A FULL four centuries ago, Shakespeare had his hero, Hamlet, declare, "Frailty, thy name is woman!", expressing anger at his mother for marrying too quickly after the death of his father.
Recently, "thy name"" has been recast as Christina Schmid or Kirianne Curley, two war widows who have dared to live on as sexual, emotional beings after the death of their soldier husbands.
A widow's behaviour, and the length of time she should keep silent, celibate and mournful, has long been framed by unspoken rules. Transgress those rules, even if simply in the tumult of processing your own grief, and you invite scorn and criticism. In their own different ways, these two women have done so. They have moved from being beautiful, stricken emblems of appropriate mourning, their chests pinned with medals, to becoming complicated, more difficult figures, with real lives and needs. In return, they have been written off by some as disrespectful of their late husbands. It says a lot about current perceptions of widowhood, that we judge these women in terms of being either fitting or poor memorials to their husbands.
When Christina Schmid's husband, bomb disposal expert Olaf Schmid, was killed in Afghanistan, she became a national heroine. It was partly because of her seeming fortitude in standing smiling as her husband's body was driven by, and partly because she criticised David Cameron for Britain's role in Afghanistan. But when she announced, in Hello magazine, that she had found a new love and was moving on, the internet trolls sharpened their knives, declaring she was a "self-publicist" who was "sending out the wrong messages to the troops"; that her publication of her memoir, Always By My Side, was evidence she was "on the gravy train". One suggested her original stoic smile was a sign of coldness; another questioned whether there was even any sign of redness around her eyes.
But condemnation of Schmid was mild compared with that meted out to Kirianne Curley, whose husband, Stephen, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and who later had a relationship with his friend, fellow marine, Ben Wilmott. When that ended and she began dating his Royal Marine comrade Matthew Cotterill, Wilmott bombarded the pair with threatening messages. Last week he was convicted of harassment.
Curley – once the tragic, war widow we wanted her to be, sobbing visibly with her 19-week-old son in her arms – was no longer portrayed as the pure, devout, honouring wife. Rather, as the trial revealed, she was a woman who had fallen into the arms of one of her husband's friends, only to quickly also find comfort in the arms of another. Many declared this "disrespectful".
We all know this kind of thing happens in grief. Yet, somehow, we expect the wives of soldiers to exist in a frozen, inactive state of grief, not processing it or moving on, but simply existing as tearful, walking cenotaphs for their lost loves. Who cares what they need to do for personal survival; all that matters is that the fallen heroes are correctly honoured.
Though few of us knew Olaf Schmid or Stephen Curley, we feel we have a share in the grief that followed their deaths. They were "our boys". We are responsible for them; we own them. Because of this, our attitude to their wives is rather similar to the one we have towards the widows of the victims of political assassinations, terror bombings and so on. Whenever a hero dies, we want a living, lasting, breathing tribute.
In her book, Different For Girls, Joan Smith describes Jackie Kennedy as a prime example of what we demand of modern widowhood – a woman who was so private after her husband's death that Gore Vidal described her as "the last great silent movie star".
According to Smith, JFK's widow "reinforces the iron rule that women, if they are to be admired, should be seen and not heard; indeed [she] is a case study in how to win and keep public adoration, even managing to surmount the public relations disaster of her marriage to Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis."
Jackie Kennedy-Onassis did go on to have a life and loves, but, importantly, she did it quietly. This attitude – that widows shouldn't draw too much attention to themselves – can be seen in some of the comments that followed the publication of Schmid's memoir. While the book is clearly a respectful tribute to her late husband, some deemed it to be "shameless profiteering".
ONE also shouldn't make too much money out of the dead party. In the United States, there was widespread vilification of some of those 9/11 widows who gained compensation for the loss of their spouses. Kathy Trant made headline news and had an Oprah programme devoted to her when she reportedly spent $5 million of hers in five years, including £300,000 on designer shoes, £1000 on Botox injections for friends and thousands of dollars on breast enlargement surgery.
Is it any different for men? There are still so few war widowers that it is hard to tell. The 9/11 atrocity did have its terror widowers and they are relatively little talked about or criticised, and less likely to be adopted as the embodiments of national grief.
In many ways, women like Schmid and Curley are being employed as devices in our national navigation of how we feel about war and military losses. Images of them are gobbled up as we strive to demonstrate that there is glory, rather than pointlessness, in dying for your country. When their widowly grief seems to fade or is muddled, it's as if the poppy wreaths are no longer being laid and the cenotaph has been left to crumble. And, of course, we don't blame ourselves; we blame them.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.