Annabelle Vosmeier

“The Bliss Of Solitude”: In Search of Fulfilled Single Characters in Seventeenth through Twentieth Century Anglophone and Francophone Literature

April 10, 2021   /  

Name: Annabelle Vosmeier
Majors: English, French and Francophone Studies
Advisors: Dr. Claire Eager, Dr. Laura Burch

This study analyzes the representations of single women in British and Francophone novels from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, focusing on their ability to see themselves as full and complete people outside of marriage or, conversely, on their inability to move away from old maid or vieille fille stereotypes. I examine both younger and older women and find that they can be divided between those who accept and even celebrate their role as single people and those who are not allowed by their narratives to do so. In my first chapter, focusing on Estella Havisham and Marian Halcombe, I examine the relationships between marriage and spinsterhood in two Victorian novels, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Next, I study two young women who initially identify as single people but decide to marry: Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma and Harriet Vane from Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night. In my third chapter, I move to the French tradition, beginning with Madeleine de Scudéry’s Sapho character and Françoise de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne, continuing with Honoré de Balzac’s representations of single women, and finishing with the novel Amour by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, which centers on Claire Clamont, an unmarried woman. Finally, in my fourth chapter, I look at older women who identify as fulfilled single people, examining Emma’s Miss Bates, Laura Willowes from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willowes, and the three central spinster characters, Miss Clare, Miss Davis, and Miss Read, from Dora Saint’s Fairacre series. Using Elizabeth Brake’s theory of amatonormativity, I argue that these characters provide both evidence for the cultural centrality of marriage and a new vision of alternatives.

Annabelle will be online to field comments on April 16:
2-4pm EDT (PST: 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

54 thoughts on ““The Bliss Of Solitude”: In Search of Fulfilled Single Characters in Seventeenth through Twentieth Century Anglophone and Francophone Literature”

  1. We listened to the web piece tonight, (April 15th) and we were very impressed. Obviously well thoughtout and presented, it was very interesting. It’s a bit outside my range of literature but I agree with the positions and conclusions presented. I’ve always been supportive of women’s views and rights. Annabelle’s conclusions are, in my view, well drawn and supported. I enjoyed the presentation.

    1. Hi Granddad and Belva! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and thank you so much for stopping by! I’m only focusing on a fairly narrow scope of literature here, but I would definitely be interested to expand the topic to other kinds of books too to see if the same conclusions could be applied elsewhere. Thank you again and take care!

  2. Well done, Annabelle! What an ambitious and thoughtful project. And your presentation was extremely engaging.

    1. Thank you, Professor Tierney! I’m so glad you liked it and thank you for watching!

  3. Excellent travail, Annabelle! Tu peux être fière de toi! Ta presentation est particulièrement dynamique. Toutes mes felicitations!

    1. Merci beaucoup Madame ! Je suis ravie que vous avez aimé la présentation ! Je suis vraiment heureuse d’être dans votre cours ce semestre et d’avoir passé le cours de 216 avec vous mon tout premier semestre à Wooster.

  4. Congratulations Annabelle! Very interesting analyses. For someone who does very different research, how did you go about the process of choosing single characters across literature pieces?

    1. Thank you so much, Professor Colvin! The process of choosing which characters to study was mostly based on my personal fascination with them and finding ways to fit them together. I spent a lot of time at the very beginning of the project just reading books based on recommendations from my advisors or ones mentioned in secondary sources doing related research! I’m glad you found it interesting!

  5. Annabelle, c’est incroyable! I know we don’t talk much, but still your presence is so uplifting and makes a huge impact in my life. And I’m amazed by your IS! Did you have a favorite text you looked at?

    1. Merci, Cara, and thank you so much! It’s always nice to see you! I’m not sure if I have a favorite text, but only because I enjoyed all of them so much and nearly all of them were new to me. The Woman In White will probably be the first one I choose to reread outside of the scope of IS, though, because there’s so much detail and intrigue that I’m sure I missed some things. I’m so glad you liked my presentation!

  6. Annabelle, congratulations and félicitations once again on your fantastic project and wonderful distillation into this compelling presentation. Can I ask what made you choose to select certain texts for the presentation than others? (In terms of the craft of the presentation/streamlined argument.)

    1. Hi, Professor Eager! Thank you so much, and I’m so grateful to have had your guidance through this project.

      I thought you would notice the lack of chapter 2! You’re right, I was trying to streamline the argument for a ten-minute time frame, so I chose the three texts (GE, TWIW, P) that I thought best explained the presence of amatonormativity and why I used that theory. And I wanted to conclude with characters from chapter 4 that challenge it and show alternatives. (Miss Bates nearly made it in, but despite her happiness and maturity she doesn’t have quite the same autonomy as the other two).

      Thank you for coming, and I’m so glad you liked my presentation!

      1. Thanks for your answer! It would be interesting to think about the alternate presentation that includes Emma, Gaudy Night, and Amour!!

    1. Thank you, Eliza! I’m glad you liked it! (French is the best double major to have).

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this presentation, Annabelle! I really enjoyed learning about your research & findings. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Carly! It’s been a really fun project, and I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation!

  8. Hi Annabelle, this is Anna’s mom. Congratulations of completing your I.S and for such a great presentation. Your topic was extremely interesting. I wonder if you think the gender and marital status of the authors affected their opinions of unmarried women?

    1. Hi Dr. Shearer, thank you for coming and I’m so glad you liked it! That’s a great question, and one that I thought about but didn’t feel that I had the evidence to address fully because I can’t be sure what affected an author’s opinions. But there’s certainly a correlation where the texts I studied that were written by men (including the first three I talked about in my presentation) were less accepting of unmarried women, and those written by women were more accepting. That includes two 17th-century French texts by women authors that celebrate singleness and Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), so it’s not only about time frame. I don’t have a clear conclusion to draw, but it’s a very interesting question about how an author’s positionality affects what they write. Thank you!

  9. Congratulations Annabelle!
    Your work is super fascinating, great job with presenting. Amatonormativity is so deeply engrained in society, I think your research is doing something very important not just by discussing the topic but also by applying it to different social contexts. Great work!

    1. Thank you, Eliza! You’re right that amatonormativity is everywhere and it’s sometimes difficult to notice because of how subtle and widespread it is. Thank you for coming, and I’m so glad you liked it!

  10. Great work Annabelle! I’m reminded of when I read a while ago about the Delany sisters, Sarah Louise Delany and Annie Elizabeth Delany, who both grew to be older than 100. One part of their story that I remember was how they never got married or had romantic partners, and instead found happiness in their own company and in their companionship with each other and friends. I thought it was quite important that that lifestyle was validated by the journalist Amy Hearth who covered their lives in “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.” Work like yours that investigates these alternatives to conventional ways of living is very important to push away from a single forced perspective and consider alternative ways of living. Very well done!

    1. Hi Max, thank you! I hadn’t heard of the Delany sisters before, but that sounds like such a wonderful book and story that I should look into. I am really interested in stories that do show alternatives to what we consider “conventional,” because it’s those stories that allow us to challenge social expectations and that forced perspective you mention! I’m glad you liked my presentation!

  11. What a great presentation! You make us proud!

    We wondered if you could say more about Estella — doesn’t Dickens present her as an unhappy and unpleasant woman (“broken” by Miss Havisham)? Or does the novel allow you to see her in a more positive light (like Marian Holcombe)?

    We’re always glad to learn from you!

    1. Hi, and thank you for this question! I’m glad you liked the presentation!

      Estella is complicated, especially when she’s described as “broken” or “healed.” Dickens gives us a character who states explicitly that she has no interest in romance or marriage, and then places her in a situation where a) she’s forced by Miss Havisham to constantly play the coquette, and b) the society around her assumes that her only path to happiness is through marriage. It is suggested that Miss Havisham has “broken” her by teaching her to break men’s hearts, and then at the end of the novel, she’s “healed” of that influence because of her suffering. And that’s when (in the published ending) she tells Pip again that she doesn’t want to marry him and would rather be apart…and yet he assumes they will marry anyway. So both are true. She is unhappy and unpleasant, but she’s also a complicated person who isn’t allowed her own autonomy to make decisions. The novel doesn’t necessarily see her as a good person, but I think a reader still can.

      I can say more when I’m home with my IS!

  12. I absolutely loved this! It’s so exciting to see what you’ve accomplished this year! (and now I absolutely want to read the Fairacre series)

    1. Hi Kate! Thank you so much for coming, I’m so glad you liked it! (You should absolutely read the Fairacre series because it’s very important and so underrated. Let me know if you want to borrow one of them before the semester ends, or they’re available as ebooks on Libby but sometimes there’s a waiting list!)

  13. What an exciting project, Annabelle, and an engaging presentation, too! When you asked, ‘What media can you think of that represents singleness positively?’, I began to think back to some recent popular films, like /How to Be Single/ and /Someone Great/, that celebrate women who reject the quest for romantic relationships. Do you think this heralds a larger cultural change? Or are these one-offs in a still-amatonormative culture?

    1. Thank you, Professor Sacks! I’m not familiar with those two movies specifically, but I’d tentatively say that it’s great for films in the romcom genre to show some of those alternatives rather than exclusively focusing on romance and marriage as someone’s only goal. If one character’s choice to remain single is treated as just as valuable as another character’s new relationship, that certainly helps to reduce the idea that a happy single lifestyle is a failure or “second-best.” And if enough media follows that lead, it could potentially lead to a cultural shift away from what Brake discusses. But I’m not sure! My perhaps pessimistic guess is that the majority of movies are not going to deal with these issues particularly thoughtfully. Thank you so much for your thoughts, and I’m so glad you came!

  14. Thanks so much for sharing your research in such an engaging way, Annabelle—it’s a fascinating project, and very ambitious in its span of geotemporal contexts! Did you find the scope of your project challenging, or inspiring?

    1. Thank you, Professor Hayward! I really enjoyed working on this project, and I found the scope inspiring because I had the space to think about a lot of different novels, brought together under the same fairly narrow lens of representations of singleness. I did have to decide early on to completely ignore the US half of the Anglo-American spinster/old maid tradition, or it would have become overwhelming. I’m so glad you enjoyed my research!

  15. Congratulations, Annabelle! Your project is fascinating, compelling, and applies an important critical lens to underrepresented narratives! I’m really looking forward to reading more of the sources you analyzed, in particular The Woman in White.

    1. Thank you so much, Claire! I’m so grateful for your support this year to keep me sane and motivated, and this presentation itself literally wouldn’t exist without your generous lending of time and technology!

    2. (I forgot to mention that you should definitely read The Woman in White!)

  16. Congratulations Annabelle! As the kids say- go off. This is an important and engaging analysis, and I’m very proud of the work that you’ve done!

    1. Hi Aaron, thank you for coming and I’m so glad you liked it! As the kids say, I appreciate you a lot!

  17. Annabelle, congratulations on finishing IS! I really appreciated this presentation, I’m really tired of the narrative that every single person must be coupled to feel complete and whole. In a society that reinforces amatonormativity at every turn, it is almost impossible to find portrayals of characters, especially women, who are content on their own. I really appreciated the level of nuance you used to discuss these characters, even though I have not read any of the works in question. It makes me wonder what other characters could be put under this lens.
    In looking at British and Francophone novels, did you find one to be better/worse about portrayals of single women, or was the sample size too small?

    1. Thank you, Sarah, and I agree so much with everything you’ve just said! That’s part of why I did this project in the first place, because I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find examples of fulfilled single people in literature. I’d love to look at other characters this way as well if you think of any examples! Between British and Francophone novels, it’s just very difficult to compare them because they’re coming out of such different traditions. I have a few thoughts, but I think they would be too long to explain here, so I’ll talk about it in person sometime!

  18. This is such a fascinating project, Annabelle! I loved to hear about the similarities and differences in the ways single women have been portrayed, and the lens of amatonormativity serves you well. Do you see any changes in amatonormative expectations reflected in literature over time, whether between the seventeenth century and the twentieth century or between the literature you read for this project and more recent literature, or does it vary more author-to-author than over time?

    1. Thank you so much, Casey! I’m so glad you came and that you enjoyed it. I think that would be a hard question to answer based only on a few novels, but something I talk about in my introduction is how the French and British literary traditions start in similar places (women writers celebrate singleness as opposed to misogynistic and abusive marriage laws) but take completely different trajectories later on. Twentieth-century British novels return again and again to the spinster/old maid stereotype and that character is often relatively harmless, but French novels seem to gloss over it, leaving the main representation of single women to be Balzac’s extremely negative one. I’d like to know a whole lot more about the social context, but it was surprisingly difficult to find modern French sources on singleness. It’s also difficult to trace these expectations through novels when there are so few novels about single characters. Thank you so much for the question!

  19. Felicitations et bon travail, Annabelle! This presentation and project both look super impressive. I really like how you capitalized on this topic within both English and French literature. Also, I love all the books you picked out in order to examine these female characters. How did you discuss Zilia from Lettres d’une Peruvienne as her mindset on marriage changes throughout the novel?

    1. Merci, Anna! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. For Zilia, I focus primarily on a speech she gives in one of her last letters comparing the ways she sees marriage and singleness as she turns Déterville down. She uses incredibly negative language to talk about marriage and equally positive language to refer to solitude and singleness, and that’s her final word as she goes off to live a happy life alone. I wish I had had more space to do a more complete analysis of her character, because you’re right that her views change throughout the story! Thank you for the question!

  20. Hi Annabelle,

    This is such an interesting topic! I also think it’s very important since some of the prejudice towards single people which you mention are still present today. I’m curious if you decided to do this project based on older texts or if you originally started thinking about it with regard to more modern texts or shows and then decided to focus on older works.

    1. Hi Sofia! Thank you so much, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I initially planned to do this project focusing on 20th century literature, but I ended up finding so many interesting books from earlier time periods that I decided to expand the scope. The majority, though, are still from the 19th and 20th centuries. I’d like to think about modern texts as well, but I haven’t gotten there yet. Thank you for the question!

  21. Great analysis & great presentation, Annabelle! I love that you examined both The Woman in White & Sayers (not to mention the French language texts). A capacious study, and I imagine it gave you all kinds of thoughts for your library ghost widow novel? Congrats!

    1. Thank you, Professor Beutner! I hope you’re doing well and I’m so happy you’re here for symposium! I adored both The Woman in White and Gaudy Night (and ended up reading a number of Sayers’s other books even though they didn’t make it into the study). It’s been a really enjoyable project, and reading all these wonderful books can only do good things for my own writing, now that I might actually have time for it. Thank you so much for your support!

  22. Hi Annabelle! Congratulations! Your presentation is really interesting, and really well done. I’m curious- have you looked into Wilkie Collins’s the Moonstone at all? It’s one of my favorite texts I’ve encountered at the college.

    Great Job!

    1. Thank you, Kath! I’m so glad you liked it! I actually haven’t read The Moonstone, but it’s certainly on my list because I liked The Woman in White so much, so it’s good to know that you recommend it.

  23. Congratulations, Annabelle!! I’ve only heard bits and pieces of your I.S., so it’s been wonderful to see the whole thing together! You’re analyses are important for understanding where our modern conceptions of amatonormativity comes from and how/why it is so engrained in our culture.

    As you were presenting, I couldn’t help but notice in your presentation that it seemed like authors more so presented younger women as “unfulfilled” with their single lives while authors generally allowed older women to be fulfilled . (Is this a fair statement, or is it the result that only a portion of your argument is presented here?)

    Do you think this is intentional or a coincidence? Is it because a young woman, who is conventionally more attractive and therefore more suitable for marriage according to societal standards, still has the potential to become married that influences authors to view single women as unfulfilled when unmarried? Whereas with older women, who are less likely to be desirable matches for marriage, marriage is no longer an option on the table? (Do this make sense what I’m trying to say?)

    1. Thank you, Erin! These are really thoughtful questions and they make complete sense. I think it depends on the author, honestly, and what it is that they’re criticizing. Balzac, for instance, is criticizing older women because they’re “ugly” and “useless” and have “wasted their potential” by not having children. The younger women I studied, on the other hand, are seen as still having that potential, so in Great Expectations, Pip (and I suspect Dickens/society as a whole) can’t even comprehend that Estella might want to stay unmarried. I couldn’t find many young single women who completely identified with their singleness and weren’t presented as maybe-getting-married-soon. I also found a really interesting source that talked about how older women were able to be fulfilled once they saw themselves as single and didn’t have to deal with that shadow of marriage anymore. So I don’t have a clear answer for you, but I hope that helps!

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