Maybe not "contented" - But historically it was a reputable lifestyle choice
“Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think. Rutherford wrote novels; Wyland was one of the Embassy secretaries; he had just given us dinner at Tempelhof – not very cheerfully, I fancied, but with the equanimity which a diplomat must always keep on tap for such occasions. It seemed likely that nothing but the fact of being three celibate Englishmen in a foreign capital could have brought us together, … ”
So begins the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton from 1936. At that time, it was not unfashionable for three celibate bachelors to meet together in a book where the protagonist Conway, also a bachelor (though not necessarily for the rest of his/their lives) and the hero of this tale will have a starring role as a diplomat and Empire builder.
Such scenes happened in real life: “Strange to think of these three men, these three sickly bachelors, all born in the same year, an Englishman [Cecil Rhodes], a Scot [Leander Starr Jameson], and a German Jew [Alfred Beit], making this great, untamed country the work of their lives” (Rhodes by Sarah Millin, 1933) – these three statesmen would have met together in their time, late 19th century.
It was a time when being celibate and a self-confessed bachelor was no obstacle to public progress. Today however people may well be a lot shyer to define their degree of celibacy as men or as women, commoner for men. Why? Would they be incels (involuntarily celibate) or truly contented like Professor Higgins in Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw?
Professor Henry Higgins joins a queue of fictitious long term distinguished bachelors (at least for the duration of these tales, some of them end up in a relationship) alongside Sherlock Holmes, Phileas Fogg and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s detective character is an example of spinsterhood in fiction (few details seem to be given for this as Miss Marple noses out the innards of other’s lives in these “whodunnits”).
Being single was not easy for women and a “contented spinster” did not quite cut it historically. In 19th century Britain, all women were expected to marry and those who did not had either failed or were eccentric or very rich or a bit of all three.
As Anne De Courcy makes clear in The Fishing Fleet – Husband Hunting in the Raj (2012), the only acceptable jobs for middle class single women were being a paid chaperone to an often-disagreeable older woman or to be some sort of governess, nanny or teacher. The pay was poor and left nothing for retirement. Being single was not a safe option and this applies to a lesser extent, even today. Yet between 1851 and 1911, 1/3rd of women between 25-35 and 15-19% of women between 35-45 were unmarried. These proportions increased as men moved out to immigrate or work around the world including the British Empire. Women had a hard time finding husbands, and so also began chasing men abroad. This in turn created a pool of bachelor men. At the time, they were expected to support their wives by their incomes and poorer men simply could not afford this. In a family with male children, not all could be expected to support a wife – especially the younger ones. Many such men remained bachelors at home. In 1841, there may have been one prostitute for every twelve adult males in London (55,000 prostitutes), including those from a pool of bachelors. The pressure was on for both sexes to seek prospects abroad if they didn’t wish to be single.
At a time with a simpler definition of sexuality, being a bachelor, contented or otherwise was an accepted lifestyle choice. Perhaps more so than today, where only the epithet single will do for middle aged or older men given other paradigms one can claim to fit into such as being “LBGTQ”. There were other words that fitted this spectrum at the time like Dandy or Uranian. Some have tried to argue that the contented bachelors were often gay, but this seems far from the truth. Even the term gay, in a modern sense can hide as well as reveal and is not explicit about a man’s sexual proclivities. Some men like many women, may just have been uncomfortable with sex and this may remain the case, even if inadmissible in public.
There were people like Bernard Shaw who may have entered into a “marriage of convenience” (an institution that no longer seems to exist sadly) where a man and woman were publicly, a couple but privately didn’t bother with sex. Shaw is rumoured to have been celibate.
Many prominent men and women were bachelors or spinsters, especially from the pages of Victoriana where sex seemed to be strictly behind covers. There is a chance to review a few of the more prominent ones though female examples remain less well known and not documented at a level to make comparable lists. Fewer women are therefore featured given spinsterhood was not a badge of honour historically – a situation that may be changing. It has generally been a given that the state of singleness is easier for men than women, even if women wished it, for a number of reasons.
Women had fewer or lesser legal and educational rights in most Abrahmic societies until quite recently and were treated a little like property to be given away to a man, regardless of consent. Young women would be, as they are now, pestered by men or even threatened with rape: a relationship was a solution to this and offered protection. Children outside a relationship was very insecure and shameful for both mother and child in the absence of welfare – children were either left to die in ancient Greece or given for adoption or to “foundling” institutes. Women can develop ovarian diseases if they don’t get pregnant, though childbirth itself used to be dangerous for both mothers and children. Women in particular were more vulnerable in old age without the assistance of children or family. But in civilised societies outside the Abrahmic fold in particular (the monotheistic creeds promoted marriage for women more than others), some women were freer to choose to be unmarried if they wished.
Except for religious reasons, governments and societies have never encouraged being single as it burdens the state, institutes and families. Jane Austen famously started her best known romance in 1813 with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. People have less reason to live without dependents and the lonely may have shorter lives or may even have a greater tendency to kill themselves, especially in the case of younger, frustrated men who have the highest suicide rates. Single people may be more prone to getting into bad habits such as drinking or lechery and may tend to have even lonelier retirements and an early death with no one to care for them and no support from children and grandchildren. Their legacy and property would be a burden to disperse and dismantle at their deaths. Happily married men are often successful and their wives may be envied by lonely women. Singletons may have a tendency to being miserly, selfish, unprepossesive (ugly), shy or as in the case of jilted Miss Havisham (from Dicken’s Great Expectations), slightly mad.
The following list of selected single people were quite successful and influential historically. The definition of bachelor or spinster is mostly that they never married or had a significant long-term relationship. The age of death is approximate or from biographic sources.
Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519 (age 67): A scientist, artist and polymath. He is rumoured to have been gay but was largely if not wholly celibate.
Isaac Newton 1642-1726/27 (age 84): One of the most brilliant physicists of all time. According to Voltaire “was never sensible to any passion … nor had any commerce with women” assumed to have been a virgin.
David Hume 1711-1776 (age 65): Scottish philosopher, writer and historian. Never married. Was fond of port and cheese and got a little fat.
Immanuel Kant 1724-1804 (age 80): A brilliant philosopher who was so punctilious that people could set their clocks by the time he went for his walk. Never married but seemed happy.
Edward Gibbon 1737-1794 (age 57): Author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire among other influential treatises. Gibbon had a single love but was refused and remained unmarried. A prolific and highly influential writer, thinker and historian.
John Dalton 1766-1844 (age 78): The father of modern Chemistry. He was colour-blind.
Alexander von Humboldt 1769-1859 (age 89): Arguably, the father of modern biology who made the term "cosmos" popular. Explorer and prolific writer, Humboldt was very famous in his time and made immense contributions to natural history studies. He's rumoured to have been homosexual but his passion was his work and communication.
Ludwig Van Beethoven 1770-1827 (age 56): The music composer who largely chose to remain single. He used prostitutes.
Arthur Schopenhauer 1788-1860 (age 72): A notable German philosopher. Although he was a bachelor, he used prostitutes and had affairs.
Edward Lear 1812-1888 (age 75): Victorian artist, naturalist and poet. Possibly homosexual, Lear had an interesting and creative life and is best known now for his nonsense poetry.
Friedrich Nietzche 1844-1900 (age 56): Famous German philosopher. Was refused marriage by the woman he loved. Probably contracted syphilis from brothels.
Thomas Lipton 1848-1931 (83): Businessman and tycoon who founded a transatlantic grocery empire and turned tea drinking to a global enterprise, selling it packaged rather than loose. Also a yatchtsman.
Horatio Herbert Kitchener 1850-1916 (age 65): Field Marshal Kitchener with his handlebar moustache was an acclaimed military man and colonial administrator who put down the Mahdi's army in Sudan and contributed to British victory in the Boer war. He encountered Rhodes (below) and belongs to a military type that eschewed women. Died by drowning during the First World War.
Cecil Rhodes 1853-1902 (age 48): Mining magnate, founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the De Beers diamond company. Rhodes knew he only had a short life ahead and after amassing a vast fortune, proceeded to expand the British Empire and help unite the Boers with the British. He denied being a “woman hater” to Queen Victoria but avoided ladies. Many of his close friends were also bachelors.
Thomas Edward Lawrence 1888-1935 (age 46): Archaeologist and military leader who led an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. He was also a scholar and writer who penned the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and was idolised in life and death.
Other men not detailed here include Jesus (he was quite young and relationships are undocumented) Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Alan Turing, Cliff Richard and scores of others including soldiers, politicians, influential scientists, writers and artists.
“I never will marry, I’ll be no man’s wife ...” - Linda Ronstad
The term spinster may not be fashionable, but it shouldn't really be a problem in the modern world when many women choose to be single and not have any children. This may be rarer than bachelordom but should be nothing to be ashamed of. Here's a shorter list than above:
Ambapali c.450 BCE (age probably >50): She was an Indian courtesan regarded as too beautiful to marry. Became a disciple of the Buddha and ended her life as a nun.
Hypatia c. 350-415 (age c. 65): Greek mathematician and philosopher at Alexandria. Scorned sexual relations and was murdered for being a Pagan.
Elizabeth 1st of England 1533-1603 (age 69): One of the greatest English monarchs and described as the virgin queen though not necessarily believed as such by historians.
Jane Austen 1775-1817 (age 41): Austen's fame is based on her romantic novels at a time when women were not taken seriously as writers. We actually know little of her private life as lots of her papers were destroyed. She wrote in a letter "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection" and some of her characters do conform to this (in both senses of this). One of her promising relationships never got far enough.
Lucy Hester Stanhope 1776-1839 (age 63): English archaeologist, explorer and eccentric who lived in the Middle East.
Marianne North 1830-1890 (age 59): English naturalist, explorer and botanical painter who spent much of her life travelling. She did much work in Brazil among other tropical regions and left a prolific legacy of paintings behind her.
Florence Nightingale 1820-1910 (age 90): The English pioneer of modern nursing. She gathered statistical evidence to demonstrate how poor hospital care can kill more than in the fields of battle during the Crimean War.
Mary Slessor 1848-1915 (age 66): English missionary in Africa who helped eliminate infanticide among the Africans she worked with. She encountered Kingsley below.
Mary Kingsely 1862-1900 (age 37): African explorer, naturalist, anthropologist and famous writer. African women used to ask her about her lack of a husband. She was against missionaries and Western colonial policies and sadly died of illness in the Boer War.
Helen Keller 1880-1968 (age 87): The American disabled champion rendered blind and deaf as a baby. Amazingly, Keller learned to speak and wrote several books remaining lifelong companion with her teacher, who opened up her world as a child.
Greta Garbo 1905-1990 (age 84): Famous deep voiced Swedish Hollywood actress who was shy melancholic and guarded her privacy. She left behind a voluble legacy.
Rosalind Franklin 1920-1958 (age 37): Dr Franklin was an influential Jewish scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA. Her early death probably prevented her from receiving a Nobel Prize for her contributions. Franklin’s promising career was sadly cut off by cancer though she kept working and had influential students.
With the human population swelling to 7.5 billion, there is probably a need for more bachelors and celibates who help look after the rest of them. Society has in the past catered for this in Buddhism and Christianity with the establishment of communities of both monks and nuns who chose celibacy and provided services in education and healthcare.
The modern consumer society still seems to disparage being single as if it's something to be a shamed of, notwithstanding the complexities of explaining yourself away by appealing to being in the LGBTQ fraternity.
Being single may be thanks to sexuality, aloofness or a deeply held spiritual transcendence or genius. It should now be welcomed as a lifestyle choice that need not be overmuch questioned, especially for women. We are often not single by choice, circumstances have just turned that way for us. Let's celebrate the advantages and be open to it without having to close the door to potential partnerships.
The Victorians & subsequent generations certainly embraced being single, especially for men. Maybe “sexual liberation” (the pill) in the 1960s made singletons appear inadequate in some way and consumer culture keeps pushing relationships? Bachelors and increasingly women, should also be free to flatter themselves as contented spinsters, with freedoms aflame.