The Widow as Shape-shifter

Jeanine Casler
Northwestern University

“Take example by your father, my boy, and be wery careful o’ widders.”

–Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, XX.

Scholars may be forgiven for assuming that Karen Bloom Gevirtz’s book, Life after Death: Widows and the English Novel, Defoe to Austen (Delaware, 2005) is a narrow and abstruse study of a peripheral topic.   After all, why write about the widow, a figure whose presence on the page has historically been minimal?   When she has been present at all, it has often been as a stereotype: a personification of unseemly sexual voraciousness (from Shakespeare’s “o’erhasty” Gertrude, to Fielding’s Lady Booby) or unstintingly maternal generosity whose position on the sidelines, either as a temporary stumbling block or a good-natured but largely ineffectual friend to the main character(s) appears deserved.   Recent scholarship, however, (such as Jennifer Panek’s Widows and Suitors in Early Modern English Comedy) has turned to the figure of the widow in literature as an important social and cultural indicator of her era.[1]   Taking this focus a step further, Gevirtz sets out to tell the story of how the widow is central to both the beginnings of the novel and the rapid and often painful development of capitalism.   “It is a story,” she begins, “about sex and money, vast country estates and crushing urban poverty, greed and benevolence, good mothers and vicious kidnappers, exuberant thieves and repentant sinners, empire and the domestic hearth” (13).   That the rest of Gevirtz’s analysis lives up to this propitious opening is testament both to the importance of the subject and the aplomb with which the author handles it.

The fictional representation of the widow, Gevirtz argues, is indicative of the eighteenth-century perception of women as “agents of economic and social instability” (17), and the consequent effort to control female economic activity.   She is careful to ground her discussion of the “novelistic” widows, as she calls them, by contrasting them with their real, historical counterparts, referring to both the published work of historians such as Olwen Hufton, Peter Earle, and Bridget Hill, and new information gleaned from accounts of widows in the archives of the record offices of Devon, Somerset, and Wiltshire and Swindon.   Citing such sources, Gevirtz makes the case that widows, who had previously taken part in many types of trade (as innkeepers, servants, shopkeepers, and the like), were being edged out and replaced by men–even in such traditionally female occupations as midwifery–as the century progressed.   As they were gradually being excluded from these jobs and, as those widows who were able to work were making less and less money, Gevirtz suggests, the novel was colluding, for the literary culture of the eighteenth century “engaged with the emerging commercial economy by depicting women in ways meant to advocate their exclusion from mercantile capitalism” (18-19).   Just as legal measures (the Hardwicke Act of 1753, the gradual erosion of widows’ inheritance rights culminating with the Dower Act of 1833) were being adopted to curtail widows’ economic activity, then, the eighteenth-century novel was encouraging that widows refrain from making use of the autonomy that was part and parcel of their status.   Thus the novel’s representations of virtuous widows steer clear of selfish or profit-centered commerce, only taking part in business activity for “altruism or dependence.”   Gevirtz’s decision to focus on economics, instead of narrowing the scope of her study, actually broadens the relevance of her work, connecting the anxieties revealed by the figure of the widow to questions of gender, power, motherhood, sensibility, and the growing pains of a burgeoning capitalist society.

In chapter 2 Gevirtz provides convincing evidence for her claim that the representation of affluent widows in the novel served to promote an ideal of wealthy widowhood as “maternal, benevolent, and community oriented” (26).   Yes, the virtuous rich widow can be interested in financial gain, but not for herself; there is an expectation that she will use her resources in the service of others, whether her own family or the community in general.   Gevirtz presents an abundance of supporting examples here, from novels as different as Smollett’s Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753)–in which the merchant’s widow, Madam Clement, makes use of her riches to aid the young heroine, Serafina–and Clara Reeve’s School for Widows (1791), whose Mrs. Strictland is a virtual poster child for benevolence, dispensing her wealth, shelter, and advice to all comers.   One of the many strengths of Gevirtz’s study is that she uses such apparently incongruous pairings as Reeve and Smollett to prove her points.   Indeed, in chapter 2 alone she enumerates examples from authors as diverse as Frances Sheridan, Laurence Sterne, Matthew Lewis, Henry Fielding, Mary Davys, and William Godwin, showing how these authors, who are separated in many ways, share some of the same anxieties about mercantile capitalism’s effects on society and revealing how all of them make use of the figure of the wealthy widow to curtail autonomous female activity, “particularly as it was related to economic behavior   and commercial values” (40).

Thus widows who do use their wealth or property for their own pleasure are represented as at least overstepping their bounds (as the “aggressive” Widow Wadman in Tristram Shandy) and occasionally as outright wicked (like Henry Fielding’s Lady Booby, who makes use of her considerable riches to pursue her own sexual gratification).   Similarly, Gevirtz argues, the wealthy widow who follows her desires and chooses to marry again after the death of her first husband is often seen as egoistic: the personification of greed, vanity and lasciviousness who often ends–like Mrs. Ashwood in Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline (1788)–in disaster.

Earlier in this discussion of the “self-centered” affluent widow and her connection to the “urban and the commercial,” Gevirtz is at her most convincing.   However, in her contrast of Eliza Haywood’s History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) and Margaret Lee’s Clara Lennox (1797) she makes the general statement that, by the end of the century, “sensibility’s emphasis on suffering as both virtue and purpose meant that remarriage was unacceptable because it would end the anguish” (53), neglecting to take into account scholarship by Robert Miles and others that locates sensibility as a site of strength and power in the late eighteenth-century novel (and, indeed a force that works to destabilize hierarchies–contrary to what Gevirtz suggests elsewhere in her text).[2] In addition, considering that parts of this chapter were previously published (Intertexts, 7:1), readers may be surprised to find editorial issues–for example, an awkward quotation lead-in, a pronoun antecedent agreement error, a passage from The School for Widows inadvertently repeated on the same page–somewhat of a distraction here.

The author more than makes up for such lapses in her fascinating discussion of the working widow (chapter 3).   Despite historical records to the contrary, Gevirtz asserts, the novel depicts widows, “the women most entitled to and often most desperate for work,” as not participating in the workforce.   Thus, at a time when women’s wages were steadily falling and the choice of occupations open to women was narrowing, the novel was serving to endorse this very real unwillingness to accept working widows.   The widows who do appear as workers in the eighteenth-century novel, for example, bear very little resemblance to actual working widows, for the fictional widows are separated from the exchange of their goods or services for payment, which is almost never depicted.   Shying away from obvious profit, virtuous working widows are accepting when their social status has been reduced by their widowhood, even to the point of insisting on their own inferiority (as in the case of farmer-turned-house servant Mrs. Gilson from Clara Reeve’s School for Widows).   In addition, the virtuous working widow may only use work to maintain her social class, or restore it if she has fallen from her natural place through economic circumstances; rising above her original station is not permitted.   Gevirtz notes other limits as well: widows who are financially holding their own nevertheless give the appearance of dependence in the novel, as in the case of Mrs. Miller from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1747), whose independence is continuously undercut by her own feelings and demonstrations of indebtedness to Mr. Allworthy.   In addition, the very nature of a widow’s work was redefined.   Referring to novels such as Richardson’s Pamela, and Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Gevirtz describes how, when a woman’s work was rewritten as being essentially maternal in nature, it could be denied or dismissed.   Thus widows like Mrs. Jervis and that “good motherly Creature,” Moll’s first Nurse, are portrayed as acting naturally when they care for and nurture others, and while, as Gevirtz acknowledges, the recipients of their care are always grateful, “those recipients and their authors often quickly move past the work such nurturing entails or past the person doing that nurturing; their narrative moments are brief” (78).

Poor nonworking widows fare no better in the novel.   Although impoverished widows were becoming ever more dependent on private (rather than public and systemic) sources of charity, there is ample evidence that widows who were not part of the labor force actively sought to ameliorate their situation; the novel’s poor, impoverished widows, however, are represented as inactive, dependent, and always grateful, a depiction that shifts the focus away from the widow herself and her actual hardship and towards her wealthy, benevolent rescuer.   The author reveals how this shift in focus can be seen as an endorsement of the exclusion of women from the growing economy, “simultaneously justifying and hiding the realities of emerging capitalism” (96).   The poor widow in the novel thus becomes a convenient tool for shining light on the virtues or vices of the main characters, and authors as different as Charlotte Smith, Tobias Smollett, Eliza Fenwick, and Oliver Goldsmith all make use of this device, drawing readers’ attention toward the emotional response of their main characters to the poor widows and therefore away from the actual plights of the women themselves.   In Gevirtz’s compelling equation, the wealthy “employ the poor to generate sympathy within themselves, reaffirming their own moral worth despite the fact that their wealth . . . has been accumulated in an unequal, unregulated and generally exploitative economy” (104).   When a poor widow resists such objectification–by attempting to act independently or by refusing to be grateful for the charity of others–she is portrayed in a negative, even despicable, light.

The step from a widow’s debilitating poverty to her commission of a crime might appear a logical progression, but as Gevirtz demonstrates in her next chapter, unlike her real counterpart, the fictional widow almost never commits crime out of economic necessity.   Noting another difference between the novelistic and the actual criminal widow–that the former is much more likely to commit a crime (such as adultery or procuring) that is connected with sexuality–the author implies that a link was being made between the widow’s supposed sexual greed and economic or material rapacity.   Lady Mellasin from Eliza Haywood’s History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) is guilty of misappropriating the wealth of her first two husbands in order to support her lover, for example, and Frances Sheridan’s “widow Gerrarde” from The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1769) devastates the estate of her own late husband before seducing Sidney’s husband and simultaneously seeking income from him.   Widows like these are so dangerous, then, because they have the power to destabilize society by disrupting the “proper transmission of property”; their status as widows means they have the experience to desire and the autonomy to follow their desires, threatening, in Gevirtz’s words, the very “core of English society” (120).   The novel’s criminal widows are even willing to render people property by exploiting the younger women under their influence.   Offering examples from novels as varied as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1749) and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), and basing her argument in the work on motherhood by Toni Bowers, Ruth Perry, and Felicity Nussbaum, the author asserts that such fictional widows, transgressing society’s notions of proper womanhood and maternal behavior in their avid self-interest, became not only “figuratively monstrous, but literally criminal” (127).

Jane Austen’s Lady Susan would seem to be just such a villainous widow–she bankrupts her husband who subsequently dies, emotionally abuses her daughter Frederica for years, lies constantly, and seduces men at will.   The real significance of Lady Susan, though, according to Gevirtz, is that Austen never published the novel and that it is so different from her other works.   The widowed characters in Austen’s published novels–and they are both numerous and important–reveal a very different way of thinking about “gender, economics and society” (138) than those in earlier novels.   This new–perhaps improved, certainly more complex–perception indicates both a greater comfort with the widow “label” and an increased comfort with the altered economic system (139).

Taking the middle ground along with critics like Susan Fraiman and John Dussinger in her perception of Austen’s politics, Gevirtz argues persuasively that Austen’s novels reveal the author’s constant balancing act between “endorsement of the old feudal agrarian order and the new commercial system” (140)–a balancing act which is deftly performed via the more nuanced, less conventional portrayal of her widows.   Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Pride and Prejudice (1813), for example, is a combination of characteristics formerly associated with only one of Gevirtz’s categories of widows.   She is like the rich, wicked widow in that she is clearly self-centered, and uses her economic position to try to manipulate others.   She also is a poor mother, as is evidenced by her daughter Anne; however, her maternal failings are the result of too much, rather than too little, concern for her child.   In fact, she extends her maternal concern to her tenants and the villagers, as well.   Thus Lady Catherine, as “the aggregate of virtuous affluent widowhood’s qualities taken to excess” (145), is a useful vehicle for Austen’s critique of certain aspects of the landed gentry and the old agrarian system.

Austen also uses her widows to take aim at some aspects of commercialism.   Though she does not sentimentalize the widow’s state, she does acknowledge the hardship that widowhood can present and appears to advocate a combination of hard work and dependence as a viable mode for dealing with it.   That work, though, has its limits: the selling of handmade trinkets–as in the case of Persuasion‘s Mrs. Smith–to maintain oneself is acceptable, but the commodification of other people is not.   At the same time, Austen presents us with widows such as Mrs. Jennings from Sense and Sensibility and Lady Russell from Persuasion who reveal, according to Gevirtz, that the mixing of the values of commerce and agrarianism can be favorable.   Both Mrs. Jennings and Lady Russell are “positively economically conscious and positively interested in daughters, suggesting that a blend of old and new, landed and mercantile, aristocratic and bourgeois is not just appropriate, but necessary” (160).   Such balanced, nuanced representations as Austen’s became possible, then, because the fears about the cultural and economic developments were lessening as changes became pervasive, and the potential inherent in the figure of the widow–her self-transformative power and her ability to escape certain conventions of her gender, for example–became somewhat less threatening.

Despite bringing us from Defoe all the way to Austen, Life after Death is not exhaustive, but it is not meant to be.   In fact, one of the author’s strengths is that she reveals the significance of the figure of the novelistic widow in general, thus calling to mind other potentially fruitful avenues for study.   Gevirtz’s focus is the British novel, but given that French novels of the period are brimming with widows, it would be useful to investigate whether the author’s idea about the widow as cultural signifier and lightning rod for social apprehensions can be applied to eighteenth-century France, as well.   Another path for exploration is the connection between age and the widow.   Many of the widows presented as examples in Life after Death are actually quite young, but connecting the recent work on the representation of older women in fiction by scholars such as Lagretta T. Lenker and Devoney Looser to Gevirtz’s findings regarding the widow might yield some illuminating results.   Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at the end of her first chapter, Gevirtz leaves us with a hint of things that should come: “We can see in the eighteenth-century widow questions about women, solvency, and power that are not far from our own . . . [she] offers invaluable insight into the eighteenth-century literary and economic world, important aspects of which we have inherited and are living with today” (25).   Though the close pursuit of such insight and relevance to modern life is beyond the scope of Gevirtz’s study, the status of the widow in life and literature is as vital a subject today as it was during the eighteenth century.   With former Minister for Education and Culture of Mozambique Graça Machel’s recent statement that widows “have no status” and that often they are “figures of shame and ridicule,”[3] and when Google searches still pair the word ‘widow’ most frequently with words like ‘wicked’ and ‘wily’, it is clear that we’ve yet to explore the full potential of this figure and glean all she has to reveal about our own cultural preoccupations and anxieties.


[1] Jennifer Panek, Widows and Suitors in Early Modern English Comedy (Cambridge, 2004).

[2] See, for example, Robert Miles, Gothic Writing 1750–1820: A Genealogy (London, 1993), and pages 153–73 of his biography Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress (Manchester, 1995); as well as Syndy M. Conger’s “Sensibility Restored: Radcliffe’s Answer to Lewis’s The Monk,” Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, ed. Kenneth W. Graham (New York, 1989), 114–49.

[3] Graça Machel’s words are taken from the opening plenary of the 2001 Widow’s Rights International annual conference, quoted on the Widows’ Rights International home page, <>.