Tag Archives: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth TaylorThe Woman next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Widows in Fiction 

Victorian and early twentieth century fiction often reflected the view that the purpose of a young woman’s life was to get married. It is the happy-ever-after that women were sold well into the late twentieth century. Fiction also depicted the plight of the women who never married often leading sad and small lives. The previous post on this blog considers a novel which follows the single life of its title character: The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor.

In this post I turn my attention to those women in fiction who are no longer married, they have been widowed. Women have always tended to marry men older than them, and to live longer than men. Consequently there have always been widows, but literature does not promote a positive view of widows, often grotesque, fearsome, embittered. Think of Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, as an example. The list of older women in fiction reveals a range of reactions to being widowed, from enjoyment of liberation and rebelliousness to sadness and loneliness. 

Causing trouble

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwoodpublished in 1977.

One of the most fearsome and gruesome widows is Great Granny Webster. The narrator recalls how she had to stay with this widow for three months following a childhood illness.

Often I would be in the same room as Great Granny Webster for hours and she would say not a single word to me. She would just sit there bolt upright in one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. (13)

The experience is terrifying for the reader too, and one has no confidence that the old lady changed in any way after the child left.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, published in 2016. 

A different kind of trouble erupted between two old women, both widows, in a more recent novel from South Africa, which tells of their feud. Set in Cape Town, Hortensia and Marion are neighbours who have in common their age, both in their 80s, success in their careers, and their widowhood. But they disagree about everything and feud about everything. An accident in which Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s house is badly damaged are the novelist’s devices to bring change to their relationship.

It’s a lively novel, with much action and argument. How can two older women behave towards each other in this way, the reader wonders.

Fighting spirit

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, published in 1968.

We can find novels that celebrate the fighting spirit of widows, who can be vulnerable without anyone to defend them. Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith is classic tale from the time of the highland clearances at the start of the eighteenth century. Mrs Scott is a fiercely independent widow, a tenant of the duke who wishes to use the land on which she lives for sheep. Mrs Scott is to be evicted. The landowner, his agent and the church all betray her, and it is the community who protect her and give her the strength to resist the actions of her oppressors. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, published in 1931.

Another widow who defies expectations, her family’s as well as the conventions of her time, is Lady Slane, in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Lady Slane is the widow of ‘a very great man’ and on his death her six children, all in their 60s themselves, plan for her future, staying with them in rotation. She will have none of this, instead she rents a cottage in Hampstead and befriends her landlord and the tradesman who returns it to good order. Her last years are full of happiness with her new friends, and she can help her granddaughter towards her own independence. 

Making the best of it

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971.

In this category, the standout character is Mrs Palfrey from Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. I like this description of her: clearly not a little old lady.

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag. (2)

Her daughter shows no interest in supporting her when she becomes a widow, and she has few connections in England. So she decides to live in a residential hotel on Cromwell Road in London. There she must mix with an assortment of older people in similar circumstances and pay attention to their values and conventions. This leads her into a collaboration with Ludo, a penniless young man who picks her up when she falls one afternoon. They trick the other guests into believing that he is her grandson. The novel is a study of loneliness in widowhood, and Mrs Palfrey is not the only lonely widow in this novel.

On their own

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published in 1964.

A Canadian novel is justly celebrated for its description of the desperation of Hagar Shipley as she becomes more and more of a burden on her son and his wife and loses her physical capacities and her independence. The novel is an indictment of the social customs that prevented Hagar from expressing her needs and wants, and her decline is brutal. 

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens first published in 1955. 

A particularly poignant example of a widow with no resources and overwhelmed by her loneliness in The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens. The author recognises the part played by gender differences in old age. This is the opening paragraph of the novel:

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are, but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching at their hats and hair. (1)

Louise has been bullied by her husband and has few friends and no confidence when she becomes a widow. She dreads ‘those dismal ‘residentials’, where they farm out most widows’ (209). She is unwanted and has no purpose in her life.

New beginnings

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, published in 2015.

Two novels reveal the power of community and relationships to enrich a widow’s final years. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf is a charming novel about two older people who find their way from loneliness to companionship through care of each other, grandchildren and a dog. Addie proposes to her neighbour Louis that they might mitigate some of their loneliness by sharing a bed occasionally. Not for sex, but for companionship. It shocks people in the close community of Holt in Colorado. Addie’s observation is full of optimism.

Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1922. 

Another favourite novel includes the redemption of the dreadful Mrs Fisher: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. What a dried-up old prune she is when she first joins the group of single women in a castle in Italy for the month of April. In her own opinion she has avoided the indignity of behaving as if she were younger than she is.

She herself had grown old as people should grow old, – steadily and firmly. No interruptions, no belated after-glows and spasmodic returns. (188)

To begin with she is an unhappy and lonely older woman, full of ‘shoulds’, who takes her dissatisfaction out on those around her, an image with elements of caricature. But the sun, Italy and above all the kindness and friendship of Lotty, who organised the trip, gradually transfigure the old woman, and she discovers the value and joys of friendship in her old age.

Click here to find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. 


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