- Life after Death: Widows and the English Novel, Defoe to Austen
Karen Bloom Gevirtz sees the eighteenth century, as have many others, as a time of economic transformation that had a profound impact on all aspects of British life. She argues convincingly, and with admirable clarity, that in the eighteenth-century novel the widow became a locus for articulating the anxieties present in the wider culture about the moral and social consequences of burgeoning mercantile capitalism. Compared to a wife, who had little economic authority, a widow was an independent economic agent, often inheriting a considerable estate or business upon the death of her husband. This power made her a threat to patriarchy, and a frequent scapegoat. Gevirtz supports this claim with research in social history, showing a parallel process in the real world of growing restrictions on women's participation in business, of declining wages for women, and of the waning of many traditionally feminine cottage industries. Novelists provided images of widows as fictional evidence for this exclusion of women from the economic sphere. In particular, Gevirtz makes the case that the flourishing of sensibility within the novel privileged women's affective role. Home and family were women's only proper concerns: "Women could generate wealth, but only by producing Englishmen" (20). Widows, who were sexually experienced but husbandless and typically past childbearing, could not participate in this alternative, subordinate economy of heart and home.
The great strength of Life after Death is its impressive synthesis of a vast range of novels, many under-read (for example, Sarah Scott's The History of Cornelia and Clara Reeve's School for Widows receive serious attention). This catholic approach is helpful in substantiating Gevirtz's claim for the concerted conservatism of novelists of both genders and all political stripes in portraying the widow. She organizes her subject according to economic status and activity, with chapters on affluent, working, poor, and criminal widows. The good affluent widows of eighteenth-century fiction use their wealth charitably, for strengthening communities, families, and friendships. A prime example is the maternal community run by the widows of Scott's Millenium Hall, who eschew luxury and their own gain for the good of others. And there are, predictably, numerous bad rich widows who seek their own sexual and material gratification, often at the expense of young heroines; among the better-known examples that Gevirtz discusses are Henry Fielding's Lady Bellaston and Ann Radcliffe's Madame Cheron. Here Gevirtz charts an increasing discomfort with second marriages [End Page 179] (Charlotte Smith's Emmeline and Margaret Lee's Clara Lennox provide examples of shunned and abortive remarriage), which she argues is in part an expression of concerns about the appropriate transfer of property: a rich widow must remain single in order to pass on her dead husband's wealth to his children intact. The chapter devoted to depictions of working widows shows how novelists "carefully distance the working woman from the actuality of commerce" (70). Virtuous working widows are always seen to be dependent on male protection, and their economic impulses are cast as maternal rather than competitive—witness Mrs Miller's reliance on Allworthy and her motherly care of Tom. These widows only work from necessity, and their ultimate reward, as earned by Mrs Darnford in Reeve's School for Widows, is an escape from the world of work into leisure. Destitute widows, such as the Bath widow in Humphry Clinker to whom Matthew Bramble gives twenty pounds, enter fiction only to serve as sites for the exercise of the sympathy and the benevolence of their social superiors. Repaying charity with gratitude and submission, they reinforce social hierarchies. Their antithesis is found in such criminal widows as Moll Flanders, or the Marchioness of Trente from Sarah Fielding's The History of Ophelia, women who in their ambition "exemplify attributes of unregulated, emergent capitalism" (136).
Life after Death ends with a chapter devoted to Austen, whose fiction is densely populated with widows rich and poor...