A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“The Merry Widow”
“The Merry Widow” is from Margaret Drabble’s A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, her volume of collected stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). Drabble is best known as a novelist and this collection gathers the stories that she published 1966-2011, fourteen in all. The stories dwell on themes familiar in her novels – the perils of artistic vocation and fame for accomplished women; the trials of living with a querulous and demanding companion. In this collection the companion is always a husband, although Drabble has said that “The Merry Widow” was written after the death of her mother.
The words ‘merry’ and ‘widow’ seem mismatched. Can a widow be happy after she had lost a life partner? Elsa, the protagonist of the story, and her husband had booked a two-week vacation cottage in the English countryside, and then the husband died. Drabble goes on to explore her character’s interior feelings:
“If she [Elsa] were honest with herself, which she tried to be, she had not been looking forward to the holiday while Philip was alive: it would have been yet another dutifully endured, frustrating, saddening attempt at reviving past pleasures, overshadowed by Philip’s increasingly ill-health and ill-temper. But without Philip, the prospect brightened… the emotion she expected to experience in Dorset was not grief, but joy. She needed to be alone, to conceal from prying eyes her relief, her delight in her new freedom and yes, her joy.”
“The Merry Widow” was first published in Woman’s Journal, September 1989 and is anthologized for the first time in this collection.
Nancy Kline, writing in the New York Times, said of Drabble’s collection: “These are Margaret Drabble’s great themes. Even in the midst of the most exquisite natural landscape, it’s the human creature who matters, the human mind that creates meaning, the human heart that makes of her fictional universe “an immense romance.”