Miss Clack: Week #51 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On widows, spinsters, and Good Old People
The moment I turned 50 I started preparing for spinsterhood. I’m a childless woman in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, so it’s the most statistically likely outcome—I’m just a coronary event away. I know that sounds callous, but the husband and I both agree that me surviving him is his best scenario. Neither one of us wants to outlive the other. We are deeply intertwined and intensely sensitive creatures, neither of whom will fare well alone in a big house in Mississippi. While there are plenty of literary role models for us to follow in the eventuality, none of them is particularly pleasant. (“A Rose for Emily,” anyone? Or that old lady weaning herself off morphine that Scout reads to in To Kill a Mockingbird? Boo Radley?) Maybe if we were living in Minnesota or Utah rather than Yoknapatawpha County, the prospect of widowhoodwould not seem so dire.
Since I am a specialist in British Victorian literature, not the creepy fictions of William Faulkner, my disturbing old-ladyhood role models tend more toward the Misses Bates from Emma, Miss Kilman from Mrs Dalloway, and above all Miss Clack from The Moonstone.I’ll throw Clarissa Dalloway herself into the mix here, because although she is not a widow or spinster (indeed, she seems to have rather an over-abundance of potential romantic companionship), she is a spinster by predilection, and in spirit. One way of reading that novel is as a day in the life of someone coming to understand that she should be free of all the men pestering her.
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But let’s start with Miss Kilman, since she is the tragic version of this figure. (When history repeats itself, it’s first as tragedy, then as farce, right?) Miss Kilman is a relatively minor character in Mrs Dalloway; she is the frumpy, dour, pathetically earnest Christian do-gooder lady who has taken Clarissa Dalloway’s daughter Elizabeth under her wing. Gradually we come to understand, as Clarissa frets over the relationship in her head,that Miss Kilman is in love with Elizabeth, and possibly vice-versa:
It might be only a phase, as Richard said, such as all girls go through.... But why with Miss Kilman? who had been badly treated of course; one must make allowances for that…. Miss Kilman would do anything for the Russians, starved herself for the Austrians, but in private inflicted positive torture, so insensitive was she, dressed in a green mackintosh coat. Year in year out she wore that coat; she perspired; she was never in the room five minutes without making you feel her superiority, your inferiority; how poor she was; how rich you were; how she lived in a slum without a cushion or a bed or a rug or whatever it might be…. For it was not her one hated but the idea of her.
Things eventually come to a head when Miss Kilman takes Elizabeth to tea and does something unforgiveable like expressing a desire for more cake. The spell is broken, and Elizabeth sees into the heart of Miss Kilman—her petty selfishness, mild hypocrisy, desperate clinging to the few comforts she has in her rather lonely life—and is suddenly turned off:
Elizabeth rather wondered whether Miss Kilman could be hungry. It was her way of eating, eating with intensity, then looking, again and again, at a plate of sugared cakes on the table next them; then, when a lady and a child sat down and the child took the cake, could Miss Kilman really mind it?
The implication, never stated, is that Elizabeth suddenly sees the possibility of becoming like Miss Kilman herself, and chooses another path: a path of beauty, wealth (duh), and sexuality—all the things that Miss Kilman stands against.
Of course it’s more complicated than that—it’s a Virginia Woolf novel, for pete’s sake. I believe we are meant to have some sympathy for Miss Kilman (at any rate I do), and certainly we’re not meant to think that Elizabeth choosing a life like her mother’s is an unalloyedly good thing. (Again, the whole freaking point of the whole freaking novel is Clarissa questioning her life choices.) But it’s not like Woolf presents us with a ton of viable other options, either. Sally, the sexycool free spirit with whom Clarissa was (maybe) really in love, and with whom she shared a sexycool naughty kiss by a fountain 35 years earlier (thereby furnishing Ian McEwan with a large stock of plot devices for decades of novel-writing to come) is now a plump matron with something like 17 sons. Then there’s Septimus’s wife Lucrezia (working class, so—no), Clarissa herself, whom everyone seems to have a problem with, including Clarissa, and Miss Kilman. Poor Miss Kilman. Why do you hate Miss Kilman, Virginia? It’s very disappointing. Here was a chance for you to express solidarity with a fellow bluestocking struggling her way through this cruel man’s world—let’s face it, you yourself are probably as much like Miss Kilman as you are like Clarissa—and you threw her under the omnibus. Is she your nightmare possibility? Is she your shadow self? Because she certainly is mine:
Do her hair as she might, her forehead remained like an egg, bald, white. No clothes suited her. She might buy anything. And for a woman, of course, that meant never meeting the opposite sex. Never would she come first with any one. Sometimes lately it had seemed to her that, except for Elizabeth, her food was all that she lived for; her comforts; her dinner, her tea; her hot-water bottle at night.
Even though I’ve read this novel dozens of times, that passage just punched me in the gut yet again. The first time I came across these lines I was in my late teens or early 20s, and the prospect of a life in which all one had to look forward to was a hot-water bottle at night struck me (as I assume it was meant to) as desperately sad. Now I am in my 50s—Clarissa Dalloway’s age—and I totally get it. Maybe I don’t need the water bottle per se—except when I’m in New Zealand I do get to enjoy the modern convenience of central heating—but it works beautifully as a metonym for all those animal comforts that become more important as one moves into middle-middle and then late-middle age. (Let us not think beyond that point, just for now.) Your body starts to fall apart just a little bit, and you occasionally feel the whiff of a cold breeze from the grave down the back of your neck, startling you your during your daytime bustle. Things hurt. Maybe you stop playing pick-up soccer. (If you’re sane and rational,that just happens naturally in your early 40s.) Then you stop running, and decide that “long walks and yoga” are just as good. (That one happened for me pretty much as soon as I hit 50.) One day you notice that—regardless of all that yoga you’re now doing—you’re planning a little more carefully how to get up off the floor from a seated position. It’s not exactly more difficult (yet); you just spend an extra beat or two figuring out which hand comes first and where to put your feet, and in which order. Sometimes you “decide” that you “want” to stay down on the floor a little while longer. Just hanging out. You fool no one, not even yourself.
That’s where I am now. A long day of work is just a little more physically tiring, even for a knowledge worker for me, and it feels nearly impossible to muster the energy to stay out till the wee hours any more. I just want to come home and have a beer and a tasty dinner and maybe see a friend or two but also maybe just sit on the couch and watch TV. A hot water bottle would fit in nicely here. But it’s more than that—it’s the actual pleasure one now takes in these domestic, physical comforts: they start to feel like a bulwark against the dangers of a cold and hostile world. I can’t remember the first time I decided that I wanted to stay home and read rather than do something elaborate and alcohol-fueled with my friends, but I’m sure that at first it felt almost ironic, maybe even transgressive.But now I straight-up want to stay home much of the time, à la Miss Kilman, with my metaphorical personal heating device.
But back to Mrs Dalloway. As I hinted before, Woolf doesn’t draw a hard-and-fast distinction between Miss Kilman’s attitude toward the world of young, juicy sensuality and that of Clarissa herself:
There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room. Women must put off their rich apparel. At midday they must disrobe. [Clarissa] pierced the pincushion and laid her feathered yellow hat on the bed. The sheets were clean, tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be. The candle was half burnt down and she had read deep in Baron Marbot’s Memoirs. She had read late at night of the retreat from Moscow. For the House sat so long that Richard insisted, after her illness, that she must sleep undisturbed. And really she preferred to read of the retreat from Moscow. He knew it. So the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading, for she slept badly, she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet.
Clarissa cannot escape the clutches of spinsterhood any more than Miss Kilman can, even from within the confines of a comfortable marriage. So I think it’s clear that while Woolf did not mean for us to lionize Miss Kilman, we can certainly read the novel a little against the grain so as to appreciate and even sympathize with her. Here she is at the end of that painful tea-room scene:
She was about to split asunder, she felt. The agony was so terrific. If she could grasp her, if she could clasp her, if she could make her hers absolutely and forever and then die; that was all she wanted. But to sit here, unable to think of anything to say; to see Elizabeth turning against her; to be felt repulsive even by her—it was too much; she could not stand it. The thick fingers curled inwards.
There is no such sympathy for Miss Clack. I promise not to spoil The Moonstone for those who haven’t read it (but if you haven’t read it, you really should do so immediately; it’s the most delightfully twisty and satisfying mystery novel of all time). Without giving too much away, let me just say that Miss Clack is Miss Kilman on anabolic steroids. She is even more prudish-yet-repressed, even more irritating, even more out of touch with the mores and social cues of those around her. Most importantly, she is even more financially dependent and thus more pathetically money-grubbing. Both Woolf and Collins present the money obsessions of their spinster characters as personality flaws instead of as a reasonable response to—you know—poverty. (Again, Virginia, really? Are you only interested in providing a room of her own to geniuses, to Shakespeare’s sister? What about Shakespeare’s quiet, dull cousin who doesn’t have a five-act tragedy to bang out but just wants to put her feet up on the fender and enjoy a nice cup of hot cocoa? I think she deserves a room, too.)
Miss Clack narrates one section of the second half of Collins’s novel. A valuable Indian diamond has been stolen during the birthday party of Rachel Verinder, Miss Clack’s niece, and the action unfolds through retrospective narratives from several of the involved parties. Miss Clack is our first such narrator and she is, not to put too fine a point on it, insufferable. As soon as she learns, for example, that her aunt is seriously ill, she sets about torturing her with edifying religious “tracts” meant to shepherd the poor woman to salvation. She never doubts that sprinkling her aunt’s house with these horribly upsetting pamphlets is the correct path:
Once self-supported by conscience, once embarked on a career of manifest usefulness, the true Christian never yields. Neither public nor private influences produce the slightest effect on us, when we have once got our mission.... We are above reason; we are beyond ridicule; we see with nobody’s eyes, we hear with nobody’s ears, we feel with nobody’s hearts, but our own. Glorious, glorious privilege! And how is it earned?... We are the only people who can earn it—for we are the only people who are always right.
Her do-goodiness is played for big laffs in the novel; part of Collins’s genius is to create narrators who indict and convict themselves through their own damning words, just like Robert Browning does in a dramatic monologue like “My Last Duchess.” The reader gets a huge kick out of watching Miss Clack inadvertently expose her own horribleness—that pleasure, I would contend, is compensation for the painful experience of being shut out of the warm inner circle of the Verinders for 80 pages of the novel. (Something similar happens when sharing narrative space with Miss Kilman—every time you dip back into her head through the vagaries of free indirect discourse, you feel a little chill on your skin. You are now in the hinterlands too, longing to be back in the Dalloways’ drawing room full of firelight and fresh-cut flowers.) Here is a choice bit of Clackian unintentional humor:
I instantly opened my bag, and took out the top publication. It proved to be an early edition—only the twenty-fifth—of the famous anonymous work (believed to be by precious Miss Bellows), entitled The Serpent at Home. The design of the book—with which the worldly reader may not be acquainted—is to show how the Evil One lies in wait for us in all the most apparently innocent actions of our daily lives. The chapters best adapted to female perusal are “Satan in the Hair Brush;” “Satan behind the Looking Glass;” “Satan under the Tea Table”; “Satan out of the Window”—and many others.
“Give your attention, dear aunt, to this precious book—and you will give me all I ask.” With those words, I handed it to her open, at a marked passage—one continuous burst of burning eloquence! Subject: Satan among the Sofa Cushions.
Miss Clack is also “secretly” in love with someone who doesn’t return her affections: Godfrey Abelwhite, a fellow Christian do-gooder who also happens to be tall, handsome, and smarmily charming. (Smarming?) She is clearly just as randy as she is repressed, however, and throughout her narrative has several “Victorian orgasms” brought on by his proximity:
He beamed on us with his beautiful smile; he held out a hand to my aunt, and a hand to me. I was too deeply affected by his noble conduct to speak. I closed my eyes; I put his hand, in a kind of spiritual self-forgetfulness, to my lips. He murmured a soft remonstrance. Oh the ecstasy, the pure, unearthly ecstasy of that moment! I sat—I hardly know on what—quite lost in my own exalted feelings. When I opened my eyes again, it was like descending from heaven to earth. There was nobody but my aunt in the room. He had gone.
And here is where we get to the heart of my discomfiture about the Misses Kilman and Clack: they are figured as sexually repulsive. Not only are they unattractive to others (both authors are at great pains to drive home this point), but their own feelings of erotic desire are presented as outrageous, laughable, disgusting. Only the young and lovely are allowed to have such impulses—or at the very least, The Olds should keep them well under wraps.
Or perhaps I should say “Old Women.” Of course it’s a cliché that older men, like silver-backed gorillas, are often celebrated for their virility—but it’s a cliché for a reason. As Amy Schumer et al. hilariously point out in one of my favorite skits of all time, older actors don’t have a “Last Fuckable Day” the way actresses do. Yet the very idea of wrinkly old women with liver spots and sagging breasts getting it on is half risible and half grotesque, as the squirm-inducing fake movie Mrs. Albert Hanaday excerpted in a Season 5 episode of “The Office”—in which Cloris Leachman sexes it up with Jack Black—can attest.
I’m going to have to admit that I have just as much of an idea about how to end this essay as I do about how to confront the end of my own life. What words of comfort, what wry joke, what facile wrap-up do I have to offer in the face of aging, bodily decay, monumental loss, death?
As Virginia’s contemporary, William Butler, so gut-wrenchingly put it:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing
Unless. That is the rub, the key, the crux, the nubbin. How to keep clapping and singing, even if one’s body will no longer comply? We all have examples in our lives of that one “Good Old Person” who still has a mind sharp as a tack, eschews medications, swims 8 miles in the freezing cold ocean every morning, and subsists on a diet of cobwebs and green tea. Or their mysterious counterpart, the Good Old Person who smokes a pack a day, downs a double Scotch every evening, and has buried three spouses. (For some reason us middle-of-the-road types who struggle to get enough exercise, eat fruits and vegetables whenever we think of it, periodically quit drinking and then start right up again—we never seem to become Good Old People, at least in the collective imagination.) What Good Old People seem to have in common is the clapping, regardless of what they’re doing to or with their bodies. The clapping may or may not include conventional sexual activity, but it is always erotic. The Good Old People continue to love life.
I have no idea if I’ll be a Good Old Person or not, or if I’ll live long enough to find out. In the end, I’m just not sure how much I love being alive—there have been periods of my life when I longed for it all to be over, but lacked the conviction to do something about it. Probably by the time I get there, the mackerel-crowded seas will be a desiccated hellscape of bleached coral and tangled garbage. Maybe it will be hard to care enough to stick around. Or—maybe a new Byzantium will have arisen in the meantime, and there will be new commitments, new work, new sources of joy and hope. I hate that I do not—cannot—know which future awaits. But step one of becoming a Good Old Person, I think, is making peace with the not knowing.
You hear that, Kilman and Clack?
I realize that I’m using the words “widow” and “spinster” interchangeably throughout. I think you’ll soon see what I mean.
Obviously there are others I’m either not thinking of or ignoring. These are just the characters that leap to my mind when I think about 19th-century literary spinster- or widowhood. If you have others in mind that you think are more important, please write an essay about them. That was not snark—I am dead serious. I would read the hell out of that.
The entire novel is in her, or someone else’s, head.
I do know plenty of people who continue to run into their 50s and beyond—they are maybe blessed with springier cartilage or something.
Shout-out to the members of Mr. Waffle’s soccer team, Memento Mori.
Kind of like how the first time you play bridge or mah jongg, in your 20s or 30s, it’s hilariously retro, but by the time you’re a couple of decades older you’re just an old person playing bridge or mah jongg.
Warning: it also is full of unregenerate exoticization of, and blatant racism toward, its Indian characters. It is thus a great novel for teaching students about Victorian attitudes towards race and empire.