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Veiled Threats: Widows and Pseudowidows (2/2)

2013 October 23

Continued from Part 1!

Widow imagery on ‘The Gilmore Girls’

ParisThe Gilmore girls (of TV’s The Gilmore Girls) don’t have an awful lot in common with the thirteenth century Beguines. Paris Geller, on the other hand – Rory Gilmore’s nemesis, love rival, roommate, co-plotter and sometime editor – also attracts ridicule as a young woman who presumes on the privileges of widowhood.

Her affair with her professor, the novelist Asher Fleming, is treated by most people as a slightly tacky fling between a vain older man and a naive young student. Whilst Paris drops broad hints to Rory about her grand passion (“Mmm, I smell of pipe smoke…”) it is made pretty clear to the audience that Fleming regularly has casual affairs with young women who take his course.

When he dies suddenly (“When he…were you…?” “No, Rory. This great man was not laid low by my vagina.”) Paris goes into mourning, and is appalled that not enough notice is being taken on campus. She takes it upon herself to hold a wake for Fleming, complete with a stack of his last book and herself in dignified black, holding court on the sofa.

Though Paris is not treated as cruelly as Miss Havisham, her party is marked out as the culmination of her grandiose ideas about her relationship. Behaving as Asher’s widow is another one of Paris’ obsessive eccentricities, and the scene is undercut by the appearance of a beer keg in the background by two frat boys whom Rory hurriedly shoos away.

Paris may believe she is enabling the community to pay their proper respects to a great man of letters, whose loss she inevitably feels most keenly, but most of the people at the party think it’s a kegger thrown by some girl they’ve never heard of.

It’s a funny sequence, and Paris is given an unexpected emotional weight by Liza Weil, but the narrative makes it clear she is not entitled to widowhood, and no-one grants it to her. Apart from Emily Gilmore, admittedly, which does nothing to bolster Paris’ cause.

Funeral Blues

This tension between people who feel like widows, and the society which refuses to legitimise their view of themselves, is given another twist in the final example I’d like to discuss: the speaker in W.H. Auden’s poem Funeral Blues.

Performed so memorably by John Hannah in Four Weddings and A Funeral, the poem has become one of the most famous and popular elegies in English. In its best known version, the poem runs thus:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

There’s a noticeable shift between the second and third verses in the treatment of the death and its consequences. From demanding exaggerated outward ceremonies to mark the beloved’s death, the poem starts to imagine in both more personal and more cosmological terms.

If the first two verses concentrate on the public and social sphere (the area in which widowhood is bestowed and validated, as we have seen), the latter two are concerned with the relationship of one individual to the whole universe, and how that has been dislocated by another person’s death.

In both there is an anguished hyperbole, an awareness of the discrepancy between the speaker’s own feelings and the way the rest of the world sees the matter. The irony of the lines about the pigeons and the sun are directed inwards, sketching the speaker’s recognition of their lack of proportion alongside a refusal to countenance the idea that proportion is possible any more.

In some ways, it captures Olivia and Paris’ situation from both their own perspective and that of the audience watching them.

That pivot didn’t always shift the poem in this direction, however. The verses were originally composed for a play called The Ascent of F2, about a climber who dies whilst attempting a famously dangerous mountain, having been persuaded by the prospect of public glory and national pride. His lover speaks the lines, which share the first two verses with the later version, but then veer off like this:

Hold up your umbrellas to keep off the rain
From Doctor Williams while he opens a vein;
Life, he pronounces, it is finally extinct.
Sergeant, arrest that man who said he winked!

Shawcross will say a few words sad and kind
To the weeping crowds about the Master-mind,
While Lamp with a powerful microscope
Searches their faces for a sign of hope.

And Gunn, of course, will drive a motor-hearse:
None could drive it better, most would drive it worse.
He’ll open up the throttle to its fullest power
And drive him to the grave at ninety miles an hour.

The satire here is more obvious, and directly develops the first two verses’ slanted glance at the public commemoration of a death. They’re more clearly about the uselessness of marking someone’s funeral with great pomp, without being so specific about the internal emotional world which is being contrasted with those rituals.

Auden reworked the poem as part of a collection of cabaret songs for the singer Heidli Anderson. I find it difficult to read Funeral Blues, in the light of its earlier appearance (and alongside the other songs), without finding an implication that the singer is mourning a dead politician she had an affair with.

The pivot in the middle, from this angle, marks the shift between her satirical comments on the grandiose ceremonies accorded him, and her insistence that the person he really mattered to won’t be recognised during them.

The politics of widowhood

John Hannah’s performance of the poem during the funeral scene of Richard Curtis’ movie brings out this reading strongly. Putting Funeral Blues in the mouth of a gay man mourning his partner shows up the political dimension of the issue of who is regarded as someone’s “widow”.

The lines’ scorn for the rituals and regulations of public grief map provocatively across the character’s situation, legally barred from being recognised as the surviving spouse.

Anxieties around widowhood – and non-widowhood – are a recurring feature of literary history, taking various forms but often expressing the fears of a dominant group that they are losing the ability to define and control other people’s identities.

We might be tempted to mock the anxiety of medieval, early modern and Victorian societies who were so anxious to police the status of widowhood, and so strenuously exerted cultural authority stop people whom they imagined wanted to “play” at being widows. But there are articles and speeches being written right now in response to the prospect of equal marriage, which engage repugnantly in the same task.

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