The job of guarding the great man's work and observing the provisions in his will may be equally arduous. Valerie Eliot, widow of T S Eliot, has tried to compel would-be biographers to respect her late husband's expressed wish never to be the subject of a Life, but with limited success. She refused Peter Ackroyd permission to quote from the poet's work but could not prevent him from publishing an award-winning biography. Yet she allowed Andrew Lloyd Webber to use Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats as the libretto for a lucrative musical, Cats. Widows are unpredictable.
Widowhood is posthumous power; the triumph of survival. Whether the widow is devastated or relieved by the death of her husband, once he has gone she's on her own. If she idolised him while he was alive, she can preside over his work - preferably The Collected Works - enhance his reputation and devote her life to his memory. If she seeks revenge, she can diminish his achievement and vilify his name. Posterity will adjust the balance but by that time they are both long gone.
Queen Victoria set a standard for devoted widowhood that has never been surpassed. She worshipped Prince Albert during their 21 years of marriage and withdrew from public life into morbid obsession after his death in 1861. Her critics called her the Widow of Windsor. Undeterred, she devoted the next 26 years to reclusive mourning. Wearing perpetual black, she used only black-bordered stationery, commissioned hundreds of statues of her dead husband and ordered every grandson to be named after him. Beforetaking the smallest decision she would ask,"What would Albert have done?" By her jubilee in 1887 she had created a Victorian cult of death.
The Queen Mother, married for nearly as long - 19 years to Victoria and Albert's 21 - has now been a widow for even longer: 43 years to Queen Victoria's 40. What has she done to perpetuate her husband's memory? There is just one statue of King George VI in London: in the Mall near Carlton House Terrace. It was erected with public money donated to the King George VI Memorial Fund, set up after his death. Did she unveil it? No, the Queen did that in 1955, delivering an "encomium" to her father. What happened to the fund? It has been defunct since 1960, after disbursing more than £l.7m. Is there any record of the Queen Mother's involvement? "No formal role as such can be traced."
I asked Penelope Mortimer, who has written the best-researched biography of the Queen Mother, an exception amid a multitude of soft-focused turquoise tomes, how his widow had reacted to George VI's death? "She was terribly, terribly upset, for all sorts of reasons. Her whole position in the family and the country went. Since then she has preferred to aggrandise her own role in their life. She was only 52 when she was widowed and she soon bounced back. She had ... skirmishes with various people."
But literary widows are a genre of their own. What is needed to join this elite? First, the widow should still be young when her husband dies, young enough to have the energy and longevity to carry out her self-appointed task. Sonia Brownell was 31 when she married George Orwell; he died three months later. Valerie Eliot was 30 when she married the poet, who died eight years later. Kathleen Tynan was 40 when Kenneth died. Not surprisingly, all these women were second wives, sometimes much younger than their celebrated husbands.
The widow need not be scrupulously faithful (few are) but if she takes another husband, she loses her most precious asset: the great man's name. Bernard Crick comments acidly: "Sonia had herself listed in the London telephone directory as `Mrs George Orwell', which was a nonsense. She was either Mrs Blair or Sonia Brownell."
Crick was the biographer to whom Sonia eventually permitted access to the Orwell archive, contrary to the stipulation in her husband's will. He says: "She married George Orwell only three months before he died, although no one could have known that at the time. Even his doctor thought he might live for years. She was not gold-digging; she married for shelter, for a secure base and status. She told me, `It was difficult for women to conduct affairs in those days; things were very different then.' On whatunhappily proved to be the night of his death she was nowhere to be found. At the time many people believed she was in bed with her lover, Lucien Freud."
A young and beautiful woman whose husband, although he loved her, was mortally ill, Sonia had lovers before and after her husband's death. The crucial question is: did she honour or exploit his memory? Crick says, "Sonia was very generous to her friends;less generous to George's friends. But she edited his collected essays, journalism and letters, with the help of Ian Angus, and did the job well, according to her lights, given that she got the shudders whenever she heard the word `political'.''
Kathleen Tynan - as magnetic to men as was her husband to women - reacted angrily to Kenneth's infidelities and eventually took a lover herself. After her husband's death, she had a number of companions: Daniel Topolski, the Oxford rowing coach, Barbet Schroeder, the German film director, and latterly, Thom Mount, the American film producer.
Nevertheless she devoted the last 14 years of her life to a highly- praised and objective biography of Tynan, published in 1987, and to editing his journalism (Profiles, 1989) and letters (1994). In so doing, she untangled their complex marriage as well as his complex life and character, a task which gave her great satisfaction. In the last two years she knew she had cancer. She finished her work three months before her own death, ensuring that Kenneth Tynan's reputation in so impermanent a medium as theatre criticism would last longer than he could ever have predicted. When it was done she said, "I have resigned from the Tynan industry".
Susan Crosland, whose husband Anthony died in 1977, is a different kind of literary widow. While her husband was Labour foreign secretary she was a journalist under her maiden name of Susan Barnes. After his death, she drew on her experiences accompanying him to international conferences and embassies abroad for the books she published as Susan Crosland.
Sometimes the situation may be complicated by the presence of more than one widow: literally or figuratively. AJP Taylor's biographer Adam Sisman had to decide between the rival accounts of three wives, the last two of whom are still alive and by no means in agreement. Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes' biographer, said he had to deal with three "widows": Keynes' wife, his mother and his boyfriend, all with strong and differing memories of the man they loved.
The belligerent Caitlin Thomas waged unceasing and often drunken war during her married life with Dylan. Just before his death in a New York hospital, to which he was taken after consuming 18 whiskies, he had said, "There is an illumination about her. She shines." Unknown to him, Caitlin prowled the hospital corridors asking, "Is the bloody man dead yet?"
In her widowhood, however, she cherished the memory of Dylan and his poetry. She described him with her usual ambivalence as "the one deadly, organic entanglement of my lifetime". Much later when she had mellowed she said: "I think when one loves a person like I did Dylan, the negative slips away and you only remember the positive side". Her account of their marriage, Leftover Life to Kill, was as raw as an open wound.
Valerie Eliot, Kathleen Tynan and Sonia Orwell all married men who were already famous. Being the wife of a great man means living in his shadow. The hardest task for widows may be finding a separate identity while being the guardian of the great man's legacy.
The sons of great men may write their father's life in order to understand (and perhaps diminish) him - Randolph Churchill and Nicholas Mosley are two obvious examples - and just as children are curious to know what their parents did before they were born, young widows must be equally intrigued by their husbands' past. By writing his biography and editing his letters, they have a legitimate outlet for that curiosity. It is a duty that reveals many secrets and answers many questions. That, i n the end, may be the real motive.Reuse content