(Originally aired 2022/12/17 - listen here)
There are some historic romance tropes that apply easily to female couples — sometimes even more easily than they do to mixed-gender couples, like “kissing lessons.” There are some that need a lot of thought and adaptation for female couples, like most of those based on the institution of marriage. And there are many where the trope works perfectly well, but in very different ways than it does for male-female historic romances. Today’s installment of “Our F/Favorite Tropes” is an example of the latter: the widow as romantic heroine.
To briefly review what we mean by “trope” in this context, the word is used to mean a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
Historic romance is full of beloved tropes that evoke a certain dynamic or create certain expectations, whether the story fulfills those expectations or puts its own twist on them. In this series of podcasts, we look at how some of the popular tropes from mixed-gender historic romance novels play out differently for female couples, or how they can be adapted with a little creativity.
When I did the trope episode on spinsters, I was originally thinking of combining spinsters and widows as two categories of women living outside of heterosexual marriages. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that widowed characters bring some significantly different dynamics to female couples in historic settings, and needed their own separate discussion. (Although, as I noted at the time, pairing spinsters and widows has a lot of potential.)
As usual, my examples tend to be drawn from Western culture. If you’re writing your story in a significantly different cultural setting, you should research what the differences might be, particularly with regard to the legal, social, and economic norms for widows. I’ll go further than that and note that, except for a few early examples, the data I’m drawing on for this historical overview is mostly specifically English—simply due to the way my sources skew. I don’t usually do new background research for these trope shows, so it’s a matter of using what I already have in the blog. Because the legal status and opportunities for widows would depend greatly on the culture they were living in, you’ll want to do some specific research no matter what your setting is. Think of the present discussion as sketching out just one set of possibilities.
The Widow Trope
In mixed-gender historic romances, the widow as romantic heroine represents a woman with socially-sanctioned sexual experience who is now once again available for romance. Her previous marriage might have been happy, and represents a standard against which she measures new suitors. It might have been unhappy, and provides a strong argument against entering a new relationship. One of the strongest motifs that hang around a widow is that she has “paid her dues” in the patriarchal marriage economy and is now relatively free to make her own choices for the future. She will also generally be above the typical age of marriage, providing the opportunity to feature an older heroine without the social stigma of being an old maid. Unlike an ingenue, a widow generally has established habits, goals, and commitments that structure her life. She may have children – either young children who need her care, or adult children who add to her web of social connections (or may complicate her romantic life).
The places where the widow character functions similarly for male and female suitors is that she has generally achieved an accepted social independence that is difficult for a currently-married or a never-married woman to attain. That independence will either involve financial stability—in which case she will have a relatively high level of agency for her society and be in a position to enter into new relationships only if she chooses to—or it will involve significant financial precarity, far more precarious than a man in similar circumstances—in which case her decision about entering a new relationship will be complicated by the impact it has on her personal security.
And then there are the ways in which being a widow are uniquely relevant for female same-sex relationships. But before we get to that, let’s dive into a brief survey of widowhood across the ages.
Widows in Historic Societies
We generally understand words meaning “widow” to indicate “a woman whose husband has died.” But this sense wasn’t necessarily the primary meaning in early contexts. In classical Latin usage, both in pre-Christian and early Christian societies, the word vidua might primarily mean “a woman with no man to represent her legally” or “a woman with no male source of economic support,” thus encompassing never-married or divorced women as well as those who have lost a husband. In early Christian use, vidua sometimes seems to have carried a sense of “a woman who has made a vow of chastity” while the more general sense of a woman whose husband had died was conveyed by relicta, literally “leftover.” (Even as late as the 18th century, “relict” appears as a synonym for widow in English.)
There was some diversity in attitudes towards marriage and widowhood (in the modern sense) in various parts of the Roman Empire. In pre-Christian Egypt, for example, a married woman would join her husband’s family’s household, but on divorce or his death she would either return to her father’s household or could establish her own household if she had children. Spouses didn’t inherit from each other, so widowhood could mean financial problems, especially given that women typically needed a male agent for financial affairs. But to balance that, sons and daughters inherited equally, so a widow would have more than what we think of as a dowry from her birth family. There are records of early Egyptian widows living well in independent households with their children, presumably due to a solid financial foundation from their family of birth. It’s also worth noting that we have traces of evidence from Roman-era Egypt for female couples being a recognized social phenomenon, even including some ambiguous references to women marrying each other, but that’s a topic than needs closer scrutiny at another time.
In Rome itself, women were officially always under their father’s legal authority, even when married, and widowhood simply meant returning to his physical household. There were some interesting conditions and escape clauses among the upper class. Laws meant to encourage childbirth imposed some fairly nominal penalties on a younger widow who declined to remarry within a specified period of time. But she could escape this requirement if she had at least one surviving child. And a woman who had at least three children was entitled to have legal and financial agency regardless of marriage status. In a culture where it was typical for men to be significantly older than their wives, widowhood was a reasonable expectation, if you survived childbirth.
Christianity brought some different attitudes toward widows, especially with regard to re-marriage. While Roman society had praised widows who were “faithful” to their dead husband and did not remarry, early Christian society took the attitude that the marriage commitment was permanent even after death, and frowned on widows re-marrying at all. Instead, the most highly praised choice for widows was to dedicate their life to God, either as part of a religious community or not, though this certainly wasn’t a universal choice. Despite the legal restrictions and disadvantages for widows (indeed, for women in general), widows were the class of women most able to establish independence from the patriarchal household in this era, and one sees references to widows traveling and doing business on their own.
Moving on to the medieval period, the situation for widows depended on local marriage patterns and family structures. In southern Europe, we see what is sometimes called the “Mediterranean pattern” with women typically marrying young to older men and being under their family’s control before that. This social structure had few options for women outside the family—either the birth family or the marriage family—and older unattached women, regardless of marriage history, tended to be steered toward a religious life. I have less information easily at my fingertips on the specific options for widows in this context, so I’m going to move my focus to using England as an illustrative example for the remainder of this history.
English society followed what is sometimes called the “northern pattern” of marriage, with both women and men marrying somewhat older, and at similar ages, after they’ve both had a chance to gather resources for setting up a household. English medieval society tended to revolve around nuclear households, so there wasn’t an expectation for a widow to return to her parents’ household. In this context, widowhood could provide a woman with legal independence, control of her own finances, and the freedom to decline re-marriage, as long as she had the economic resources to remain single.
In theory, a married woman could have her own occupation and have financial independence from her husband as a femme sole, but only as a widow would this be the automatic and expected state. Medieval English widows would expect to inherit not only a significant share in her husband’s property, but the right to continue engaging in his business, often including guild membership and even civic offices. While rural real estate was often biased toward male ownership, including requirements like military service, or simply a desire to keep agricultural property intact as a single unit, urban widows could expect to share in the real estate left behind by their husbands, either as a direct bequest, or as a shared interest with other heirs, providing a regular income. And unlike never-married women, they could act as their own legal and financial agents in the courts, though many still employed a male agent for practical reasons.
Medieval attitudes toward people’s sexual lives meant that widows were often viewed as “unruly” in the sense of being sexually knowledgeable but not “ruled” in their behavior by a man. And unlike the beliefs about women’s sexuality that became prominent in the 19th century, medieval and early modern women were not only expected to have a sex drive, but were thought to have a stronger drive than men did. Thus we get characters like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath who is unabashed in discussing her sexual history and opinions. A sexually active widow (that is, active outside of marriage) drew less criticism than a sexually active woman who had never married, but there was sometimes more scrutiny on widows because of their presumed sexual experience.
Widows took the attitude that they had “paid their dues” and were no longer responsible to male authority in their personal lives. (Although it’s a regular pattern for male civic authorities to frown on this attitude.) Re-marriage was an option, but not a requirement. It could offset some economic disadvantages, and of course offered the only licensed context for sexual activity with men, but it meant returning to a husband’s authority.
Among the upper classes, widowhood might be the only context in which a woman had some control over her life path. A carefully negotiated marriage contract could provide a widow with the income from dower lands for her lifetime, and aristocratic widows often took up a second career as political movers and shakers.
As we move on toward the early modern period, many of the same conditions apply, perhaps more so. With a gradual restriction in the types of work generally open to women, it becomes harder for a never-married woman to gain financial independence, even aside from the social attitudes that pressured her to be attached to a male-headed household. But widows continued to benefit from the attitude that they were continuing to act in their late husband’s role in businesses.
Widows typically retained control of the family home, though they might instead live with family members, take in boarders, or combine households with other widows. While never-married women of the working and middle classes were suspect if living independently, and in some jurisdictions could be legally forced into domestic service, widows were allowed—and even expected in many cases—to continue their husband’s trade or business. They were far more likely than unmarried women were to be granted licenses for work such as food services, peddling, innkeeping and similar occupations. Among other options, a widow with a nest egg and a strong business sense could make a reliable living by dealing in small loans (once interest-bearing loans were legally allowed), or other financial investments whether real estate or businesses.
At the bottom end of the economic scale, poor widows were generally considered worthy of charitable support, rather than being treated as slackers or vagrants. At the upper end of the scale, the wealthy widow becomes an archetype of the desirable wife for an older man. But most widows fall somewhere in the middle.
As we move into the 18th and 19th centuries, the employment options for unmarried upper and upper-middle-class women, including widows, continue to shrink due to social attitudes about women’s “incapacity” and appropriate roles. A widow of the upper or upper-middle class who did not have inherited money or a solid dower contract—the financial settlement agreed on at the time of her marriage—had few options for making an independent living and generally would need to find a place in someone else’s household, either a relative’s or as an unpaid companion. This is the reason why families tended to be extremely concerned about the background, finances, and reliability of their daughters’ suitors. The dower agreement or “jointure” was what stood between a widow and destitution, once significant social barriers to working for a living became established. For women of the aristocracy, a reliable jointure was an essential life insurance policy.
That consideration only applies to the upper parts of society, though. As long as she didn’t need to maintain that façade of middle-class respectability, a widow could still support herself through an independent business and, as previously, it was more acceptable for a widow to manage her own business than for a never-married woman to do so.
There were some trades that were traditionally female, such as dressmaking and millinary. Investment and lending were still an option open to women. Women worked as grocers and specialty shopkeepers, just as they had in earlier ages, and they were successful in food services and as tavern keepers. If a husband and wife had kept an inn, it was normal for the widow to inherit and continue the business. Inherited real estate could be run as a lodging house, with the widow either taking in boarders or renting out properties that they owned.
Following on several waves of proto-feminist sentiment starting in the early modern period, women were realizing how marriage had the potential to turn wives into unpaid servants with few rights or recourse. That experience of marriage led many widows to decline to enter it again, even if their late husband had not been particularly tyrannical. Intelligent, educated widows often found marriage constraining and tedious and saw few benefits to resuming the state. Some went so far as to argue against the institution of marriage entirely. But marriage was the primary route for converting a nominal share in family wealth into a livable independent income. All it required was the right combination of surviving one’s spouse, the right sort of children, and good financial choices at all stages.
How Widows Work Differently in F/F Romances
As we’ve seen from our historic survey, there are many commonalties for widows across the centuries, but just as many shifts in their specific life expectations. And the differences between social classes can sometimes be as important as variation across time and culture. But overall, from the point of view of creating single female characters with agency and social power, the figure of the widow is a very enticing choice. So now let’s look again at some of the primary dynamics of the widow as romantic heroine that we listed for mixed gender romances, and see how they work differently for female couples.
The question of sexual experience becomes more complicated for sapphic romances, and I’ll expand on that in a little bit. Sexual experience within marriage might suggest a general erotic awareness, but doesn’t imply any specific prior experience with women. Conversely, it doesn’t exclude possible erotic experience with women, because that would not necessarily have been categorized as “extra-marital sex” in people’s minds. On the other hand, in the version where a widow’s prior sexual experience has been less than satisfactory, that experience might be an incentive to consider whether a relationship with a woman could be more satisfying. (Assuming that it’s something she can imagine in the first place.)
Aside from the specifically sexual aspect, the potential comparison a widow might make between her late husband and a new suitor undergoes a seismic shift due to the difference in gender. A widow who was unhappy in her marriage would not automatically project that experience onto a relationship with a woman because of the role that gender would have played in her experience of marriage. So rather than potential obstacles being “I had a happy marriage, why would I risk an unhappy one?” or “I had an unhappy marriage, why would I want to repeat that?” the widow is unlikely to think of a sapphic relationship as being in the same category of experience. She’s paid her marriage dues; she doesn’t need to do that again. But a romance with a woman wouldn’t be “doing that again.”
One aspect of the widowed character that remains the same is that she is likely to be older than the typical expectations for romantic heroines – or at least, she is allowed to be older without needing special pleading. She likely has a fair amount of life experience, she’ll have interests, commitments, and presumably a set of established social connections. But whereas the widowed heroine’s interactions with unmarried men will be viewed as inherently significant and laden with meaning, her interactions with women of all social conditions will be viewed as expected and typical – the basic background of society. She will generally have social permission to cohabit with another woman without rousing scandal or needing excuses. And she may enjoy a broad range of physical expressions of friendship and affection with a woman before either of them needs to consider whether their relationship has shifted gears.
The Issue of Sexual History
I said I’d come back to a question of sexual history that can have more to do with the concerns of modern authors and readers: the fact that a widow comes with the assumption of a past sexual history with a man.
I’m going to veer a little into personal commentary here. I hope we’ve gotten past the era when sapphic romance heroines are always required to be devoid of any past romantic or sexual relationships with men. If you prefer to write or read characters who either have never been involved with men or whose orientation towards women is so strong that a past relationship with a man would be inherently traumatic, then maybe a widowed heroine isn’t the best choice for you. I’m not saying that there’s no place for plots where the widow’s motivation is “my marriage was so awful that I’m never going to commit myself to another person again” – after all, we see those in mixed-gender romances. But I personally have read too many sapphic widows whose late husband was cartoonishly dreadful and existed only for the sake of motivating her to give women a try. After all, that doesn’t say much for the inherent attractions of sapphic romance if it’s only presented as a rebound option!
Also within this context, let’s consider that in many of the ages that have left evidence about attitudes towards same-sex relations, there was a baseline assumption that people were inherently bisexual (although that specific word wasn’t used). People might have personal preferences within a spectrum, or might be attracted to different categories of people for different reasons. In a social context where marriage was the normative life pattern, it doesn’t take any special pleading for a woman to have gotten married to a man (because that was what one did) but then seek different pleasures when widowhood left her free to choose.
Given the non-romantic nature of many marriages in the medieval and early modern period, even a woman whose romantic urges are focused entirely on women might consider heterosexual marriage a necessary life passage. At the same time, given the attitude in many of those same eras that women were most likely to have close emotional bonds with other women, it doesn’t take special pleading or even an exclusive orientation for a widow to decide to focus her romantic life on other women rather than risking re-entry into the restrictions and hazards of marriage.
There are, of course, ways to widow a heroine without giving her a sexual history with men. A fake marriage of convenience, an extended absence with no prior consummation, a tragically convenient death. One plot that came immediately to my mind would be a variation on Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow, this time with a woman engineering another woman’s marriage to her dying relative to fix the inheritance, after which the two in-laws find themselves falling in love. Just make sure to get those inheritance contracts set up airtight first!
Opportunities for Widows in F/F Romances
But let’s look at some more typical cases and spin a few scenarios.
People love their aristocracy romances, whether it’s in a medieval castle or a Regency ballroom. While widowhood isn’t the only means for an upper class woman to have maneuvering room to engage in a long-term sapphic romance, it’s the easiest. A widowed queen’s closest companions will be her ladies in waiting, often themselves unattached in order to make the queen their highest priority. There’s fertile ground. A good number of queens of England had special passionate friendships among their ladies in waiting or close confidantes, with Queen Anne being only the most notorious example. Or perhaps the widowed aristocrat will be employed as a loyal and canny diplomat to a foreign court, only to find herself enjoying the sparring with a nominal rival a bit too much and questioning those loyalties.
We needn’t consider only queens and princesses. I have a plot I’m noodling set in Restoration England where two aristocratic women who had an intense platonic friendship in their youth (a la Katherine Philips) found themselves on opposite sides of the English civil war, but are thrown together again, now that both have been widowed. The 17th and 18th centuries were notorious for non-romantic aristocratic marriages, where widows, having secured themselves a solid inheritance, found solace with a dependent female companion.
But let’s broaden our scope to more ordinary widows. As I noted in the episode on spinsters, the dynamics of a pre-20th century household meant that few people literally lived by themselves. Our middle class widow will be considering the options, not only for companionship, but for financial stability in combining households with other unmarried women, or taking in lodgers, or finding someone to help with the household management if she finds herself taking over the running of her late husband’s business. If you listened to the podcast on Anne Lister’s courtship scripts, you might remember the somewhat hothouse environment of the women-only Paris boarding house where she begins several seductions. A widow running a boarding house for unattached or adventurous women could be quite the player up to the point where she meets “the one.”
Or our widowed businesswoman may be looking more directly for a business partner and is looking out for a woman with experience or investment funds. How about a Regency romance where the struggling innkeeper’s widow has a chance encounter with a female guest, traveling alone for…oh…mysterious reasons, and romantic chemistry leads to an impulsive offer to this near stranger, whose past later comes back to haunt their budding romance.
In the Victorian era, widows might plunge into charitable works, turning female social networks into fundraising or volunteer resources. Those networks are another fertile ground for passionate devotion to a cause evolving into a passionate devotion to each other.
In general, widowed romantic heroines offer scope for second-chance romances, whether the two heroines were originally school-friends separated by family differences, young women in a passionate friendship separated by marriage, or any of the other dynamics that separate women whose husbands have the power to direct their life paths.
Two widows with children can fit easily into some of the romance scripts for blended families, particularly if there are economic pressures involved. Many of the “friends-to-lovers” options for widows take advantage of the social acceptability of two women sharing a household where that same option would be unthinkable for a mixed gender couple.
The eccentric, autocratic, wealthy widow is a mainstay of fiction across a wide span of time, and there are lots of ways to maneuver her into a position where she needs to learn more empathy and humility to win the heart of the less powerful woman she’s fallen for. Imagine Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh if she were softened just enough to be redeemable by true love!
In summary, the widow has some serious advantages when it comes to agency in her romantic choices. She is generally free from an automatic expectation that she will re-marry, and similarly free from the expectation that she will live under the authority of a male relative. It is trivially easy to design a widowed character’s backstory to give her financial independence, regardless of her social status, if that’s what your plot needs. But at the same time, it’s easy to give her economic reasons to share her household with another unattached woman and let proximity do its work. The widow is assumed to have some degree of erotic experience, so it’s no surprise if she’s looking for an erotic outlet that will not compromise either her reputation or her freedom. And widows have long had a reputation for eccentricity, outspokenness, and knowing their own minds. All useful characteristics in a romantic heroine who is about to break with normative expectations the next time she falls in love.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online