapidly parting his hair in the middle.) “There! Which way do you like it?”
GIRL. (Judicially.) “I don’t know. It’s really a very hard question to decide.”
MAN. (Reminiscently.) “I’ve gone off my looks a good deal lately. I used to be a lot better looking than I am now.”
GIRL. (Softly.) “I’m glad I didn’t know you then.”
MAN. (In apparent astonishment.) “Why?”
GIRL. “Because I might not have been heart whole, as I am now.”
MAN. (With sudden enthusiasm.) “I’ll tell you, though, I really do look well in evening dress.”
GIRL. “I haven’t a doubt of it, even though I’ve never seen you wear it.”
MAN. (After brief meditation.) “Let’s go and hear Melba next week, will you? I meant to ask you when I first came in, but we got to reading.”
GIRL. “I shall be charmed.”
Next day, GIRL gets a box of chocolates and a dozen American Beauties–in February at that.
Zing! Direct hit, and score.
For woman-as-huntress features largely in The Spinster Book. General goal: a good time provided by a male companion. Ultimate goal: matrimony.
But once well started upon her topic, Myrtle Reed seems to have second thoughts, and much of the middle of the book is dedicated to the joys of independence, and the lucky state of those females who find fulfillment in career and public service, going home each night to a cosy little bachelorette suite, unsullied by masculine clutter.
She further pens what could only be described a an out and out rant regarding the societal expectation that woman unjoined to man is a creature to be pitied, a person incomplete, before flip-flopping once again to the original premise: that to be truly happy one must be mated.
Miss Reed’s theoretical permanent spinster, as described in the last chapter, is superficially content with her lot, but secretly yearns for Her Prince, even unto her deathbed, which is described with some pathos in the closing pages.
This book is chock full of neat little zingers, most at the expense of Man, but I couldn’t quite come to grips with what Myrtle Reed was actually getting at. Was she being pro-matrimony all the way through, or was she trying to make a legitimate argument for the possibility of a contented single life?
The earlier passages, which came across as something like, “Men, bless their simple, good-natured hearts! – we women can take ’em or leave ’em, our happiness is ultimately up to us”, a truly liberated point of view and most acceptable to our 21st century perspective, changed direction mid-stream, and an impassioned lament regarding the deep sadness of the single state came very much to the fore. “Conflicted” seems the only way to decribe it.
I wonder what readers thought of the book at the time of its publishing?
It appears to have been a successful sort of publication, with great “novelty” appeal, as we can see by its persistent reprinting even up unto the present day. But as an actual “advice manual”, well… I wonder how the target audience (unmarried women, one assumes) reacted to its ultimate message. Did the farcical bits outweigh the bemoaning? Or did it serve to strengthen the huntress’s resolve, and her technique? Some of the man-catching hints seem like they would be highly effective!
One can but speculate.
Despite its quotability and its frequently witty humour, I didn’t feel that this was a book that time travels particularily well.
It ended up depressing me, but that could be because I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the sad matrimonial fate of its writer.
For Myrtle Reed did eventually marry, in 1905. Matrimony didn’t come up to her expectations, however, and she committed suicide in 1911, leaving behind a damning note accusing her husband of emotional neglect. A tragedy, indeed, and not without considerable irony, this book considered.
For a further look at the complicated life story of Myrtle Reed, check out this article.
Something I didn’t know before I read The Spinster Book was that the Myrtle Reed, among her other novels and plays, wrote the well-known Lavender and Old Lace, which was successfully produced as both a stage play and, eventually, as a movie.
My own copy of the book, viewed as a physical artifact, is a lovely thing. One hundred and thirteen years old, bound in faded pink silk moire, with a gold-embossed cover, it feels wonderful in the hand. Putnam’s went all out on shelf appeal here!