[Commentary] Expensive, Nervous, Sexual: “I’m a Widow Worth Having” (1861)

In my last post on widows in Victorian comic songs I discussed the plainly titled “A Widow: A Comic Song” (1854), a piece which mimics the voice of a widow who describes and believes herself to be a “treasure” despite revealing a wealth of characteristics clearly deemed undesirable by society, and by eligible men particularly. Not coincidentally, the song I want to discuss in this post aims to entertain its audience by much the same premise. In “I’m a Widow Worth Having” (1861) by A Lady the comic value of the lyrics lies, again, in the fact that the widow is convinced she is indeed “worth having”, but gives plenty of evidence to the contrary.

FetchAs previously, we encounter a portrayal that casts the widow as a demanding woman who is hard to please and even harder to maintain because she is set in the ways of her previous marriage and – although keen to remarry – is unwilling to adjust her needs for a second husband. This time, however, we are treated to more comic detail as to how exactly these characteristics manifest themselves. Throughout the song, the widow promises that she is “worth having” because she is cheap to maintain (due to excellent health and her few and simple leisure habits) and because she would improve her husband’s wellbeing as well as his social standing thanks to her social skills and accomplishments. Alas, each of these wonderful qualities is followed by a line which illustrates quite the opposite, and we quickly learn that the widow is financially, medically, socially, and sexually quite undesirable! Her habit of visiting the “the opera, the play or a rout […] four times a week”, for example, renders her an expensive woman to keep and a woman difficult to entertain.

"Harness Electrophatic Belt", Myra's Journal of Dress and Fashion (London, 1 May 1887), p. 261.Added to that are her “doctor’s bills” of “never more than two hundred a year” “for a few dozen powders and pills”. Despite claiming she’s “not sickly nor ailing”, we are soon warned of her precarious mental and physical health when she reassures her prospective suitors that “with spasms, hysterics and other strange fits, don’t think I shall frighten you out of your wits”, playing on Victorian medical theories and anxieties about women – and single women in particular – who are no longer considered young and beyond their childbearing age. As Sally Shuttleworth notes, “spinsterhood, the failure to give the body’s energies their natural expression was depicted as a form of physiological disaster” (Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, p. 199). The widow, although once a respectable wife, is now without a man and hence without an outlet for her supposed biological purpose.

Cover of an edition of Ellen Wood, *East Lynne* (1861)But her undesirable attributes don’t end here. What she feels is her cultural and social value is based on her reading of the then much-frowned-upon and “feminine” genre of the novel, associated at the time with sentimentalism, sensationalism, and immorality, and widely considered a low cultural form, or, simply put, trash. While the Gothic novels of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century had kept at bay the threats of their fantastic stories through foreign, far-away settings, the rise of so-called sensation fiction in the 1860s brought the plots of murder, bigamy and female transgression onto home turf, rendering novel reading a dangerous activity for women and girls, and one associated with the nervous illnesses to which the song has already alluded in the previous verse.

William Holman Hunt, "The Awakening Conscience" (1853)Yet, the song doesn’t stop at rendering the widow expensive, mentally unstable, and hard to please. The final verse returns us to the mental anguish the widow suffered at the loss of her husband, and she is certain that “only a second can cure me, I know”. There are explicit allusions, however, that the widow’s longing is not simply for a romantic companion in the platonic sense, but that she also has a decidedly physical longing for the benefits of marriage. The song leaves us with the widow’s conjuring of a vivid and unequivocally suggestive image: “The silk bands of Hymen now broken in twain/ The roses of love must unite once again”. Then as now “Hymen” referred to both the god of marriage in Greek and Roman mythology and to the anatomical female part that is commonly taken to determine the virginity of a woman (Oxford English Dictionary). Neither are in tact here, of course: the widow’s marriage is broken through the death of her husband, and as a once-married woman she is sexually experienced and, the lyrics suggest, has sexual needs.

As eminent physician William Acton had put it, “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” (The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, p. 133). Indeed, middle-class women’s supposed lack of sexual appetites was crucial to their success in supposedly natural feminine roles that confined them to the sphere of the home: “The best mothers, wives, and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences” (The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, p. 134). Our widow, then, is not only lacking promise in these domestic duties but also once again provides evidence that points towards her precarious mental state, as those “women who have sexual desires so strong that they surpass those of men […] shock public feeling by their exhibition” and run the risk of being diagnosed with “nymphomania, a form of insanity that those accustomed to visiting lunatic asylums must be fully conversant with” (The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, p. 133).

“I’m a Widow Worth Having” is short but fascinating because the caricature it creates illuminates the various gendered anxieties that defined Victorian popular attitudes towards single women generally, and widows more specifically, in a social, medical, and sexual sense. But while in the first two songs I’ve discussed we are invited to laugh at the widow and her ignorance of her unattractive qualities, the pieces I want to consider in my next post paint a much more deviant image of the widow, one which renders men, not women, the ones to be laughed at!

Resources

William Acton, [1857] The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life, Considered in the Physiological, Social, and Moral Relations (Lindsay and Blakiston, 1865)

William Baker and Kenneth Womack (eds.), A Companion to the Victorian Novel (Greenwood Press, 2002)

Kate Ferguson Ellis, The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels & the Subversion of Domestic Ideology (University of Illinois Press, 1989)

Pamela K. Gilbert, A Companion to Sensation Fiction (Blackwell, 2011)

“Hymen, n.”, Oxford English Dictionary

A Lady, “I’m a Widow Worth Having” (1861)

Sally Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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1 Response

  1. 10/01/2016

    […] You can find my blog post on this song here: “Expensive, Nervous, Sexual”. […]

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