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Desperately Funny: Victorian Widows & the Comical Misfortunes of Husband Hunting

Pages 926-936 | Received 09 Jul 2020, Accepted 01 Sep 2020, Published online: 11 Sep 2020


The widow was a much-satirized figure throughout the Victorian era, but humour has rarely featured in studies concerned with the period’s attitudes towards women and death. Widows, whose behaviour and dress were subject to many a rule, found themselves the focus of a wealth of jests and jibes that simultaneously highlighted and attempted to mitigate and police widowed women’s exceptional position in Victorian society. This article considers some of the most common comical types of widows in Victorian popular culture in jokes, novels, comic songs and sketches. I argue that it is in the realm of laughter in general, and in the comical iterations of the widow in particular, that we find some of the period’s most revealing engagements with the contradictions and ambiguities of middle-class notions of womanhood, femininity and female sexuality. From unashamed cackles of hilarity to sniggers of discomfort and sneers of disapproval, humour allowed for an exploration of the moral conflicts borne out of the widow’s identity as a woman who had once fulfilled her duty as a wife but could transgress and threaten the relational confines of normative femininity and the nuclear family.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


1. See, for example: William Clugston, The Widow and the Fatherless; An Appeal on Behalf of the Patriotic Fund (Forfar: William Shepherd and C. Laing, 1854); Richard Cobbold, [1846] Mary Anne Wellington: The Soldier’s Daughter, Wife and Widow (London: Clarke, Beeton, & Co., 1853); and Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, Admissions to the Casual Ward (1874); Thomas Benjamin Kennington, The Pinch of Poverty (1889).

2. See, for example, the following sketch, published in response to a commentary on the Queen’s physical health in the Lancet and the public discontentment with her continuing neglect of her public duties: ‘Slandered by Traitors’, Judy (14 August 1867), 5.

3. Frances Trollope’s Widow Barnaby trilogy became the blueprint for representations of the middle-aged Victorian widow. Martha Barnaby is a serial widow whose mourning for her husbands is as insincere as her appetite for social climbing is insatiable.

4. The commedia dell’arte was a popular, improvised form of comedy in Italy in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, relying on stock characters.

5. See Pat Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Citation1996).

6. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 199–203.

7. Generally speaking, widows were expected to wear mourning clothes for two years: deep mourning of paramatta and crape for the first twelve months, and gradually lighter fabrics and colours for the subsequent twelve months and half mourning, though sources from the period vary on the finer points and timescales. Most social engagements and unnecessary appearances in public were prohibited for a year, with a gradual lifting of restrictions during the second half of the mourning period. See: Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 300–301.

8. We know little of Bunsby’s fate after the unhappy nuptials, but Dickens had already imagined the life of a widow’s second husband a few years prior, in Oliver Twist (Citation1838), where workhouse matron Mrs Corney (later Mrs Bumble) violently beats her new husband into submission.

9. Interestingly, widowed mothers posed a threat no matter the sex of their child. Repeatedly, satirists and writers represented them as neglectful parents consumed by their selfish marital pursuits, while sons were often described as overly attached to their widowed mothers and as having to assert their independence and masculinity, and daughters figured as enslaved companions and carers to their widowed mothers, frequently at risk of their own chances at marriage and happiness.

10. A parish beadle was a local church official tasked with ushering congregations at services or administering the church’s local charitable affairs.

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Notes on contributors

Nadine Muller

Dr Nadine Muller is Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research interests include the literary and cultural histories of widowhood in Britain since the nineteenth century, and she is the principal investigator of War Widows’ Stories, a participatory arts and literary, cultural and oral history project that records, analyses and raises awareness of the lives of war widows in Britain past and present. Nadine’s wider research expertise includes feminist theory, feminist historiography, participatory methods in arts and humanities research.

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