In 1917 the Headmistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls made a chilling announcement to her sixth form: ‘I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever marry … Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.’ She was right: 700,000 British soldiers died in the First World War, and over a million and a half were wounded. Ghastly and unthinkable though their fate was, it has been endlessly commemorated with Remembrance days, with war memorials and a literature which still continues to grow. The women who were left behind are forgotten. The Census of 1921 revealed a surplus of one and three-quarter million women over men. These Surplus Women form the subject of Virginia Nicholson’s book. She succeeds triumphantly in telling the human story behind the demographic statistic.
Being condemned to a lifetime of spinsterhood was especially hard for women who had been programmed by their Victorian mothers to seek fulfilment through men, love, marriage and children. Society had never been kind to spinsters. Victorian maiden aunts with wispy buns and ruined hopes were caricatured and despised as