It could be argued that Jane Austen had a soft spot for spinsters, possibly since she was essentially one herself; spinsters feature prominently in four of her six novels. Tellingly, her spinsters are sympathetic and honorable characters, worthy of friendship and respect, and certainly not to be punished for their lack of husbands: Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice, until she marries far beneath her intellect to prevent spinsterhood), Anne Elliot (Persuasion), and Miss Bates (Emma).
In Mansfield Park, the weak characters and morals of Maria Bertram Rushworth and Mary Crawford leave them both without a match at the conclusion of the story, the implication being that these deficiencies will likely lead them either to further ruinous behavior or soon to be past the age of interest. Maria is banished to “another country” with her Aunt Norris (and if two people ever deserved the other more…).
The same outcome could likewise be argued for Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. She played all angles to no positive effect, having presumed incorrectly that the Morlands had fortune, that Captain Tilney would make her an offer, and that Catherine would remain her trusty trout despite all the passive aggressive machinations.
So the two Austen novels without spinsters have sinu viperam habere – literally a snake in the breast. I daresay no one feels sorry for the likes of Maria Bertram Rushworth, Mary Crawford, or Isabella Thorpe, so I hypothesize that Austen refrained from placing them firmly on the shelf in the course of her stories. These ladies (and I use the term anatomically rather than dispositionally), are likely to get what they deserve in censure from society, and are unworthy to be lumped in with the genteel victims-of-circumstance that are spinsters.
An old maid; their punishment after death, for neglecting increase and multiply, will be, it is said, leading apes in hell.
Because there’s nothing like finding a contemporaneous source to support your research, I give you an excerpt from The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c., 1816, in which The Female Tattler relates a letter she received on the validity and suitability of use of the term ape leader. Fair warning: the “curious inquirer” author of said letter is a real dicked-in-the-nob peach.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Read everything in The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c, 1816 if you feel so led.