Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Widow's Dilemma in History - Isabella Hargreaves casts some light

Today I am delighted to give author Isabella Hargreaves a blank page to tell us all about the widow’s dilemma in history

As an author of historical romance, I’m interested in the position of women in society in the periods in which I write. It’s from issues of social status, societal values and so forth that conflict arises between my characters. Widowhood is one factor that raises many issues and potential conflicts.
Throughout English history women’s role in the community was centred primarily on marriage and children. Their independence, status and power within the household, and society at large, was controlled by men. They were subject to the wishes of the male head of household - fathers, husbands and, in their absence, brothers. Christian teachings prescribed that women should submit to men, and laws supported these teachings, limiting married women’s existence as separate entities in society.
A belief in the separateness of men’s and women’s spheres of endeavour arose in the mid-18th century and was expressed in literature, law, medicine and religion. Separate spheres became widespread in practice, especially amongst the expanding middle-classes as the industrial revolution progressed, as a means of combating the economic and social upheavals of the period. As medicine became more scientific, it was proclaimed that women’s brains were unsuited to study and that education for women should be an adornment only, as the serious acquisition of knowledge would affect their bodies’ functioning. The literature of the period reflected societal views about women and their proper role in society.
Widowhood was an aberration of the right order of society. It put women outside their normal circumstances and had a range of positive and negative results for them.
Widows could be quite threatening to male patriarchy. They were no longer innocent, and possibly not as easily duped or willing to be commanded by a man, once they had been freed from the bonds of matrimony. Consequently, widows living independently have at various times in history been susceptible to many accusations: for example, of immorality or of witchcraft in the Middle Ages.
Financially, widows were very vulnerable. If a widow was not left money by her husband; nor was eligible to receive a war widows’ pension (for officers’ wives from 1708, for widows of other ranks starting from the Crimean War); or were not supported by their family, they often became reliant on charity from the church and benevolent groups. The poor house of the Victorian era was a very real threat for widows with no means of financial support. Attitudes to widows could be harsh – as one Victorian mother said of her middle-aged daughter’s second marriage: “had she been left without anything [money] she might have been compelled [to marry], if any one then would have married her”.
In the dark and middle ages, families could rid themselves of the burden of keeping widows by sending them to convents. Conversely, widows might choose to enter one themselves as a means of freeing themselves from the control of men; although perhaps they were swopping one master for another.
Widows were not empowered by the law. For instance, they were not necessarily the guardians of their children. Instead, that power was given to men and they could control whether the widow even had the care of her children.
Widows’ choices for their future were determined by a range of variables created by personal, social, economic and legal considerations. Some of these considerations included whether the widow was:
  • young,  old, or in-between
  • childless or with children
  • wealthy, poor, or with a financial situation in between;
  • formerly happily married, unhappily married, or in between;
  • part of a family with a male head of household, or not;
  • a member of the aristocracy, middling classes, or working poor.
You can probably think of more variables which defined a widow’s predicament. The permutations of these factors are many, as is each widow’s response to her circumstances. Her subsequent actions after bereavement resulted from these factors.
A poor widow with a large family of children to support (in a world without social security payments) and without a family to support her, would probably need to marry again quickly or risk destitution. Remarriage was an economic decision, probably not a love-match. Conversely, an older, unhappily married, wealthy widow without a controlling male head of family might choose to live independently. Of course, many widows did remarry for love – after all, it is a strong motivation.
For writers of historical fiction and historical romance, these variables in widows’ circumstances provide an array of backgrounds and motivations for the heroine and other female characters. In my recent release, Wanton Widows, three widows with differing experiences of marriage choose three different ways of re-partnering (to use a modern word). In ‘What a Widow Wants’, the young dowager Countess of Newberry has had a nine-year long, unhappy marriage and doesn’t want to be stuck in a similar situation again, so she intentionally flaunts society’s rules. In ‘The Widow’s Wedding Night’ Arabella Linfield, who had a short but happy marriage, wants to repeat the same happiness so has quickly fallen in love again without really understanding the family she is entering. Viscountess Helena Tremoyne in ‘Wooing the Wealthy Widow’ had a happy marriage and doesn’t need to marry again for financial reasons, but would like to repeat the loving, companionable relationship she previously had, so is very choosy whom she marries, this second time around.
If you’re interested in reading more about widowhood, see the sources below. These may spark the idea for your next great story or take you further into the world of widows in the historical context.
If you wish to read my light-hearted short stories featuring widows from the Regency period, here are the blurb and the ebook links:
Three Regency-era widows seek new partners in unconventional ways.
'What a Widow Wants'
  The young Dowager Lady Caroline Newberry plans to snare a lover.
'The Widow's Wedding Night'
  Arabella Linfield dreams of a wedding night to remember, but the reality is a surprise.
'Wooing the Wealthy Widow'
  Can Sir Hercules Standfast pass the wealthy widow's twelve tests for penniless suitors?
Excerpt from "Wooing the Wealthy Widow"
            At Hyde Park, Helena found herself sharing her carriage with a popular man. Although he hadn’t been an acquaintance of hers, he appeared to be one of almost everyone else in the park – many of them his relations – although he was an only child of an only child. It was a far different outcome from that achieved by many of her former suitors. They had been shunned for being outright fortune-hunters. An hour later they escaped the crush of vehicles. 
              “Gunter’s, please,” Helena called to her driver.
                One notable suitor had accompanied her there only to leave shortly afterwards, complaining that anywhere that was a venue for the nursery set was not one for him. Helena had waved him on his way and remained to enjoy her ice, unconcerned by the large number of children being indulged by their kith and kin.
               Sir Hercules escorted her into the well-known café, smiling to the left and right at paramours, parents, nursemaids and children alike. He seated her, then ate his ice with finesse and patiently waited as she savoured hers.
Want to know about Isabella Hargreaves and her books? Go to:
Cavallo, Sandra and Lynden Warner. Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Longman, Harlow, 1999.
Crabb, Ann. Widowhood – Renaissance and Reformation – Oxford Biographies. <> Accessed 7 August 2015.
Davies, H J. Elite Women of Nineteenth Century South-east Queensland: Their Role, Independence, Status and Power within the Family, University of Queensland, MA thesis, 1996.
Muller, Nadine. ‘The Widow and the Law: A Brief History of Widows’ Pensions in Britain’, <>, Accessed 7 August 2015.
Theobold, Margaret, Knowing Women: Origins of Women’s Education in Nineteenth Century Australia, CUP, Melbourne, 1996

Vicinus, Martha. Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920, Virago Press, London, 1985.

Thank you, Isabella, for sharing these wonderful insights.


  1. Thanks for inviting me over to your blog, Annie.

    1. You're very welcome - thanks for your article; I learned a great deal, and thanks for the added bonus of the excerpt :)