A Chapter on Widows by Unknown
Widows! A very ticklish subject to handle, no doubt; but one on
which a great deal may be said. An interesting subject, too,—what
more so? What class of persons in the universe so interesting as weed-wearing
women? We are not sure that on paper they have ever been
treated as they deserve. We don't think they have been considered
as they ought to be: their past, their present, and their future, have
not been speculated upon; their position in the world has not been decided.
They have simply been spoken of as widows, in the gross: the
various circumstances of widowhood have never been distinguished; as
if those circumstances did not subdivide and classify, giving peculiar
immunities to some, and fixing peculiar obligations on others; as if
every good woman who has the fortune, or misfortune, to call in an
undertaker, is placed in precisely the same situation as far as society
is concerned, or ought to be judged or guided by the same rules.
We shall begin with a definition; not because any one can doubt
what a widow is, but because we have a reason.
A widow is—"a woman who has lost her husband." We must
here premise that it is no part of our present plan to say a syllable
about those whose husbands have taken themselves off—the dear departed,—and
not been heard of, Heaven knows how long: nor of
those who have lost the affection, and attention, and care of their
husbands; for, however much they may be widows as to the comforts
and endearments of married life, they are not widows for our
We shall define a widow in other words. A widow is—"a woman
whose husband is dead." This would not be sufficiently intelligible
unless we were to add "dead by due course of nature, accident, or
physic," because there is such a thing as a man being dead in law;
and as we have ever carefully eschewed all things pertaining, directly
or indirectly, to that dangerous "essence," as far as volition could
assist us, so we intend to eschew them. We mean, then, dead in fact,
and comfortably buried, or otherwise safely disposed of.
And now, having settled a definition, let us proceed to the division
of our subject.
We propose to treat of young widows, middle-aged widows, and
old widows; to speak of them the truth, and nothing but the truth,
and, if not the whole of it, sufficient we trust to show that they have
merited our attention.
A young widow must be on the tender side of twenty-eight; the
tough side begins, and ten additional years limit, middle-aged widowhood;
while all from thirty-eight to a hundred must take rank, in this
army at least, as granny-dears.
A young widow!—to what emotions of tenderness and pity do
these words give rise! With what a vivid scene of wretchedness is
the mind oppressed! Do they not tell us a tale—and how briefly
too!—of joy and sorrow, rejoicing and wailing?—happy anticipations
and blighted hopes crowded into one little space? In our mind's
eye, we see a fair and blushing bride, an animated ardent bridegroom,
a group of happy friends, favours, and festivals; in the background of
the picture, a grave. One is missing from the party, never to return;
gone from the light and warmth of love, to the cold but constant
embrace of the tomb,—from the few living to the many dead!
The atmosphere was sweet, and life-instilling; an arc of promise was
above us: that arc has vanished, that atmosphere has changed,—it is
thick, oppressive, dank! Hope's lamp flickers, as if it would go out
This is undoubtedly the cambric-pocket-handkerchief view of the
matter, making, as some would say, the "devils" very blue indeed;
but it is one that strikes many, perhaps all, who are not of a fishy or
froggy temperament: at the same time, we will admit the brush is
dipped in the darkest colours, and that we might have been a little
less sombre by imagining the defunct a fat and apoplectic old fool,
who had only decided upon going to church when he ought to have
been looking to the church-yard; in which case, "a young widow,"
instead of drawing on the deep wells of the heart, draws upon our
cheerful congratulations, and stands forth "redeemed, regenerated,
and disenthralled by the irresistible genius of universal emancipation."
Whether under the melancholy or the happy circumstances to
which we have alluded, a young widow is a very different being to
what she has ever been before; in identity of person she is the same,
but there is no identity of position; as regards society, there is no
identity of rights, privileges, licences, or liabilities. The great difference
as regards herself is, that, for the first time in her life, she is her
own protector: many things that she could not do as a girl, and dare
not do as a wife, are now open to her. She has been "made a woman
of," and is a very independent person. After languishing a
fitting time in calm retirement and seclusion, having "that within
which passeth outward show," she reappears to the world decked in
"the trappings and the suits of woe." We purposely use the word
"decked," because in its most familiar sense it implies "adorned,"
at least as applied to the "craft" we are now convoying. We
should very much like to be told, and very much like to see, a more
interesting sight than a young widow, when, after having been laid
up in ordinary the ordinary time, she leaves her moorings, in proper
"rig and trim," to prosecute the remainder of the voyage of life.
The black flag is up, and no doubt she means mischief; but all is fair
and above board. No mystery is made of the metal she carries, the
port she is bound for. She may take a prize, or make one; but it
must be by great gallantry if she is captured.
To drop metaphor: a young widow is, we repeat, an extremely
delightful and highly privileged creature. Mark her in society,—we
do not care how limited or how extensive,—and she bears the palm in
the interest that is excited. We will give a showy animated girl of
eighteen the benefit of a first appearance; we will allow her to have
excited the attention of the room, to be the observed of all observers;
every one shall be asking, "Who is the young lady in pink crape?"—she
shall have danced and sung herself into full-blown importance,—she
shall have turned as many heads as she has times in her waltzing;—and
then, a little late in the evening, we will introduce, very
quietly,—no loud double knocking at the door, no voices of servants
echoing her name, no rustling of silks or satins,—a young widow!
just "one year off;" she shall slide gently into the room, seeming to
shun observation, as they all do, (lest perchance some ill-natured
person should wonder what business they have there,)—and, contented
with a simple recognition from her host or hostess, she shall occupy
some "silent nook," and rest satisfied in its shade. Presently, some
one shall chance to speak of her as "a young widow,"—the lady of
the house, for instance, who usually occupies every leisure moment in
informing groups of her old visitors the names and et-ceteras of her
young ones,—she shall happen to say, "Excuse me one moment, I
must go and speak to poor Mrs. Willow."
"Poor Mrs. Willow!—what can that mean?" wonder all who
And then the lady comes back, and explains that Mrs. W. is a
"Poor thing!" says one.
"Only think!" says another.
"How very young!" says a third.
"Any children?" asks a fourth.
"I thought she looked melancholy!" observes a fifth; and then,
after staring at the object of their commiseration and curiosity sufficiently
long to be sure they will know her again, they separate with
the view of advertising the interesting intelligence. It being known
to four old women, and one middle-aged man who doesn't dance, it
speedily spreads over the whole room; and, provided no one intimates
off-hand a superior case of affliction in the person of any one present,
the young widow has to bear the brunt of a very wholesale inspection.
There is also a great deal of wonder; people wonder in classes:—the
elderly, What her husband died of,—the young ladies, Whether she
has any family,—the gentlemen, Whether she has any money. During
all this wonderment, "the young lady in pink crape" is entirely
Now, if the young widow should happen to feel at all "at home,"
and chooses to "come out" a little, mark what follows: "the young
lady in pink crape" has to dance the remainder of the evening with
red-haired, freckled, pock-marked, snub-nosed, flat-footed fellows,
with whom she would not have touched gloves an hour ago, while all
the stylish staff that then surrounded her, are doing homage at another
And no wonder!—A girl may be very agreeable and "all that," as
people say when they want to cut description short; but it's impossible
she can hold a candle to a young widow. She is obliged to be
circumspect in all she says,—to weigh every word,—to cripple her
conversation, lest she should be thought forward; but, worse than
this, she is so deuced simple and credulous, that a man with a fine
flowing tongue is apt to mislead her, and place himself in a false
position before he gets through a set of quadrilles; whereas with the
other partner it is tout au contraire. "Old birds are not to be
caught with chaff;" and old the youngest widow is, in "the ways of
men," compared with the bread-and-butter portion of the unmarried
world. You may rattle on as much as you please, so may she; you
neither of you mean anything, and both of you know it: besides,
no one has a right to forbid it; you are your own master, she her
own mistress. Dance ten times in an evening with her, and call in
the morning. What then!—she has her own house, her own servants.
What more?—she is—able to take care of herself.
So much for a young widow in society, or those scenes of life in
which the actors and actresses play more immediately against one
another; scenes in which tragedy, comedy, melo-drama, and farce—the
last predominating—are brought before us. Now, if we step
behind the scenes, and look a little into the privacy of the domestic
circle, and observe her as one of the "select few," we fancy we shall
still find her maintaining her pre-eminence as an intelligent companion
and delightful friend. When we use the term "intelligent," we
do not presume to say that she is necessarily more acute than she was
as a coy maiden, or than the virgin of our acquaintance, as touching
any branch of historical, artistical, or scientific information; but we
mean intelligent in an unobtrusive but every-day-available knowledge
of "men and things,"—in other words, a knowledge of the
world. She has pushed off from shore, and has learnt a little of the
current of life, its eddies, shoals, and quicksands. She has lost the
dangerous confidence of inexperience, without having acquired an
uncharitable distrust; and smiles at the greenness of girlhood, without
assuming the infallibility of age. She is not too old to have sympathy
for youth, nor so young as to slight the experience of years.
In her past, joy and sorrow have commingled; in her future, hope is
chastened by reason.
Some imaginative people of bygone centuries decided that fire
produced all things, and that this fire was inclosed in the earth. Of
fire, Vesta was the goddess; or, as the Romans sometimes thought,
Vesta herself was fire. Ovid is our authority for this:
"Nec tu aliud Vestam quàm vivam intellige flammam."
The same gentleman, also, synonymizes her with another element:
"—— Tellus Vestaque numen idem est."
Now, whether Vesta was fire, or fire Vesta, or whether the earth
and Vesta were one and the same fire, we are not in a condition to
determine; and as there are no muniments of any Insurance Office to
throw light on the matter,—even the "Sun" had not then begun
business in this line,—the curiosity of the curious must remain unquenched.
This, however we know, that Vesta's waiting-women;—we
beg their pardon, the goddess's lady's-maids,—the Vestales of her
Temple, had, beyond the usual routine of their business, such as
dressing and undressing her; waiting her whims, and getting up her
linen, the onerous charge of watching and guarding the holy fire, and
lighting it once a year, whether it required lighting or not. The
first of March was the appointed day for this ceremony; though the
first of April might have been, under all the circumstances, a more
appropriate anniversary. We have no distinct records as to whether
these young women were familiar with the application of flint and
steel to tinder, or whether the royal-born Lucifer had, in those days,
taken out a patent for his matches; there is little reason for regret,
however, in this uncertainty, inasmuch as neither the one nor the
other could have been made use of. The holy fire might be supplied
from no common flame, and they had therefore to ask "the favour of
a light" from the pure and unpolluted rays of the Sun.
Now we humbly conceive that our motive for introducing this interesting
little classical episode must be obvious from its conclusion.
We were talking of one—though certainly not in any probability
a Vestal virgin—whose "sacred flame" had gone out, and we felt
we should be expected to say something of its re-lighting. Thinking,
preparatory to writing, we recollected all that we have written, and
we were interested and amused with the identity of means employed
for a common end two thousand years ago and in the present day;
as it then was, so it now is, managed by attraction.
It has just occurred to our reflective mind, that the imaginative
people before-mentioned must have been figurative also; and meant
by earth, human clay,—and by the fire therein, love. We should
like to know what love will not do; and, until we are told, we shall
deem it capable, as the ancients did fire, of producing everything.
And now a few words upon the marriage of a young widow. We
might be expected to discuss the question of second marriages generally,
and weigh the arguments pro and con,—the romance against
the reality of life; but we decline doing so at present, on the ground
that, right or wrong, young widows at any rate have ever had, if
possible, and even will have, a second string to their bow, should
grim Death rudely snap the first,—a second arrow to their quiver,
should the first be lost "beyond recovery."
She marries again,—may we say, loves? If she has loved before,
we may not. He is in the grave, and her "heart is in the coffin
there." But she marries; and, though she may exclaim,
"No more—no more,—oh! never more on me
The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,"
in the spirit of the words,—she takes nothing from their truth by
substituting one reading for another:
"No more—no more,—oh! never more on me
The greenness of the heart," &c.
And this, there is no doubt, she does, as she embarks in matrimony
with comfortable confidence a second time.
It is believed that many very sensible men have married young
widows. Without saying whether we believe it, we may observe
that we have never done anything of the kind, and never intend.
This declaration is not inconsistent with perfect sincerity in all we
have said. We have been treating of young widows as widows, not
as wives. Our objections to any transformation on our own account
are many; we shall give only one,—our extreme diffidence and modesty,
which would never allow us to be judged by comparison as to
the essentials of a good husband. So strong, indeed, is our feeling
on this point, that, notwithstanding our extreme prepossession in their
favour, we verily believe that the most fascinating relict that ever
lived, with the best fortune that was ever funded, might say to us by
her manner, as plainly as a brass-plate on a street-door, "Please to
ring the bell-e," only to suffer defeat and disappointment.
And now we approach the second division, and proceed to pay our
respects to middle-aged widows; generally, stout, healthy-looking
women with seven children. We have omitted, by-the-bye, to observe,
that young widows cannot have more than two, or at the most
three, without losing caste. Seven children form a very interesting
family, and confer considerable importance on their proprietor, of
whose melancholy bereavement they are perpetual advertisements.
In proportion to the number of pledges presented to a husband, is a
wife's love for him; or, if this be not invariable, at any rate in proportion
to her little ones is her sorrow for his loss; particularly when
he dies leaving nothing behind him but the "regret of a large circle
of friends." For some time, the afflicted woman places great reliance
on an extensive sympathy, and has very little doubt that some one
will some day do something: godfathers and godmothers rise into
importance, and directors of the Blue-coat School are at a premium.
If she be fortunate, her motherly pride is gratified before long by
gazing on her first-born with a trimmed head and yellow cotton
stockings; and by this time she generally finds out she has nothing
more to expect from any one but—herself.
We have begun with the poor and heavily-burthened middle-aged
widows, because they are by far the most numerous of the class. It
is a singular thing, that we seldom meet with a middle-aged widow
with a small family, or a large provision. The young and the old are
frequently wealthy; not so the other unfortunates. We suppose the
reason of this is, that the harassing cares of an increasing family
kill off a prodigious number of men; and, inasmuch as these cares
would not have existed had Fortune been propitious, they make their
exit in poverty.
Occasionally, however, we meet with a middle-aged widow without
children, and with fortune, or a comfortable independence. Of such
a one we shall say a word or two. Generally speaking, she looks
with extreme resignation on the affliction that has overtaken her;
and, when she speaks of it, does so in the most Christian spirit. Of
all widows, she is the most sure that "everything is for the best;"
and, as she has no living duplicates of the lost original, her bosom is
less frequently rent by recollections of the past. Anxious, however,
to prove her appreciation of the holy state, and offer the best testimony
of her sense of one good husband, she rarely omits taking a
second; and, purely to diminish the chance of having twice in her
life to mourn the loss of her heart's idol, she generally selects one
some ten or fifteen years younger than herself. We say "selects,"
because it is very well known, that, though maids are wooed, widows
are not. The first time a woman marries is very frequently to please
another; the second time, invariably herself: she therefore takes the
whole management of the matter into her own hands. We think that
this is quite as it should be: it stands to reason that a woman of
seven or eight and thirty, who has been married, should know a great
deal more about married life than a young gentleman of twenty-five,
who has not. And then he gets a nice motherly woman to take care
of him, and keep him out of mischief, and has the interest of her money
to forward him in his profession or business,—the principal has been
too carefully settled on the lady to be in any risk.
We do occasionally encounter some "rara avis in terris"—a middle-aged
widow who thinks nothing of further matrimony; and so convinced
are we of the "dangerous tendency" of such characters, that we
would at once consign them to perpetual imprisonment. If they declared
their resolution in time, we would undoubtedly try it, by burying
them with their first lover, or burning them Hindoo fashion; for,
supposing them to have no children, to what possible good end can
they propose to live? It is our firm belief that they know too much
to be at perfect liberty, with safety to society; and they must of
necessity be so thoroughly idle, beyond knitting purses and reading
novels, as to make mischief the end and aim of their existence. We
ask fearlessly of our readers this question—"Did you ever in your
lives know an unmarrying, middle-aged, childless widow, who was
not a disagreeable, slanderous, and strife-inducing creature?" If
you ever did, you ought to have tickled her to death,—so as to have
avoided disfigurement,—and sent her in a glass-case to the British
Perhaps it will be said by some, that they have known such a
woman as we have just enquired about, and that they don't think she
merited any such fate; perhaps they will say that she was a very
harmless, pleasant person, and only remained single because she held
her heart sacred to her departed lord. Cross-grained and ugly
middle-aged widows may occasionally foster this romance; as also
may those whose husbands have exemplified by their wills that
jealousy may outlive life, by decreeing that their flower should lose
its sweetness upon another presuming to wear it,—in other words,
that, upon a second marriage, the worldly advantages of the first
There is a class of men in the world, who go through two-thirds of
their life single, and who, if you were to believe them, never entertain
the remotest notion of being "bothered with a wife." In some
instances this arises from an early indulgence in dissipation; and,
from keeping very equivocal company. In their own opinion they are
extremely knowing, and are continually wondering "how men can
make such asses of themselves" as to put their necks into the matrimonial
noose; if you attempt to argue with them on the stupidity,
if not baseness of their creed, they assure you confidently
that "women are all alike." We once made a fellow of this sort
ashamed of himself, when, having ended a long tirade, which was a
coarse amplification of Pope's line,
"But every woman is at heart a rake,"
we asked him, with sufficient emphasis, "Who his mother and sisters
were living with?"
Another portion of the ring-renouncers are men who are so abominably
selfish, that they would not share an atom of their worldly
substance with the most perfect specimen of "the precious porcelain
of human clay" that the world could produce them;—men who look
with horror on the expenses of an establishment, and live in miserable
hugger-muggery on some first-floor, sponging on their friends to the
extremity of meanness;—men who look upon children with as much
horror as that with which they would view a fall in the funds or the
stoppage of their banker, and see nothing in them but a draft upon
There is yet another body of solitaries, much smaller in number
though, than either of the other two;—men who underrate themselves,
and who are so extremely diffident and bashful as never to
have "popped the question," though their tongues have often had
the itch to do it;—men who people their room, as they sit over the
fire, with an amiable woman and half-a-dozen little ones, and, when
they rub their eyes into the reality of their nothingness, sigh for the
happiness of some envied friend. It was necessary that we should
make this digression.
We left the middle-aged widow with a large family and small
means, convinced that, having got one child provided for,—enabling
every one to speak of a kind act as though they had something to do
with it,—she had then only to rely upon herself. She does rely upon
herself; and, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand,
her own resources are sufficient to change her state. Men may
make fools of girls, but women make fools of men. In this work of
retribution, middle-aged widows with families pre-eminently take the
lead. They work particularly on those gentlemen whom we have
here introduced; and more particularly and successfully on the first
and third class, though the second are not unfrequently made examples
of. It will be said that the first class are fools to hand: so
they are; and, when caught, they find it out themselves. They are
flies, buzzing about and blowing every fair fame they are not scared
from. The widow spreads her web of flattery and flirtation; and
when the poor insect ventures boldly in, confident that he can at any
moment "take wing and away," she rolls him round and round in her
meshes, as a spider does a blue-bottle,—or, to use a very expressive
idiom, she "twists him round her finger," ring-shape. The consequential,
slanderous, and boasting booby sinks into the insignificance
of a caged monkey, and lives and dies a miserable Jerry Sneak!
Look into society, and you will find many of them.
We admit it is a hard fate for a man, whose only failing, perhaps,
has been his modesty, to be secured for the purpose of feeding the
hungry and clothing the naked; but then it must be remembered
that, had not a widow proposed to him, he would never have had
courage to propose to anybody, and that he gets a companion for
life and a ready-made family, instead of lingering on in envy and
Seeing that we have called all widows old, who are on the grave
side of forty, we feel that we have the most difficult portion of our
subject to discuss,—difficult, and, we may add, delicate, because so
very few of those who are obnoxious to what we may say, will be
inclined to admit it; indeed, if we had any hope of getting over this
difficulty by throwing in ten or fifteen years more, we would do so,
and date only from fifty or fifty-five. We know, however, that this
would not extricate us, and so prefer adhering to our original scale.
Widows of forty and upwards command very little of the sympathy
that waits on those bereaved in earlier life. The reason of this,
perhaps, is, that they are not themselves so interesting. It is astonishing
how much we feel through our eyes. We are told that
"Pity is akin to love," and we might enter into some curious speculations
as to the various deductions to be drawn from these words.
Supposing we see a young creature of one-and-twenty, in all the
freshness of life and first grief, who has buried a lover in a husband
after two or three years of unalloyed happiness; she has an infant,
perhaps, in each arm. Do we pity her? Deeply,—acutely; we
could almost weep for her. Well; we meet a woman in the autumn
of life, whose summer has been passed with the first and only object
of her affections; hearts that yearned towards each other in youth,
time has made one; in every inclination, wish, hope, fear, they have
heightened the pleasures of life by a mutual enjoyment of them, and
alleviated its sorrows by sharing them together. Death has divorced
them, and we see her—alone! We are very sorry for her, and her
four or five children; it is "a sad loss:"—we say so, and of course
we mean it; but are we as sensitive to this picture as to that?
If we make second marriages a principal feature in this dissertation
on widows, we do so because it is their "being's end and aim," as is
incontrovertibly proved by their all but universality. Old widows,
even if poor, sometimes lend an able hand in the retaliation of which
we have before spoken; but, unfortunately, they also very frequently,
when they happen to have wealth, become themselves objects of
scorn and derision. Perhaps the most offensive creature in existence,
and, save one, the most contemptible, is the worn-out, toothless,
hairless, wrinkled jade, who attempts,
"—— Unholy mimickry of Nature's work!
To recreate, with frail and mortal things,
Her withered face;"
and then, upon the strength of a long purse, puts herself up, a decayed
vessel, to Dutch auction, herself proclaiming what she is worth, to be
knocked down—we are almost unmanly enough to wish it were not
figuratively—to some needy young spendthrift, of whose grandmother
she must have been a juvenile contemporary. Widows of this
stamp are almost always women raised from low stations, from whom,
perhaps, little delicacy or refinement is to be expected. There is
hardly a season in which some carcase-butcher's or grocer's wealthy
relict is not the talk, and wonder, and emetic of the town.
We must not conclude with exceptions, however, where they
create so unfavourable an impression; we will rather turn to those
portly and obliging widows who, after looking a little about them as
single women, fall in with some comfortable old gentleman who very
much wants a housekeeper, and somebody to mix his grog o' nights,
and at once agree to take the situation. The old boy puts all his
affairs into her hands, and they rub on together cosily enough the
remainder of their days. Every one admits it to be "a very suitable
match;" if an objection be made by anybody, it merely comes from
some expectant nephews or nieces.
There are widows we think, we must admit it, who, widows once,
remain so for ever, and from inclination, or rather from disinclination
to encourage any impression, or even thought, that might weaken or
interfere with the memory of the past; but we must repeat that they
are never young, and rarely middle-aged widows: they are women
past the meridian of their days, whose griefs, not violent or obtrusive,
have yet been solemn and absorbing; women who have lost the
vanity of believing they can accommodate themselves to any man;
and, dwelling on the happiness they have enjoyed, cherish its recollection
as an act of devotion to one "not dead, but gone before."
They wear their "weeds" as long as they are of this world; and there
is always a quietness, if not gravity of demeanour, that perfectly
assorts with them. In society they are always respected; by those
who know them, loved; they do not hesitate to talk of their married
life, and live over many of its scenes, to those who are interested in
listening: herein they differ from married widows, if we may use
the expression, who very rarely talk of their first union to any one
but their husbands; they, perhaps, hear of it something too much,
and too often!
And now, having passed our compliments and paid our respects,
we must take our leave. We have been guilty of one rudeness,—we
have had all the talk to ourselves: in return, we promise to be patient
listeners, should any fair controversialist think fit to propound her
views on this "highly-interesting and important subject."