There is a certain breed of reader who tries to spot the glorious forest green spines of Virago Modern Classics each time they enter a bookshop. Reader, I am one of them. I therefore quickly located a copy of Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Spinster, a book which I had wanted to read for years, on a pre-Christmas trip to an Oxfam Bookshop, and picked it up immediately.
In Spinster, Ashton-Warner tells the story of Anna Vorontosov, ‘spinster and genius’, who works as a teacher for Maori children in a remote New Zealand town, in the North Island area of Hawke’s Bay. Anna is described as a ‘passionate woman, uncertain and gauche in her relations with men’; rather racy, it seems, for a novel first published in 1958. Anna is able to find peace ‘only in her schoolroom, her garden and the little back room where she struggles to create the works which will set her beloved children free.’
The Virago Modern Classics edition features an introduction written by the poet Fleur Adcock. She writes that Spinster is ‘a remarkable book: one could almost say a better book than it deserves to be… Somehow the country school-teacher who wanted an audience for her ideas about the teaching of reading had almost accidentally created not just a bestseller but a work of art.’ She goes on to comment on the ‘fresh, lively writing’, as well as the ‘suspense of a kind which does not seem artificial, and… a warm, half-exasperated, half-amused love for the children on whom the whole depends.’ Adcock also points out that in Spinster, ‘Ashton-Warner continues to use a first-person narrator who is both herself and not herself.’ She calls her ‘a convincing fictional character’ who is ‘certainly rooted in her creator’s experience.’
I got a feel for Anna and her peculiarities quite quickly. In just the second paragraph, Ashton-Warner creates a motif which is repeated at several points throughout the book: ‘But here is the spring again with its new life, and as I walked down my back steps ready for school in the morning I notice the delphiniums. They make me think of men. The way they bloom so hotly in the summer, then die right out of sight in the winter, only to push up mercilessly again when the growth starts, is like my memory of love.’ Anna lives frugally, and relies heavily upon a tumbler of brandy, which she drinks each morning before school. Our narrator comments: ‘Yet I teach well enough on brandy. Once it has lined my stomach and arteries I don’t feel Guilt. It supplies me with a top layer to my mind so that I meet fifty Maori infants as people rather than as the origin of the Inspector’s displeasure…’.
Anna is rather cynical about her profession. She comments: ‘No other job in the world could possibly dispossess one as completely as this job of teaching. You could stand all day in a laundry, for instance, still in possession of your mind. But this teaching utterly obliterates you.’ She is overwhelming proud, however, to be the custodian of her pupils, whom she calls ‘Little Ones’. She says: ‘I am made of their thoughts and their feelings. I am composed of sixty-odd different pieces of personality. I don’t know what I have been saying or what I will say next, and little of what I am saying at the time.’
So many shouts and demands from her pupils have been included, in long and quite disorientating conversational exchanges. There is always a real awareness of ‘… dozens of infants talking and working and playing and laughing and crying and embracing and quarrelling and singing and making.’ I found this quite jarring, if I am honest. Ashton-Warner successfully conveys the clamour and chaos of a large group of small children, but I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this. So many characters are introduced at once that it feels like a real assault on the senses.
Spinster is very much of its time, and a lot of the language used within it to denote different groups of people was thankfully outlawed long ago. Anna is quite a complex character, and this becomes more apparent as the novel moves from one season to the next. Anna’s complexity, to me, had the effect of confusing the narrative somewhat. She oscillates back and forth between past and present relationships, and her feelings for a colleague.
Spinster was a novel which brought Ashton-Warner immediate fame; it was later turned into a feature film. Time Magazine calls it a ‘major literary masterpiece’, and fellow Virago-published author Penelope Mortimer admired the ‘explosive passion of Ashton-Warner’s prose, and the ‘eruption of innocent sensuality which is quite remarkable.’
Spinster is readable and written well enough, but I did not personally find it a compelling novel. The stream-of-consciousness style which Ashton-Warner adopts is something which I ordinarily love, but here, I found it difficult to connect with. I feel, too, that an opportunity was missed; much of the action takes place inside, or in the confined space of Anna’s garden, so there is very little description included about the New Zealand setting.
Little happens in Spinster; it is a character study, and not an entirely scintillating or convincing one at that. Like a lot of readers, I preferred the second half of the novel to the first, but I am doubtful as to whether I will remember much about it in years to come. Parts of Spinster were interesting, but others felt overdone, or a touch repetitive. The novel was not quite what I was expecting, and I do not feel compelled to read any of Ashton-Warner’s other books in future.