First published in May 2019.
Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated. Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children’s books for which she is most well known – and for those, she seems to be barely remembered. She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o’Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list. Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club’s monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.
Fortnight writes of McNeill’s work favourably, and draws parallels between her and ‘English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor. What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.’ These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor’s which I have read to date. I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.
The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold. She is ‘alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.’ She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods. For the first time, she ‘has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.’ The central question which the novel asks is this: ‘As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?’
The novel opens with Harold’s funeral: ‘The car slowed, they were approaching the gates. Julia’s throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now… She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters’ hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.’ The funeral scene is vivid: ‘The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot. The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity. It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass. Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.’ McNeill goes on to probe Julia’s conflicting emotions about her sudden loss. At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as ‘… four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago. It wasn’t fair. Julia felt that she needed protection from them.’
The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia’s opinions and concerns. In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia’s innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: ‘I’ll do my mourning for you later, Harold. Just now I am getting through this the best way I can. You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold. I don’t know how to cope with yours.’ These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children. Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: ‘To him I’m not a person in the ordinary sense of the word. I was typecast the minute the cord was cut. I have been drained and diminished by motherhood. I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around… It doesn’t help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body. I have done my job. I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.’
Julia’s concerns do not just affect her family. Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders. She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so. She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage. For instance, ‘During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed. One didn’t think of bereavement as posing problems like this. One expected anguish, not embarrassment. (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn’t anything much that I feel. It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy. Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.’ She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, ‘she wouldn’t notice that she was by herself.’
The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland. In the novel, she ‘anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.’ I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on. I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her. The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia’s concerns are still prevalent in today’s society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children. The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.
As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking. Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable. Her character arc alters believably due to her circumstances. On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven’t followed suit.