This week Bad Reputation published a two-part piece by me about literary widows, the politics of widowhood and the control of women’s social roles. Years ago I was fascinated by John Kerrigan’s account in Revenge: Aeschylus to Armageddon of the ways mourning rituals are elaborate attempts to negotiate with the dead, and since I do a certain amount of my leisure reading in the Victorian period, widows kept popping up all over the place.
Once you start noticing widows, they’re everywhere in literature – women who are variously sexually experienced, accustomed to carrying on business, possessed of knowledge about men but unexplained by their relationship to a living man. They were ordering hits in mafia novels, dispensing down-to-earth advice to Harriet Vane, tricking their suitors into providing lavish dinners in Jack of Newbury, unrelentingly petitioning unjust judges in the New Testament. I also came across Diarmid MacCulloch’s suggestion in Reformation that the shorter and more volatile life-span of medieval people meant that several marriages in one life-time was perfectly normal, producing a pattern of serial monogamy which does not diverge drastically from the dominant modern model of romantic partnership.
This made me think about the particular status accorded to widows, the liminal position they occupy, and how the threat they pose is negotiated in different eras. I also started finding a parallel tradition alongside: of women who attempted to act like widows, but were punished for doing so. These pieces are about those women, from the thirteen-century Beguines to the Gilmore Girls, stopping off at Dickens, Shakespeare and W.H. Auden along the way. Hope you enjoy them, and I’d love to hear any comments you might have. Do also have a rummage round Bad Reputation if you don’t know that site already – it has some truly terrific writing.
They were edited by the brilliant Miranda Brennan, who always casts a sheen of spurious authority over my work. She also sent me this frankly extraordinary version of Auden’s Funeral Blues, in the setting by Benjamin Britten: