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 purpose.

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 for ever.

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 hear it.

And then the lady comes back, and explains that Mrs. W. is a widow.

"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 forgotten.

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 shrine.

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 qum 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 Museum.

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 should determine.

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 their pockets.

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 despair.

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."