ETIQUETTE FOR WIDOWS .— The following humorous hit is from a late novel by Alphonse Karr. We will not answer for its truth; but we will for its humor:
“Those who shall scrupulously observe certain simple and easy practices shall be considered to experience a sufficient degree of grief. Thus it is proper for a widow to mourn her husband a year and six weeks (a man only mourns his wife six months); that is to say, the widow, on the morning of the four hundred and seventy-first day, and the widower on the dawn of the one hundred and eighty-first, awakes in a gay and cheerful mood.
“Grief divides itself into several periods in the case of widows.
“1st period— Despair, six weeks.— This period is known by a black paramatta dress, crape collar and cuffs, and the disappearance of the hair beneath the widow’ s cap.
“2d period— Profound grief. Despondency, six weeks. Profound grief is recognized by the dress, which still continues to be of paramatta, and the despondency which succeeds to despair is symbolized by the white crape collar and cuffs.
“3d period— Grief softened by the consolation of friends, and the hope soon to join the regretted object of her affections in a better world. These melancholy sentiments last six months; they are expressed by a black silk dress; the widow’s cap is still worn.
“4th period— Time heals the wounds of the heart. Providence tempers the east wind to the shorn lamb. Violent attacks of grief only come on at rare intervals. Sometimes the widow seems as though she had forgotten her loss; but all at once a circumstance, apparently indifferent, recalls it, and falls back into grief. Yet she dwells from time to time upon the faults of the beloved; but it is only to contrast them with his dazzling virtues. This period would be tiresome enough for the world at large; therefore it has been decided to express it simply by half mourning.
“5th period.— There is now only a softened melancholy, which will last all her life— i.e. six weeks. This touching and graceful sentiment shows itself by a quiet gray silk dress; the sufferer less feels the loss than the actual deprivation of a husband.
“When the lady loses her husband, it is requisite either to pay her a visit of condolence, or address a letter to her. It is customary in these cases to make use of such language as admits the probability of the greatest possible grief— that of Artemisia, for example. Fontenelle, however, thought proper to send a blank letter to a young friend of his who had lost an old husband, saying he would fill it up three months afterwards. When he did so, he began, ‘Madam, I congratulate you.’ But this is quite contrary to custom. Therefore, when a widow loses an old, avaricious husband, from whom she inherits a large fortune, you ought not the less to entreat her not to give herself up to despair; and take care to look as though you believed it was law and custom alone which prevented her from burying herself with him.”
Godey’s Lady’s Book [Philadelphia, PA] September 1854
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Paramatta [also spelt Parramatta] was a light-weight mixture of wool and silk or cotton. Alphonse Karr was a French novelist, critic, and editor of Le Figaro. He also founded a satirical journal called Les Guêpes (The Wasps) and coined that useful epigram, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The French set the standard for strictly codified conventions of mourning with their list of requirements for the bereaved and the notion of funeral “classes,” as if death were a railway ticket office. The witty Fontenelle was Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, 18th-century French essayist, poet, and member of the Academy.
The grief of Queen Artemisia, who so desperately mourned her husband King Mausolus, was proverbial. She built an elaborate tomb for him (hence the term “mausoleum”) and supposedly drank her wine mingled with his ashes. In the face of such violent regret, untacking the crape from one’s gowns and ordering a violet mantle for half-mourning seem frivolously inadequate.
See the “Mourning” category for Mrs Daffodil’s frequent other posts on mourning costumes and customs. Look also for The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, a book on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, telling of subjects such as widow humour; the uses and abuses of crape; edifying deathbeds; and unusual products for correct mourning, as well as stories of ghosts, strange deaths, and grave errors. Mrs Daffodil fears that the author “wants to make your flesh crape.”
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.