Emma Donoghue: “The Widow’s Cruse” from One Story #168, 8/26/12

"The Widow's Cruse"by J. Adams Acton, After 1875 (Engraving)

“The Widow’s Cruse” by J. Adams Acton, After 1875 (Engraving)

The sight of the widow’s weeds made him keep in his bow. Her hoops were so wide that she had to execute a sideways maneuver to get through the door; the skirt was excellent black satin, pulled up through pocket slits to keep it out of the mud. Linen mittens hid her hands, except for the narrow fingertips. Under the hood of her cape, the widow’s face was sharply boned – not an Englishwoman, and no more than twenty-five, Huddlestone reckoned. At the edge of her crisp white cap, the darkness of her hair shone through the blue-grey flour.

One Story seems to be running a lot of historical fiction this year. We had “World’s End” in August, “The History of Living Forever” in June, and “The World to Come” last March. Three stories in nine months isn’t really a lot, of course – four now, with “The Widow’s Cruse” – but you’d have to go all the way back to “Snow Men” in April 2011 the find the last one before this calendar year.

I’m afraid this story didn’t really work for me. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its good points; I found a great deal of interest to consider, in fact. But it was more fun to analyze than to read. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of historical fiction, so that has to be taken into account. It’s quite possible that in my ignorance, I’m just overlooking what makes it special.

The setting – pre-Revolutionary New York – is exquisitely detailed and extremely well-researched. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d recognize a poorly-researched piece set in this time, but it reads quite authentically. And it’s always fun to see attitudes from the past in action. For example, look at Donaghue’s explanation, in her One Story Q&A, of her use of the phrasing, “the young widow was going to be a very great fortune indeed.” I hadn’t even noticed that tiny thing when reading, but she’s right, it’s telling of the era. So it’s valid to wonder what else I missed.

I think my main complaint is that I “read” the twist at the end long before it came, so I was expecting a different twist, or a second twist, or something to raise it above my expectations. When that never came, I was disappointed. It reminded me more of something that might be taught in junior high school: a simple story with a clever ending.

I can’t really comment on the story without somewhat spoiling it, so be forewarned.

The point-of-view character is Huddlestone, a young attorney in pre-Revolutionary New York City. Mrs. Gomez is a young widow who comes to him for help claiming her husband’s estate. They both have goals and motives hidden from the other. The story is told from Huddlestone’s point of view; it’s pretty clear that his motive (for marrying the widow; he doesn’t really cheat her at all, the way it turns out) is greed. We never really find out for sure what the widow’s motive is; it could be greed, of course, but she could be escaping what today we’d call an abusive husband. That’s not just me inserting that from a feminist reading; I’m sure Donoghue includes the following paragraph at the very beginning of the story for a reason:

There was a paragraph about some females down in Chester County who’d formed a sort of secret court to arraign a man who’d battered his wife over some trifle. They’d sentenced the fellow to be ducked three times in a pond, and shaved off half his hair and half his beard to make a laughingstock of him. Huddlestone grinned over this story but was not convinced; newsmen today would invent any nonsense to fill an inch of paper.

In her One Story Q&A, Donoghue says the inspiration of this story came from this “one-sentence news item in the New York Weekly Journal (26 May 1735)”:

We hear that the wife of a certain Merchant of the city, while her husband was in the country, broke open his scrutore, and took out his will, of which she was the executrix; and went in widow’s weeds to the Doctor’s Commons, under pretense that he was already dead, and prov’d the same; by virtue whereof she receiv’d all his money in the stocks, and is gone over sea.

In general, I find the story a bit underdeveloped from this starting point, outside of the establishment of the time period, and adequate, though not intricate, creation of the point-of-view character. And it’s clearly his story. If the goal of historical fiction is to create a realistic setting authentic to the time period, it was a success. Maybe that’s my problem: I just wanted a different story.

After Huddlestone discovers the widow’s deception, he spends some time pondering and investigating – but not that much. The aftereffect is: “He would always be puzzling now, always doubting. Never understanding the real story.” The notion that he would always question just what the truth in front of him is, is an interesting one, but it didn’t feel strong enough to me; based on the text, I don’t see this interfering in his life in any significant way in the future. Maybe that’s because of perfectly authentic Colonial-era reticence. Maybe that’s why I don’t like historical fiction. He also decides, as most of us have at one time or another, to remain a bachelor forever. It seems like a weak payoff. I think I’m spoiled by Jim Shepard (whose work is so intense I sometimes can’t finish it; dang, I’m hard to please) and Anthony Doerr; I wanted more. As it is, I found the story straddled humor and drama, never really feeling firmly one or the other. Are we making fun of Huddlestone, or sympathizing with him?

Aha – there’s no better source to learn from than an experienced writer, and Donoghue, having published novels, story collections, literary history, and drama, is definitely that. In the same One Story Q&A, she refers to the point of view as “the Austenian mode of the third-person-with-ironic-distance (i.e., hovering over a character’s shoulder and occasionally delivering a swift kick in the pants).” I have a lot to learn about the fine points of POV. I can see irony in the situation: he thinks he’s manipulating the widow, when actually she is manipulating him. I can see irony as a function of time: to most modern readers, Huddlestone is an almost comically self-important young man out to get what he wants from a woman he perceives as inferior and helpless, simply because she is a woman, albeit one with a lot of money coming to her. And, I can see how the story requires that Huddlestone be the point of view character. But I’m not sure how narrative distance and irony get tied together. Maybe this is that sense of straddling humor and drama? Is the narration poking fun and sympathizing at the same time? As I said, I have a lot to learn.

I wonder how the story would read to someone of that time: where we might chuckle at his buffoonish assumptions and feel satisfaction as he gets his just desserts, would his contemporaries instead be outraged on his behalf?

Two other elements drew my attention. The title “The Widow’s Cruse” is from a biblical story and “refers to that pittance which can be eked out forever, by good management and God’s grace” as the Widow Gomez explains to Huddlestone. But of course it seems like a mistake (Will Allison at the One Story blog thought it was a mistake when he first saw the printed issue) and introduces, from the start, the idea that something can be easily mistaken for what it isn’t. But there’s more: in written form, “cruse” is most easily confused with “curse,” but aurally, it’s closer to “cruise”; the widow herself seems to be something of a curse on Huddlestone, and as part of that curse, she does eventually go on a cruise. That’s pretty cool.

I was more troubled by Donoghue’s choice of Mrs. Gomez’s heritage:

Huddlestone should’ve guessed it; there was a certain tint under her pallor. Of course he’d heard of the Gomez clan: Sephardics from the West Indies, and among the more substantial fortunes in the little Mill Street congregation who’d recently erected the first purpose-built synagogue in the New World.

The history of the Sephardics following the expulsion from Spain in 1492 is complicated, and I’m not going to deal with it here. Though he notes Mrs. Gomez’s ethnicity several times, and comments on differences, Huddlestone shows little if any anti-Semitism; he’s planning on marrying her, after all, if for financial rather than romantic reasons. We really don’t know, at the end of the story, what Mrs. Gomez’s motive was, but we’re very clear about her ethnicity – an unexpected ethnicity for the setting. I was concerned about a very ugly connotation which has appeared in literature from the time of Shakespeare (and probably earlier). When I’m concerned, I e-mail. Happily, Ms. Donoghue was able to completely assuage my fears:

I wanted to invent a woman who would be almost utterly opaque to my lawyer narrator – whose educational level, attitudes to everything and general savvy he would misread through his own fantasizing about her; the cultural blinkers he’s wearing. So I chose Sephardic Jews because of their image as a mysterious, secretive, closed community. The more modern ‘scheming Jew’ cliché would not, I’m pretty sure from my research, have been applied to an eighteenth-century Sephardic lady like Mrs Gomez. I was hoping that this comes across in the story through the way the lawyer thinks about her as a frail prisoner of her husband’s family. And as for how readers assess her, I was also hoping that she comes across as a desperate escapee from a bleak marriage rather than some ha-ha schemer; tragic despite the fact that she gets away with it.

My bad. And my thanks again to Ms. Donoghue for taking the time to answer my stupid questions. And within minutes, at that (don’t you just love the Internet?).

All of which means I feel extra-bad that I’m not more enthusiastic about the story itself. But the only real rules I have for this blog are to complete what I start and to always tell the truth, the matter how embarrassing, and no matter how badly I expose my own ignorance. So we’ll all just have to accept that, in spite of the fun I had playing with this story, historical fiction not really my cup of tea.

I really don’t expect that Ms. Donoghue will lose any sleep over that.

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One response to “Emma Donoghue: “The Widow’s Cruse” from One Story #168, 8/26/12

  1. Pingback: Thomas McGuane: “The Casserole” from The New Yorker, 9/10/12 | A Just Recompense

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