The character of the old maid is not new to literature, as spinsters have appeared in classics from Charles Dickens to the Brontë Sisters to Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. Most of us today would hesitate to use the same term to describe single, childless women of a certain age, but that doesn’t mean these themes aren’t still societally relevant and even uncomfortably close to home.
The Girls by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edna Ferber was first published in 1921, and the new reissue from Belt Publishing includes a smart introduction from Chicago-based author and small press founder Kathleen Rooney. Rooney rightly points out that even today’s women who never marry “still find themselves pegged—sometimes by peers, sometimes by family, and almost always by pop culture—as odd or eccentric at best, pathetic and rejected at worst. Not winners.”
Ferber’s three old maids in The Girls are all named Charlotte. In the novel’s present day of 1916, Aunt Charlotte is seventy-four, Lottie is thirty-two, and Charley is eighteen. As Ferber introduces them, she names each one a “spinster,” as each is unmarried and childless. Lottie is Aunt Charlotte’s niece, and Charley is Lottie’s niece, making Aunt Charlotte Charley’s great aunt. We come to learn that these three share a special bond of understanding apart from the common name.
Aunt Charlotte’s single status is partially thanks to the loss of a love in the Civil War, a story that plays out similarly for the other two Charlottes. Does this recurrence indicate that the women come to their spinsterhood solely because of lost lovers? Or do they continue to make a choice to be alone?
While handling this delicate subject with care, Ferber accomplishes much by giving these women vigor, curiosity, and desire, allowing them a fate different than succumbing to normalcy, to becoming someone else’s beloved and making that choice the defining feature of their lives. As Rooney questions in the introduction, “Could a woman be beloved in other ways? Not disdained or taken for granted based upon her ability to be selected by a husband, but loved more broadly, respected for everything else inherent to her being?”
The novel is set in Chicago, a gritty city then, beset by mud and train smoke. As Lottie walks in the early evening, Ferber highlights “the fishy smell that was Lake Michigan in March; the fertilizer smell that was the Stockyards when the wind was west; and the smoky smell that was soft coal from the IC trains and a million unfettered chimneys, all blending and mellowing to a rich mixture that was incense to her Chicago-bred nostrils.”
Lottie, the middle Charlotte, is the “kind of woman who learns with living and who marries early or never.” She is smart and thoughtful, and euphoric when she’s able to do the community work she really cares about, away from her domineering mother, Carrie Payson, who is Aunt Charlotte’s sister. Gazing at Lake Michigan, she fantasizes about going “away to that place over there that’s the horizon. Oh God, how I’d… but I suppose I’d only land at Indiana Harbor instead of at the horizon.” It’s a humorous, devastating statement that reveals just how confined she feels—something that many contemporary Chicagoans may relate to when taking in the lake’s misleading limitlessness.
Lottie is often confronted by young and carefree Charley, who lives as she pleases and doesn’t understand how Lottie could stay tied down by her mother all these years. Lottie tells her, endearingly, “You kids today are so sure of yourselves…You know, always, exactly what you want to do and then you go ahead and do it. It’s so simple that there must be a catch in it somewhere.”
Charley replies, “It’s full of catches. That’s what makes it fascinating.”
Charley tells Lottie that her submission to her mother’s dominance out of a sense of obligation is a “crime against your own generation and indicates a weakness in you.” Lottie may argue in the moment, but she looks up to Charley. She later describes Charley’s generation as “free,” defining this freedom as “honest” and “not afraid.”
As Rooney says in the introduction, Ferber shows here “how a bit of resistance and freethinking, especially when they are supported by other female family members, can set off a series of earthquakes that can shift a household’s—and a society’s—entire geography.”
One moving conversation between Aunt Charlotte and Lottie depicts that confusing space where single women may question whether they’re doing the right thing, whether their lives would have been better or worse should they have chosen the other path. Ferber treats these moments gently, never being presumptuous or preachy.
Lottie has just read a short story by Balzac to Aunt Charlotte, wherein an old maid throws herself into a well. Lottie asks her aunt’s opinion on it, thinking it strange. Aunt Charlotte thinks it “natural,” and admits that during the dangerous age for a woman, “between thirty-five and forty,” she had Lottie and Lottie’s sister Belle to look after, which helped. Aunt Charlotte says, “That’s the time to look out for. You can fool nature just so long, and then she turns around and hits back.”
These women understand the risks of being single and childless, not just for their reputation but also for their happiness, which doesn’t look one way for every woman. Women can and should be anything they want to be and spend their time doing what brings them joy and purpose, whether that be running a business, pursuing art, working, raising children, or being the supportive, eccentric aunt.
This freedom seems obvious, but it was progressive in 1921, when women had only just been given the right to vote. Unfortunately, this kind of freedom is also something that today’s girls and women may forget with our set of pressures that too often are only evolved on the surface and are, in fact, the very expectations Ferber’s women grapple with.
“Women are wonderful, Lottie,” Aunt Charlotte reminds us. “Just wonderful.” And she’s right.
By Edna Ferber
Published March 28, 2023
Meredith Boe is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Newfound, Another Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, Mud Season Review, After Hours, and elsewhere, and her chapbook What City won the 2018 Debut Series Chapbook Contest from Paper Nautilus.