The shadow of marriage: singleness in England 1914-1960

Katherine Holden

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007. Hardback, pp 257
ISBN 978-0-7190-6892-8

Reviewed by Stephanie Kirby
Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK

In her 2005 exploration of the state of scholarship in the history of nursing Barbara Mortimer asks just how universal is nursing and how important is it to social, gender and health care historians?[1] I initially approached Katherine Holden's book with a view to finding some answers to these questions. And on one level it does provide some answers. For instance Holden discusses some aspects familiar to historians of nursing as she highlights the importance of single women in child rearing, hospitals, and children's homes. Unmarried women made up the bulk of staff in these areas. Although she argues that the myth of the lost generation of marriageable men following the First World War has been overemphasised, she concedes that the officer class was worst hit and that this had repercussions on the women of that class. They had of necessity to establish themselves with a professional identity. Indeed they were warned of the need to earn their living as professional women by their teachers at school. Added to this the existence of the marriage bar in most professions made the choice between marriage and a career inevitable. In the 1930s half of single professional women aged 35-44 were teachers and well over one third in the same age group were trained sick nurses, with a smaller proportion of these women trained as doctors. A large proportion of them were living and working in institutions. As well as providing them with a living, teaching and careers in health and welfare such as nursing also gave working class girls opportunities for social mobility.

Holden shows the reader the paradox in this: commentators were worried about the extent to which of these professional women teachers were influencing their pupils to plough the same furrow and so prevent the next generation of young women from becoming wives and mothers. Historians of nursing will find resonance of this in the depictions of matrons as ‘Victorian dragons' in the interwar commissions of enquiry into the state of nursing. Other echoes will be found in the stories of ‘dutiful daughters' who supported parents, and nieces and nephews, both physically and financially.

In a change to the professional agenda that dominates much of the history of nursing this book gives us a chance to see the relationship between professionals and their clients from both perspectives. Between the wars two parallel trends, the formalisation of fostering and adoption and the professionalization of childcare led to a situation where single, childless professionals were often at odds with the mothers who were their clients. Although paradoxically the Truby King baby care system with its routine helped many working class mothers manage a heavy work load and an infant. Thus historians of nursing can view nurses as an occupational group with regional and class differences positioned within the wider framework of single people in the years 1914-1960.

However to merely assess its relevance to the history of nursing would be to do this remarkable book a great disservice. Holden sets out to recover ‘hidden' lives; she considers not only professional women but also the stories of working class single men and women. In pursuit of her aim she sites an impressive array of sources- official reports, legislation, fiction, film, oral histories and the use of self, reflecting on her own and her family's experiences. Her cogent narrative is written in an accessible style. Regional, class and gender differences are highlighted. For instance there were less destitute women than men, yet fewer single women had servants. Single women were expected to do their own cooking and cleaning whereas men in lodgings were often treated as surrogate sons of the house with meals, washing and ironing included in their tenancy provisions. That society had an almost heroic opinion of men learning to take on domestic tasks is graphically illustrated on the dust jacket. It also illustrates another theme thrown up by the sources- that of the way in which gender affected the images of single men and women. Young men about town are contrasted with battle axe spinsters; jolly bachelor uncles with restrictive maiden aunts.

The hidden lives are illuminated by oral evidence. Holden's skill as an interviewer is evidenced by the depth and delicacy of the material she elicits. One respondent wrote to her after a lapse of several years to give her more information of a sensitive nature and to explain his earlier reticence. The experiences of single people as carers both for elderly parents and children are covered with insight. This is especially true for the accounts of sons looking after widowed mothers. Although there were some supporting voices, the formalisation of adoption and fostering meant that previous avenues for single people to foster and adopt children were closed. In a parallel with contemporary practice, it was children with ‘special needs' single women were allowed to adopt with healthy babies reserved for the nuclear family. The oral histories show just how complicated their situation was. The stigma of unmarried motherhood meant that many single adoptive mothers had their children refer to them as ‘aunty' instead of mummy' lest it be thought that they were illegitimate. Single women were encouraged to work in child care or teaching to sublimate their unfulfilled maternal urges, yet at the same time viewed with suspicion that they might have an undue influence on their charges. Single men who enjoyed the company of children either as blood or informal uncles felt an awkwardness in their position.

Holden is creative in her use of the life stories of members of her extended family, citing the relationship between her great aunt Norah, a trained Truby King Nurse, and married female relatives as an example of the conflict between the single professional and the mother. Holden concludes that despite changes in society since 1960 the dominance of ‘the couple' still prevails. She regrets that because of constraints of length she could not discuss the topic of friendship as fully as she would have liked. This was an area when she started her work on singleness in the 1990s that was under researched. Again historians of nursing who have interviewed retired career nurses will recognise the importance of this theme.

On a personal level this book made me reflect on my own family. It caused me to think anew on many single people who were part of my childhood landscape.

Thus not only is the book a ‘must read' for historians of nursing, but one for nurses caring for older people.


  1. Barbara Mortimer B. 2005, ‘The History of Nursing: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow', in Mortimer B. and McGann S. (Eds), New Directions in the History of Nursing, International Perspectives, London: Routledge, 1-21.