“…who called themselves widows…”

by Peter Anderson on September 2, 2011

I’ve come across an odd phrase in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) that I thought I’d share here. I’m reading the book as part of my Summer of Classics, and though I briefly considered abandoning it as August ended, I’m enjoying it just well enough to keep reading. In this passage, the schoolmaster Phillotson is facing termination by the school council in the town of Shaston, due to the scandal of his having consented to letting his much younger wife leave him to be with her lover, Jude. The respectable people of Shaston – presumably fearing that such a permissive act from Phillotson reflected poorly on his beliefs, and that he thus posed a threat to his pupils’ morality – are unanimous in favor of firing him. But rising to his defense are the “itinerants” of the town (or what Americans call “carnies”), which Hardy memorably describes here:

It has been stated that Shaston was the anchorage of a curious and interesting group of itinerants, who frequented the numerous fairs and markets held up and down Wessex during the summer and autumn months. Although Phillotson had never spoken to one of these gentlemen they now nobly led the forlorn hope in his defence. The body included two cheap Jacks, a shooting-gallery proprietor and the ladies who loaded the guns, a pair of boxing-masters, a steam-roundabout manager, two travelling broom-makers, who called themselves widows, a gingerbread-stall keeper, a swing-boat owner, and a “test-your-strength” man.

Certainly an interesting menagerie of folks. What struck me the most was “two travelling broom-makers, who called themselves widows.” The majority of the other itinerants are described singly, but the broom-makers are described as a pair, suggesting they were regularly together. And Hardy doesn’t say they actually are widows, but that they “called themselves widows.” It probably wasn’t uncommon back then for widows to live together, especially if they were childless, older and beyond prime marrying age, thus sharing living quarters to economize and make the best of their situation.

Reading this, I wonder if Hardy is actually making a veiled reference to them being lesbian lovers. If he simply said they were widows, that would be the end of it. But the addition of the superfluous phrase “who called themselves widows” seems like a sly hint from Hardy that the two merely pretended to be widows, as cover for what would have otherwise been considered (in the rural England of the 1890s) to be a sc andalous lifestyle.

The phrase is only a throwaway, and seems to have nothing to do with the main narrative, so maybe I’m paying too much attention to it, over-analyzing and giving it more significance than it deserves. But for me this is one of the pleasures of reading fiction – puzzling over unusual phrases, and trying to figure out exactly what the author was trying to communicate. Hardy is speaking across the ages (115-plus years), and in moments like these I can’t help feeling some connection with him, despite our considerable distance. If I’m incredibly fortunate, maybe my own writing somehow will similarly connect with readers of the 22nd Century. I can hope, at least.

Amateur Reader September 2, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Oh, not too much attention, not at all. You’re right, this is one of the pleasures of good fiction.

Paul September 3, 2011 at 4:34 am

Sly, indeed, but maybe on point nonetheless. Hardy may be suggesting that there are more “alternative lifestyles” in the real world than most people (of the time) were willing to recognize and that any coupling is a good thing and so, thus, Jude’s scandalous one is not so unique.

Rhian September 3, 2011 at 8:37 am

Ha! Totally missed that when I read Jude last year. Good eye!

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