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Sylvia Ashton-Warner: Spinster

Nowadays, the word spinster seems particularly old-fashioned. Even then, it had negative connotations of a little old lady who had never been married and was probably a bit crusty and eccentric. When the book was made into a a very poor film, the American title became Two Loves, which was a particularly inept choice of title. That’s Hollywood for you.

The heroine of this novel – Anna Vorontosov (she sounds like someone out of a Russian nineteenth century novel) – is, indeed, a spinster. Her age is unclear as she varies it but she seems to be in her mid-forties. Like her creator, she is a teacher in an elementary school, catering both for Maori and white children, though with a majority of the former. She has a large number of pupils – again the number is unclear – and chaos is the order of the day. The pupils are of different ages and abilities. Many of them have family problems. Ashton-Warner brilliantly conveys to us the utter chaos of the classroom while, at the same time, showing a teacher who, though far from perfect, is loving and caring and thoughtful and committed.

There is a plot. A young teacher comes to the school. He is clearly unsure of himself and insecure. He drinks and sometimes misbehaves. He claims to be in love with Anna and, when she rejects him (because of the age difference, not because she is not interested), he threatens to leave the school and then kills himself. Though upset by his death, she is more upset by the later miscarriage of twins by one of her favourite (just) thirteen-old pupils. She has a good relationship with the headmaster, treating him like a brother rather than a boss, and, during the course of the book, develops a good relationship with the chief school inspector, Mr. Abercrombie. Abercrombie, at first critical of her methods, soon realises that she is doing wonders for the children and admires and supports her.

But Ashton-Warner’s success in this novel is to create an imperfect teacher who, nevertheless, generally succeeds. Anna drinks (brandy), makes mistakes, makes promises to the children that she cannot and won’t keep, is thoroughly disorganised and harps back to her lost love, Eugene. But her devotion to her pupils, while not in any way overt or smug, is what makes her succeed. The little episodes, as she struggles to train a teacher’s aide, while reading a story and organising a netball game and dealing with children with lice in their hair and listening to all the various problems of her charges, are superb. Her name, constantly mispronounced, is a source in itself of both mirth but also of commentary on teacher-pupil interaction. That Ashton-Warner had lived many of the scenes in this book is clear. This makes it all the more enjoyable and worthwhile.

Publishing history

First published 1958 by Secker & Warburg