There’s a discreet conversation I’ve often had with women over 30 in long-term relationships – one that occurs once the dinner dishes have been cleared and the second wine cork popped. I think of it as the merry widows’ chat: We allow ourselves, just for a moment, the luxury of imagining what our lives will be like once all the men are dead.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Except it’s not. I promise you it’s anything but grim or hateful, this dead-husband fantasy.
Remember the scene in This Is 40 when Paul Rudd is sitting in a café with his buddy fantasizing what life will be like with his new wife, the one who doesn’t hate him? It’s like that, except it’s grounded in reality. Most women outlive their male partners; so widowhood, statistically speaking, is almost an inevitability. Why not be aspirational about it? In the merry widows’ world, it’s mostly single gals in tidy apartments with large white sofas, Downton Abbey on the TV, and omelettes for dinner.
And speaking of Downton Abbey, it was the spectre of Lady Mary this season, moping around the manor in her widow’s weeds, that cemented something I’d long suspected of pop culture: The widow is back, with a vengeance. Downton creator Julian Fellowes recently told BBC Radio 4 that he’d chosen to make Mary a widow because “there is no drama in happiness.”
Widowhood, in other words, opens up a world of dramatic possibilities for Lady Mary. Not only does she get to be miserable and emotionally withdrawn (a return to her natural state). More important, she is single again. Crack out the Beyoncé and the glitter nail polish, Edith: It’s time to take your sister down to London! Or maybe, more realistically, out for a stroll through the topiary garden. The point is, devastating as widowhood can be, it can bring with it the promise of change and possibility – not necessarily the worst thing for even the most devoted wife.
Widowhood is a good storyline for Lady Mary, but it’s an even better one for women today. At a time when nearly half of marriages end unceremoniously in divorce, and relationships are too often disposable, widowhood offers a get-out-of-jail-free card – a chance to start over without the stigma of failure. There is an innocence in it, a sense of blameless rebirth. Even the most happily married woman allows herself to fantasize about starting over; widowhood provides the perfect vehicle for it. Widows today don’t even have to wear black – though I’m quite certain they do, but that’s probably because they’re dating.
And searingly painful as it is for most women, of course, widowhood undeniably works, on some levels, for some women. In the real world, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates produced some of their most accomplished non-fiction in the throes of grief. And within fiction, strong female heroines are better off single or widowed, because therein lies the possibility for personal growth. George Eliot’s sweeping Middlemarch would have gone nowhere had Dorothea not been widowed. Solitary and striving is always more inspiring than smug and married off.
Another case in point: Helen Fielding’s new Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy, is out very soon and features the world’s most famous singleton as a widowed mother of two young children. The franchise’s second sequel – whose source material spawned an entire generation of moan-y single-girl books with pink cartoon covers – made waves when it was excerpted in The Times of London last weekend. I was both comforted and horrified to note that Bridget (who is now 51 – how is this even possible?) is living a life creepily like my own. Just as we were both once diet-sabotaging, hangover-managing, media-employed singletons on the town, now we are both mothers on the west London school run.
The big difference: Bridget is now a widow. Yes, it’s sad Mark Darcy isn’t around any more, but the fact that Bridget’s shagging a 31-year-old more than makes up for the dramatic loss.
I don’t mean to imply that widowhood isn’t an agonizing experience. After all, what sort of a hideous person would ever wish her other half dead? Especially over something as trivial as unplugging the iPhone charger three times in one day? (Sputtering cough).
But in all honesty, though, the merry-widow fantasy has very little to do with our men – whom we future widows will mourn and miss terribly, of course – and everything to do with the strange promise of freedom that widowhood offers, once the acute initial pain of loss has subsided. In an earlier era, this was taken for granted. Victorian widowhood, for example, offered a woman the opportunity to be single without any of the social annoyance of spinsterhood – and the same is still true to some extent today.
But the appeal of widowhood is now bolstered by the fact that we live in an era when romantic relationships are more fluid, and, sadly, more throwaway than ever. If there’s an even chance your wedding vows will be terminated by volition anyway, what harm can there be in the jolt of sympathy widowhood provides?
If, like Queen Victoria, you feel like holing up in Windsor Castle and getting fat on biscuits, you are perfectly welcome to. Or if, like Bridget Jones, you’d rather go to bed with a toy boy and deliver the kids to school in your pajamas, these days, that’s perfectly permissible, too.
As for Lady Mary, I imagine she’ll cast off the widow’s weeds soon. Downton is a soap opera, after all, and now that we’re living in the era of aspirational widowhood – and the show is being written in the present, after all, even if it takes place in the past – the topiary garden can wait.