Full-Time Widows at workAngela Lambert Asks What Drives Women to Devote Themselves to the Memory of the Ir Husbands
BEAUTIFUL, fragile, iridescent Kathleen Tynan died this week aged 57, a few months after completing the self-imposed labour of her widowhood. She is the latest in a procession of literary widows who have taken upon themselves the task of editing and publishing their late husbands' work. It may be his collected letters and reviews, along with a Life (Kathleen for Kenneth). It may be the complete collected works, plus four volumes of letters (Sonia for George Orwell). It may be the complete collec ted letters (Valerie for T S Eliot). Or it may be an account of their life together (Caitlin on Dylan Thomas or Beatrice Behan on My Life with Brendan). "The role of a literary wife is not a happy one," said Beatrice.
The job of guarding the great man's work and observing the provisions in his will may be equally arduous. Valerie Eliot, widow of T S Eliot, has tried to compel would-be biographers to respect her late husband's expressed wish never to be the subject of a Life, but with limited success. She refused Peter Ackroyd permission to quote from the poet's work but could not prevent him from publishing an award-winning biography. Yet she allowed Andrew Lloyd Webber to use Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats as the libretto for a lucrative musical, Cats. Widows are unpredictable.
Widowhood is posthumous power; the triumph of survival. Whether the widow is devastated or relieved by the death of her husband, once he has gone she's on her own. If she idolised him while he was alive, she can preside over his work - preferably The Collected Works - enhance his reputation and devote her life to his memory. If she seeks revenge, she can diminish his achievement and vilify his name. Posterity will adjust the balance but by that time they are both long gone.
Queen Victoria set a standard for devoted widowhood that has never been surpassed. She worshipped Prince Albert during their 21 years of marriage and withdrew from public life into morbid obsession after his death in 1861. Her critics called her the Widow of Windsor. Undeterred, she devoted the next 26 years to reclusive mourning. Wearing perpetual black, she used only black-bordered stationery, commissioned hundreds of statues of her dead husband and ordered every grandson to be named after him. Beforetaking the smallest decision she would ask,"What would Albert have done?" By her jubilee in 1887 she had created a Victorian cult of death.
The Queen Mother, married for nearly as long - 19 years to Victoria and Albert's 21 - has now been a widow for even longer: 43 years to Queen Victoria's 40. What has she done to perpetuate her husband's memory? There is just one statue of King George VI in London: in the Mall near Carlton House Terrace. It was erected with public money donated to the King George VI Memorial Fund, set up after his death. Did she unveil it? No, the Queen did that in 1955, delivering an "encomium" to her father. What happened to the fund? It has been defunct since 1960, after disbursing more than pounds l.7m. Is there any record of the Queen Mother's involvement? "No formal role as such can be traced."
I asked Penelope Mortimer, who has written the best-researched biography of the Queen Mother, an exception amid a multitude of soft-focused turquoise tomes, how his widow had reacted to George VI's death? "She was terribly, terribly upset, for all sorts of reasons. Her whole position in the family and the country went. Since then she has preferred to aggrandise her own role in their life. She was only 52 when she was widowed and she soon bounced back. She had . . . skirmishes with various people."
But literary widows are a genre of their own. What is needed to join this elite? First, the widow should still be young when her husband dies, young enough to have the energy and longevity to carry out her self-appointed task. Sonia Brownell was 31 when she married George Orwell; he died three months later. …