She I Dare Not Name by Donna Ward

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Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

The title gives pause. Spinster is a word that may appear in novels of past centuries, but is rarely used today. It carries an aura of sadness and loneliness, even failure. Failure to be married, to bear children.

Sections of this book are deeply affecting and do convey powerful feelings of frustration and failure to escape the role of society’s view of ”spinster”. It also portrays a highly intelligent, courageous, humorous woman who has lived a rich and varied life, and enjoys so much of what life has to offer.

Her book, therefore, bears witness to her progress in search of another happiness. Attaining her sixties, she has the perspective that allows her to examine her predicament and what society has shaped for the woman of today, married or single.

Women in the West choose to be single in increasing numbers it seems. There are over 10,000,000 American women with this status. They contribute much to the economy but tax breaks are not as generous as for families. Therefore, even on the economic level, society’s attitude to the unmarried or woman living alone is not free of bias.

This bias asserts itself in many and varied ways. Some of them are blatantly demeaning or annoying, others more subtle. One feature of these widely held views is the recurring theme of the dinner party. Whenever Donna Ward is invited to a dinner with friends, and she has many in her life in Melbourne, there is always a single man present offered as a possible mate! She finds this intensely irritating and longs for the event where just the good food and friends are enjoyed and there is no underlying of the fact that she lacks a partner. The obsession with ‘even numbers’ here is not at all kind or helpful. 

Donna Ward is single, but this does not mean that she has not known love. She has had many liaisons, some very happy, some with men who eventually decided to return to their wives. Her experiences often end in sadness and longing. There is a passage which is beautifully and lyrically written, where even listening to music, Philip Glass, can spark deep sadness and memory of a past lover. All is not a miserable rant on her plight, however. The book is laced with many fine observations of her surroundings. Not being consumed or overwhelmed by the constant demands of a wife and mother, she has opportunities to see the beauty of the world around her, even in the depths of the city.

At the root of her examination of the state referred to as “spinster”, is the pursuit of the elusive concept, happiness…. Americans have the right to pursue this, as stated in their constitution, and both there and here in Australia, marriage and children are expected to provide this. It then follows that a single woman is deprived of it. For every human being, women in particular, happiness is occasional, often unexpected and rarely found if searched for. So, Donna recalls many happy times, although she is unmarried. Unpredictably, she was suffused with happiness in a street in Paris when she suddenly realised she had an exhilarating sense of place. Until that moment, she had felt alien there. She wasn’t fluent in French but, on her third visit, it all became a different place and she felt she belonged. Not just in Paris, but on the planet.

A question linked to this preoccupation with happiness comes when she is asked, ‘Are you happy being single?’

Married women are rarely assaulted with this but it is far more frequently aimed at ‘the spinster’.

Sadly, this implies that, by being married, it follows that happiness ensues. Of course, it ignores the spectre of domestic violence and rape within marriage.

Finally, there is the heartfelt plea from the author: “I don’t think I’m any more unlucky than my friends weighed down by family, but I ache for scholarship free of unexamined and stigmatising mythologies. I long for a rich, intelligent elucidating conversation about my life that doesn’t compete with the agonies of parenting and partnering.”

I approached this book with trepidation as I suffered from that prejudice against the lot of the spinster. It opened my mind completely and allowed me to so clearly see how important it is ‘to walk in another’s shoes’ – that well-worn cliché. She I Dare Not Name is a very fine book. It should be read by everyone, men and women, who care about all members of our increasingly diverse society and celebrate that this is so.

SHE I DARE NOT NAME

A Spinster’s Meditations on Life

[2020]

by Donna Ward

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76087 629 6

$32.99; 321pages

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