An Alphabet of Feminism #23: W is for Widow
I’ll say one thing: the war makes the most peculiar widows.
Rhett Butler, Gone With The Wind (1939)
Widow is another Old English word, widewe (= widow…), which connects via the Indo-European vidhava, with the Latin viduus, meaning ‘bereft’ or (its other lexical descendent) ‘void’. This ‘vacancy’ at the etymological heart of the word seems perfect, if rather sad, since (as we all know) a widow is ‘a woman who has lost her husband by death and has not married again’.
Anyway, the emptiness immanent in the word widow is materially rather ironic, since, in European history at least, a lucky woman whose family had thrashed out a good dower-deal at her marriage was, in theory, entitled to most of the death-booty – as long as she didn’t marry Shakespeare and end up with the ‘second best bed‘, or fall foul of anti-female legalities (as in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility).
But if we assume all has gone right and your wealthy husband has obligingly shuffled off this mortal coil and done nothing unexpected with his will, widowhood comes with a golden handshake. Even a little bit of money leaves you with a degree of important independence, and historical widows have frequently exploited this, becoming, in some instances, iconic political figures. Notable widows of history have included: Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao and leader of the Gang of Four; the dowager Catherine de Medici, who machinated throughout the French Wars of Religion; Agrippina the Younger, super-Freudian mother of Nero; late-period Queen Victoria (dubbed ‘The Widow at Windsor’); Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife (and the most married queen in English history), whose main distinction is that she ‘survived’ … and even Jackie Kennedy Onassis, if you’re into that sort of thing.
On a more casual note, the independent widow was a culturally significant figure throughout European history, often dubbed the Merry Widow, as was the eponymous heroine of Franz Lehár’s operetta (1905). Not only does Lehár’s widow have her own theme tune, she also sparked a self-titled hat-craze, and attentive readers will note that this ‘ornate or wide-brimmed hat’ is worn at a rakish angle that rather suits Merry Widow‘s dictionary definition as a bereaved woman who is ‘amorous or designing’.
This idea goes back to the medieval age: the Scottish William Dunbar’s brilliantly phonetic poem ‘The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’ features a widow who sits in a field telling two married women she’s found from somewhere about the comparative excellence of her own state:
With him died all my dole and my dreary thoughts;
Now done is my duly night, my day is upsprungen,
Adieu dolour, adieu! My dainty now begins:
Now am I a widow, i-wis, and well am at ease…
William Dunbar, The Two Married Women and the Widow c.1490s
Anyone familiar with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath may recognise something of Alysoun’s archness here – unlike the other Older Woman, the old maid, the widow is a legitimately sexually experienced woman, often with a bit of money, who has, in consequence, less to lose than the young maiden. With this licence, the medieval widow is frequently presented as a bawdy sexual facilitator, and she is also free herself to run riot, cause scandals, wander around unchaperoned and facilitate other people’s sexual encounters with relative impunity.
Staring at the Sea
Of course, it’s not all sitting in fields and enjoying your inheritance: the widow‘s independent fortune certainly makes her a target for gold-diggers – as is the case with every Margaret Dumont character in every Marx Brothers film ever. There are also lots of interesting cases in literature where you know the absent husband’s in trouble because the vultures are circling round his wife – Odysseus’ Penelope is for a time a widow in the word’s second sense: ‘a wife separated from (or deserted by) her husband’. In addition to this, she also has to contend with house full of Suitors drinking her out of house and home on the (misguided) assumption that Odysseus is dead, rather than simply shagging Calypso on an island far, far away.
Penelope’s widowhood also lurks at the back of the North American term Widow’s Walk, ‘a railed or balustraded platform built on the roof, originally in early New England, for providing an unimpeded view of the sea’, and a highly evocative phrase suggestive of young Scarlett O’Hara-style sea-widows, whose British equivalents would probably have been provided for by the financial services company Scottish Widows, first set up in 1815 as a way to provide for (sexy) widows, sisters and daughters whose husbands were lost in the Napoleonic Wars.
The Penelopean widow doesn’t really exist any more, but widow‘s second meaning has a more modern significance first spotted in Late Middle English – ‘a wife whose husband devotes most of his time to a specified activity and is rarely at home’. Some readers may have heard the term ‘World Cup Widow‘ bandied about last year – other examples the dictionary gives include ‘golf widow‘ (sweet jeebus, get out of that one sistah…) and ‘business widow‘. There’s also the more niche example of the ‘Secret Society Widow’ – the Museum of Freemasonry in Covent Garden has a rather nice clock on display that was presented to the wife of a member ‘in gratitude for her allowing her husband his Lodge nights’. Here there is a sense of these women as being passive blocks on enjoyment for someone else – the World Cup Widow is basically me moaning about having a sudden dip in loving attentions because there are men in ridiculous shorts running around on a screen in a noisy pub… Ahem. I digress.
Kiss me in the shadow of a doubt
Anyway, here we reach the flip-side of the Merry Widow, best exemplified in Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favourite of his own films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). This features Joseph Cotton as the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’ with a venomous attitude towards these ‘horrible, faded, fat, greedy women’ that may be extreme, but nonetheless exemplifies the idea that a widow‘s financial independence actually renders her ‘useless’ and a hindrance to earthly happiness (read: money) for everyone else. On this, there’s an interesting little typographic significance of widow first recorded in the mid-twentieth century – she is ‘a short last line of a page or column considered undesirable’. That is, the widow represents a kind of hangover, something that is surplus to requirement, and no longer neatly slotted into a clear, neat unit.
As well as being targets for Hitchcockian serial killers, widows can also adopt this role themselves of course – the black widow is a criminal female whose widowhood is assumed to have been – shall we say – voluntary. This phrase originates from the black widow spider, a venomous North American spider, especially Latrodectus mactons, ‘the female of which usually devours its mate’. A fear of female power and often source of grim fascination, this term works rather interestingly with notable Rock Widows – Courtney Love, whom many genuinely accuse of having murdered Kurt Cobain; Yoko Ono, who was never really a popular fave to begin with; Priscilla Presley and even Faith Evans, widow of The Notorious B.I.G. and the brains behind a dodgy reworking of The Police.
These inevitably take on an important role as mediator of their husbands’ glory, and living blocks on libel, speculation and marketing opportunities. Courtney Love famously ‘released’ her husband’s suicide note to Nirvana fans and Yoko Ono wasted no time in putting together a posthumous Lennon album after his murder (reportedly showing up in the studio the very next day). The vitriol these women have variously attracted presumably relates to a sense of the widow as a figure standing between fan and artist, with a hefty inheritance and a team of lawyers. It also compares curiously with the hatred or suspicion directed at many of the Political Widows with which this post began.
But ultimately there are as many different types of widow as there are widows. This post has attempted not so much to categorise them as to suggest a few ways people have regarded them: Jackie O (tragically graceful); political dowager (devious and suspect); the rich survivor draped in Chanel and gullibility – and a middle-aged Scottish woman sitting in a field, really quite content with her lot.
Next week: X is for X