Spinsters are used to being treated with a measure of suspicion. It was ever thus. It comes with the turf. Bridget Jones put her finger on the nub of things when – on being questioned about the number of single women in their thirties – she replies, ‘well it doesn’t help that under our clothes we are covered in scales’. Nothing could have brought this entrenched mistrust of singletons to the fore more efficiently than a pandemic.
Nothing could have brought this entrenched mistrust of singletons to the fore more efficiently than a pandemic
As has so often been the case over the years, government policy is profoundly structured around the idea of a family unit. Even before the full lockdown came into effect we were told to keep to our households. What has never been addressed is the gaping chasm between what that means for cheerful, healthy, middle class families in roomy houses, compared to the swath of the population who live a precariously lonely existence at the best of times,
The dichotomy is stark on social media. A typical message from a happy homemaker reads, ‘this is really a blessing! It is Mother Nature telling us to slow down and spend time with our loved ones. My little ones and I are doing crafts while my husband croons on his guitar. Stay home guys!’ Compared to a standard self-partnered tweet, ‘social distancing? You mean you people aren’t alone all the time anyway?’.
On 25 March nineteen year old Emily Owen killed herself in King’s Lynn after telling her family of her terror of the ‘world closing in, plans being cancelled and being stuck inside’. There is of course a sense of desperation in every ‘household’, but perhaps none is quite as powerful as that experienced in utter solitude. A friend of mine who lives alone uses her daily exercise slot to walk past the houses of her friends. At the beginning of the pandemic she was grudgingly allowed to perch on their garden walls while they shouted down to her from upstairs windows, one particularly benevolent couple even threw crisps out. Now they won’t come to look out of the closed window, she says. They have sealed themselves in and her out.
Being a (relatively) young singleton brings an additional stigma. Desperate not to be holed up in my bed-sit for months, my plan, as is traditional for unmarried daughters, had been to go home and solicitously look after my parents. This scheme was met with hysterical refusal. Despite still having a cleaning lady who comes in most days, it was made furiously clear to me that I am not to darken the family doorstep until I have been churched by two weeks in solitary.
Of course what many singles do have on their side are well honed inner resources. Oldie editor Harry Mount says, ‘There was a day of deep gloom and despair. But I have managed to resurrect my attention span, watching a whole DVD – Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call with a wonderfully dissolute Nicolas Cage – when I’d run out of things on Netflix to watch. On the highbrow front, I’ve also almost finished The Radetzky March. I’ve seeded the mud patches on my lawn, shoved a brick back into a collapsed garden wall and tidied up my spongebag. I fear I’m reaching the end of my To Do List.’
Because aimlessness is the great enemy. Sophie Coombes, set decorator of The Crown, says she was thrown into an absolute tail spin when shooting had to be wrapped early, ‘I am used to being so fantastically busy. What has been terrifying is this sense of purposelessness. I don’t have screaming children to tend to or a husband to row with. I am locked in with too many thoughts!’.
What has distinguished this crisis so definitively for singletons is the absence of any real camaraderie. No Blitz spirit. Wars and natural disasters have, in the past, tended to make for bonding and strange bedfellows. When the natural order breaks down, Princesses become mechanics, tube stations become night clubs, old enemies band together and there is a swell of free love. This is a reactionary crisis. Corona babies will be conceived in wedlock; single parents are ostracised and smug marrieds come out on top.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe