By C. Margery Kempe

The weight of a word: it can be hard to assess until it's suddenly thrust into our hands. I remember so well heading to the registry office in Leeds at a frightfully early hour with our two friends who had been drafted as witnesses. It was midwinter, the shortest day of the year (as it turned out, perhaps not the best choice, although prescient). We had planned to get married the year before, but his parents refused to countenance the idea and it was all called off (we did drink the crate of champagne with our names on it that my parents bought :-\ after all what else could we do?).

"Don't ever ask me again," I told him. "I won't do it." Yet here I was about a year and a half later, just about to do exactly that. We have a lot of romantic notions tied to the idea of marriage: impossible notions that cannot be realised and aren't really what you need to maintain a long-term relationship. What did I know? I was angry and sad about the canceled wedding -- and disappointed that he had let me down (and that he would not stand up to his parents for me).

But then there's the sweet times and there's the great sex and there's the big brown puppy eyes and the gorgeous head of black curls and the romance inherent in the idea of eloping. I have realised lately that my whole life has been built around the principle so well enumerated by Grace Hopper, that "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission." I knew my folks would be disappointed, but I knew they would forgive me. I didn't want all the hectic folderol that had been part of the wedding process. I just wanted things to be good.

So the registry office it was; December 21st because the semester was over and exams done. I had a new dress, he had a smart suit and we filled out the forms before the ceremony and that's when I saw the word.


People who have not been married before had special terms to describe them: Middle English terms! He was a bachelor -- like an unmarried knight from a medieval romance with all the cachet that term had in 90s nouveau-swinger culture. But I was a spinster. I was both shocked and amused. Really, England? Spinster?! Sure it referred to the time honored tradition of spinning (something the Fates know a lot about) but there was a derision to the term that bothered me as well. Why couldn't I just be me -- not a woman who was defined by her lack of marriage? The popular image of the spinster aunt, developed to keep women in the bounds of heteronormativity (i.e. doing what is expected of women to maintain a comfortable life for men), made people look upon spinsters with pity and revulsion.

They have since changed the forms -- more to accommodate gay marriage than to rid us of that stigma -- but I find myself wishing I could reclaim it. The marriage, as you've probably guessed, didn't go that well (any man who can't stand up to his parents is not worth your time), but there was some fun while it lasted. And I giggled through the ceremony (even before the champagne) because it reminded me of a Monty Python routine when I had to repeat his long list of given names in the vows.

We had a lovely (albeit delayed) honeymoon in the Borders region where I met the real love of my life Vic Reeves (only joking -- or am I?) as well as reading A. S. Byatt's fantastic novel Possession which made the sunny beaches of Scotland (yes, it's true -- they were sunny that year!) pale in comparison to the world of that love story. And that's as it should be: in books we can be and do everything that mere life always falls short of in the execution. Many of us become writers because we know the power of creating worlds -- and relationships -- that fit together satisfactorily, that make sense and that come together with a narrative cohesion that the messiness of life seldom achieves but in the retelling.

Spinsters are wise enough to hold on to that knowledge.


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