Top 5 Spinsters in Historical Costume Movies

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I just love the word “spinster.” It conjures up aging aunts, many MANY cats, and teapots on doilies. But, you know, single ladies have always been fabulous, whether they embrace a “poor me” take on things or rock out with their independence. So let’s celebrate some of my favorite never-married women from historical costume movies!

Because remember…

All the Single Ladies gif

If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it.

 

Aunt Agatha in Poldark

Poldark

I wasn’t too sure about her in early episodes, but by the end of season one, Aunt Agatha — great aunt to Francis, Verity, and Ross Poldark — was winning with her cutting remarks.

Poldark Poldark

 

Miss Havisham in Great Expectations

I don’t think we can talk spinsters without including Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ novel! Famously left at the altar, she still wears her 30ish-years-old wedding dress, and schools her adopted daughter Estella to hate all men.

Charlotte Rampling, Miss Havisham, Great Expectations, 1999

Charlotte Rampling, 1999

 

Sybella Melven in My Brilliant Career

Sybylla: I have always known — that I belonged to — the world — of art — and the world — of — literature — and music.

Here’s someone who wrestles with the CHOICE of being a spinster, to glorious effect. Sybella wants to write novels, and given that she lives in turn-of-the-century Australia, getting married to the man she loves would mean trading away a life focused on writing.

My Brilliant Career

Judy Davis as Sybella

 

Charlotte in A Room With a View

room with a view

Cousin and chaperone to protagonist Lucy, at first older Charlotte seems like a wet blanket. But as she befriends a “lady novelist” and the story unfolds, Charlotte turns out to actually be a good egg!

A Room with a View (1986)

Maggie Smith as Charlotte

Maggie Smith, A Room With a View, 1985

 

Elizabeth I in Everything

Another — this time, based-on-a-real-person — character who chooses spinster-dom. Getting married would have meant that Queen Elizabeth I of England would have been subordinate to her husband. She used her single-dom to her effect, flirting with the idea of marrying various people for love and for politics, and this tension-filled dance is frequently the focus of movie and TV adaptations.

Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

Marot Robbie in the forthcoming Mary Queen of Scots movie

Fire Over England (1937)

Flora Robson in Fire Over England (1937)

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I

Bette Davis in The Virgin Queen (1955)

 

Which historical movie and TV spinsters have I missed?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

23 Responses

    • Anonymous

      Miss Bingley is still young (she’s only in her early 20s, around the age of Elizabeth and Jane, isn’t she?), pretty, and wealthy, so I don’t doubt she got married to someone rich and well connected once she realised Darcy was out of her reach:)

      Reply
  1. India

    How could you miss out the wonderful Martita Hunt in the equally wonderful David Lean 1946 “Great Expectations”? It had everyone and everything. The scene where Pip first meets Magwitch (Finlay Currie) still haunts my dreams.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Also, Jean Simmons, who played the young Estella in the Lean version, later played Havisham in a television production in 1991.

      Reply
  2. Melanie

    Miss Austen Regrets/Becoming Jane! Or the ladies of Cranford.

    Also, I know she’s not a spinster by the end of the movie, but I LOVE Katharine Hepburn’s Rose in The African Queen.

    Reply
      • Janet Nickerson

        ‘As I must leave off being young, I can sit by the fire and drink as much wine as I like.’ Miss Austen with No Regrets!
        There’s also Charlotte Lovell in ‘The Old Maid’ – can’t get more spinsterish than that!

        Reply
  3. Hillary

    How about Marilla Cuthbert from “Anne of Green Gables”? She’s tough as nails yet soft as kitten fur. :) <3

    Reply
    • Melanie

      Oooh, yes! I reread Anne of Green Gables last year and was surprised at how much more I identified with Marilla than with Anne. Outside of Marilla’s lack of imagination, of course. :)

      Reply
    • lady Hermina De Pagan

      But it has to be Colleen Dewhurst’s Marilla not the Netflix version with Geraldine James or Sara Botsfoth in the 2016 version.

      Reply
      • Melanie

        Yes. I’m not a 1985-or-bust fan and I was actually really enjoying Geraldine James’ take in the first episode of Anne, but then starting with ep2 everything went to pot. Such a waste of talent on unbelievably crappy writing.

        Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        Definitely Ms Dewhurst. She is and will always be Marilla.

        Reply
        • Kate D

          Yes! I just reread the Anne of Green Gables series; Marilla was wonderful and had more humor than I remembered! Ms. Dewhurst is perfect.

          Reply
  4. Charity

    I love almost all of these (haven’t seen “My Brilliant Career”). Charlotte cracks me the hell up. I don’t really love that story but she was hysterically funny and irritating. Miss Havisham is always fabulous — I actually really enjoyed Gillian Anderson’s take on her. But Elizabeth will always be my girl. I think I was like 12 when I discovered her, and that she never married, and was like HELL YES, GIRL YOU RULE THAT COUNTRY. As a perpetually single (by choice) person, I appreciate her forever independence.

    Reply
  5. Jill Cochran

    The Aunt Agatha Poldark (from the 1975 series), played by Eileen Way, was also a wonderfully snarky spinster. I wish I could find a picture of her!

    Reply
    • Susan Pola Staples

      Oh, yes and especially the younger sister played by Victoria Hamilton.
      Would Dorcas qualify bc she CHOSE not to marry.

      Reply
  6. Liesl

    I lovingly submit Cousin Bette. Some spinster seamstresses just want to watch the world burn.

    Reply
  7. Laura Boyes

    Flora Robson did play Elizabeth I in Fire Over England, with Laurence Olivier. You chose a photo of her playing Elizabeth ! in The Sea Hawk, opposite Errol Flynn.

    Reply
  8. Amanda

    As much as I relate to Poor Charlotte, the Room With a View spinster I really want to be is dashing lady novelist Eleanor Lavish.

    Reply

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