When Rachel and Carolyn announced that they were planning a Virago Reading Week for this week, I was very excited. I’ve gathered a nice little collection of Virago Modern Classics, several of them editions with the iconic green spine well known by Virago lovers; perhaps this week would motivate me to finally take one off the shelf and read it! I decided to start with the green VMC that I believe has been on my shelves the longest, Spinster by Sylvia Ashton-Warner. And now I’m in the awkward position of coming to the Virago party with a less than laudatory post.
Before I launch into a description of my problems, let me step back and tell you a bit about the book. Initially published in 1958, Spinster is the story of a 34-year-old woman named Anna Vorontosov who teaches young Māori and white children in a small New Zealand school. Written from Anna’s first-person point of view and in a stream-of-consciousness style, the book takes readers through a year in Anna’s life. When the novel begins, a new young teacher named Paul Vercoe has just joined the school, and Anna’s job appears to be in some sort of jeopardy. Anna launches herself into each day with a brandy, and she defends the trees in the schoolyard while looking for some sort of key that will enable her to reach the small children in her care.
I have a love/hate relationship with stream-of-consciousness narration. Done well, it can be extremely effective, but it’s tough to bring readers into a character’s mind. The character doesn’t have to explain her thoughts to herself, the associations and wanderings in her mind make sense to her, but they won’t necessarily make sense to the reader. Stepping into this book felt far too much like stepping into the middle of a story, and it took me a while to feel I understood much of anything.
This struggle to understand would be forgivable if it had led me into the mind of an interesting character, but I wasn’t far into the book before I developed an intense dislike for Anna. She is the embodiment of almost every unpleasant stereotype I can think of about spinsters. As a never-married woman approaching 40, I was hoping this book would be a celebration of what a spinster’s life can be or, failing that, a serious examination of some of the trials of the solitary life. But Anna was so pathetic that I could not take an interest in her. She’s afraid of men and annoyingly naive about them; she spends much of her time mooning over Eugene, the love she gave up years ago, and mourning for the children they might have had. Although she claims (and sometimes exhibits) devotion to her Little Ones at the school, whenever a man enters the picture, her emotions are thrown into a tailspin. I know women like her exist—and perhaps many of us have moments of being such women—but I don’t want to spend a whole book in the mind of such a woman.
What makes it worse is that Ashton-Warner herself was a married teacher in New Zealand and, according to the introduction to this edition, Anna “was based on the devoted, admirable unmarried women who had been important to the author in her days at school and as a trainee teacher.” So it’s not even an accurate rendering of an actual spinster’s inner life, which I could accept more easily. Instead, it draws from the married author’s assumptions about spinster life, and that just rubs me the wrong way.
At about the halfway point, I very nearly gave up and even drafted a post about why I didn’t finish. However, I decided to press on because there is some arresting prose in the book, and I enjoyed Anna’s interactions with the children. There are some hilarious sequences in which each child in the room mispronounces her name, Vorontosov, in a different way: Miss Vottot, Miss Vontofoff, Miss Voffa, Miss Foffof. I was also vaguely interested in some of her educational ideas, which I understand did draw from Ashton-Warner’s own teaching experiences. The last half of the book, which focused more on Anna’s teaching, was a big improvement over the frustrating first half; however, Anna’s tendency toward melodramatic flights of fancy continued to annoy me.
Although I regret that my Virago Reading Week post is a bit of a downer, I’m sure I’ll find many other wonderful Viragos to read from others’ posts. Rachel and Carolyn are posting round-ups of the various Virago-themed reviews, giveaways, and more at their blogs, so check those out for possibly more appealing Virago choices.