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Response to Review no. 716

I would like to thank Tanya Evans for her generous review of my book and useful summary of the main aspects of singleness under discussion. It has been heartening to find that this area of research is no longer of such marginal concern to historians as it was when I first began my research nearly 20 years ago. The history of single women is now being studied in many different cultures and periods, all of which offer important comparative contexts for this book, although studies of single men are still thin on the ground. However, at a seminar on single women at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in June 2008 (which brought historians working in this area together) it was acknowledged that we are still only beginning to develop theories and concepts with which to interrogate marital status more broadly and singleness in particular. I have tried to make the theory, discussed mainly in the introduction, inform rather than intrude too obviously into the stories I tell about single men and women in the body of the book. This strategy was partly an effort to reach beyond the academic sphere and engage a wider audience. Thus, for example, rather than engaging with psychoanalysis as a central explanatory model for the book as a whole, I have drawn on it selectively and with a light touch, using ideas such as Freud’s ‘Family Romances’ and the concepts of ‘splitting’ and projection’ primarily as aids to understanding the internal conflicts inherent in single men and women’s relationships with children.

I also wanted to clarify and expand on a couple of points made by my reviewer. The statistics given about the proportion of adults in the population who were single and who had never married were derived from census data between 1891 and 1931. In 1951 a very different picture emerges, since the numbers of single people in the population declined substantially after the Second World War. It is only in this latter census that a higher proportion of young unmarried men (aged 20–35) in rural areas is apparent, explained partly by National Service camps. The class dimension of single people’s experiences at work and in old age also needs a little more explanation. While more bachelors and spinsters entered the teaching than any other profession, they did not of course represent a majority of unmarried working people and occupational pensions meant that this group (alongside other professional workers) were much less likely to have suffered economically in old age than the working and lower-middle class women represented by the National Spinsters Pension Association. The continuing difficulties for disabled war veterans to find work combined with high rates of male unemployment in the 1930s meant that working-class unmarried men were most likely to become destitute, having no organisation to represent their interests.

These and many other examples in my book show up the difficulties of generalising about a population defined by marital status during a period of rapid social, economic and demographic change. My hope is that my book will inspire more focussed studies of this important and still relatively neglected group.