'Old Maids’: family and social relationships of never-married Scottish gentlewomen, c.1740–c.1840.
Duncan, Alison Jean
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The thesis argues that never-married gentlewomen dissociated themselves from negative and ubiquitous stereotypes of the old maid by focussing on their gentility rather than their marital status. By demonstrably fulfilling the familial and social roles which belonged to their sex and rank, and by representing themselves in terms of approved genteel feminine virtues and conduct, they located themselves in networks of social reciprocity which extended from household and family into the wider social sphere. In doing so they confounded popular caricatures of mature unmarried women as selfish parasites whose failure to marry and procreate drained the resources of their natal families and undermined the nation’s strength. The thesis focuses on a number of case studies drawn from the extensive collections of family papers in the National Records of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland. Several of these never-married women were kin by birth or marriage, and their correspondence illustrates the reach of their relationship networks, their status, and influence. Their personal and, in some cases, published writing shows how they used ideals of gentility and associated language to support the familial and social positions they claimed. The thesis chapters examine the relationships they forged, and the resulting influence they were able to exercise, by considering them variously as members of households headed by male kin, as heads of their own households, and as familial patrons. While never-married women are increasingly the subjects of research, the lives of never-married gentlewomen remain under-examined. Yet gentlewomen, habituated to writing as an essential social skill, have left a wide range of sources by which their management of social status and singlehood can be assessed. This thesis shows some of the perspectives opened up by study of these sources.