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

Please click here to download a free e-print of the final version of this article, published by Taylor & Francis in the Journal of Gender Studies on 11 September 2020. Below you can find a pdf of the the Accepted Manuscript of the article


The widow was a much-satirised 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.


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