“It Girls and Old Maids: Satiric Wit and the Single Woman in the Anglo-American Novel (1918-1958)” argues for a feminist reconsideration of strategic humor in popular women’s novels. Spanning the decades between the first successful suffrage laws in Britain and the United States and second-wave feminism of the 1960s, the British and American “modernist middlebrow” novels I examine both challenge and align with literary convention; they each take on traditional subjects for women’s novels, yet their narrative strategies and use of satiric humor set them apart from literature which conforms to patriarchal tropes. Their techniques situate them within a feminist literary history, thus expanding an understanding of feminist intellectual work in the often over-looked decades between the “waves” of feminism. This dissertation highlights women’s satire as a mode of resistance, one which has gone largely ignored by critics due to a definition of satire that privileges aggression. Such a definition ignores the social and cultural pressures against women engaging in any mode of humor, let alone one defined by critique. Therefore, “It Girls and Old Maids” proposes a revised definition of satiric humor, one that better accommodates along female history which has necessarily had to be less overt in its presentation.
This dissertation offers readings of novels by Rebecca West, Anita Loos, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Winnifred Watson, Barbara Pym and Elaine Dundy and argues that humor is key to their negotiation with their audience, allowing these novelists to challenge normative conventions while still maintaining their popular appeal, and to make radical positions more palatable to an audience that might be ambivalent about more overt feminist efforts. Furthermore, “It Girls and Old Maids” proposes that when popular women novelists engage satiric humor in their treatment of traditionally female genres such as the romantic fantasy or fairy tale, they preserve the transformative potential of such fantasies while also critiquing their more limiting and patriarchal iterations. Finally, by focusing on the single female narrators of these novels, who fit into the social types of either the “It Girl” or the “Spinster,” I demonstrate how these authors both exploit and subvert single women’s identity categories to challenge the heteronormative status quo.