Beginnings: A Book for Widows (1977)

Beginnings: A Book for Widows - Holly Jennings

Betty Jane Wylie’s Beginnings: A Book for Widows, published by McClelland and Stewart in Canada 1977, is a powerful example of flourishing women’s advice literature in the 1970s, under the backdrop of second-wave feminism. Inspired by the author’s own personal experience losing her husband, the text offers a wide range of direct and thorough advice to those recently widowed.

Wylie was widowed in 1973 when her husband Bill Wylie suffered a sudden death. At this point she decided to take up writing as a full-time career to support herself and her four children, moving to Toronto in 1975 to be close to Canadian writing markets. Whilst coming to terms with her husband's death, Wylie wrote an article about widowhood for Maclean's which was well received by its audience. It was in response to this positive reception that Wylie wrote Beginnings, which emerged as a major success. Indeed, Wylie shares aspects of her own personal experience, rendering her advice not only more authoritative but also compassionate. Yet simultaneously her style remains straightforward, with an emphasis on facing reality and capitalizing on new opportunities.[1]

The book offers a mixture of practical and emotional advice across a number of different aspects of widowhood. Most immediately it offers guidance in dealing with the grief and emotional turmoil, suggesting readers write down their thoughts as a method of lessening the pain or alternatively join a self-help group. Much of the book however is focused on allowing the reader to move beyond their grief and develop a new lifestyle. It emphasizes the importance of developing an independent social life and responding to the social stigma associated with widowhood.[2] When addressing family relations, she identifies solutions on easing the more mundane responsibilities of everyday family life and advice on helping mothers explain the circumstances to their children.

The theme of female strength and independence is prevalent through much of Wylie’s subject matter, based around the practice of living without the necessary support of a male counterpart. This prescribed behaviour aligns in part with the emergence of second-wave feminism, and also rising divorce rates which implied greater female agency.[3] Yet the text also includes evidence of the retention of the domestic housewife ideal: only after the death of the husband ‘the pressure of producing a great dinner every night…eases’, echoing images of female subservience. It also provides insight into the gendered balance of power, implying the declining power of the ideology surrounding male dominance over time, since, according to Wylie, ‘the older the widow, the more male-dominated the household was’.

Since its publication the book has been used widely as a kind of manual for widows, going through six editions in Canada alone. It has been given by several life insurance companies to widows receiving a death benefit illustrating its broad appeal. Furthermore, published in six countries, Wylie’s advice is clearly able to transcend geographic boundaries; its resonance covers more than just Canadian attitudes towards widows holding a wider, more universal significance. The chapter on financial support, for instance, is partly American in content, and much of the tips are relevant regardless of one’s location.[4] Its wide success illustrates its transnational audiences and its longstanding influence suggests that many of the cultural and social codes still resonate in Western society today.

Looking for more sources?

 The collection includes a number of advice texts to women within the marriage section, such as Love, courtship and marriage: being an invaluable and instructive guide for the romantically inclined (1967), containing information and advice ranging from dating etiquette to divorce. Books on motherhood and single parenting within this section include Ann Oakley’s From here to maternity: becoming a mother (1981) and Jane Ward’s One parent plus: a handbook for single parents (1989).

Advice and insights surrounding womanhood can be found in Ronald Searle’s The female approach with masculine sidelights (1950) and Penelope Russianoff’s Why do I think I am nothing without a man? (1982), whilst financial concerns are discussed Questions women ask about money, published by Lloyd’s Bank in 1977.

For an earlier nineteenth-century perspective on womanhood in marriage, see Courtship and marriage: and the gentle art of home-making by Annie S. Swan (1894) and Woman; her duties, relations and position : a medical and social work by Henry Smith (1876).

For an analysis of attitudes towards widows and single motherhood in twentieth century America see Lisa D. Brush’s ‘Worthy Widows, Welfare Cheats: Proper Womanhood in Expert Needs Talk about Single Mothers in the United States, 1900 to 1988’.


Written by Holly Jennings

[1] Frances Frommer, Surviving and Thriving Solo: Options When You Live Alone (Bloomington, 2009), p. 147

[2]  Frances Frommer, Surviving and Thriving Solo: Options When You Live Alone (Bloomington, 2009), p. 148.

[3] Jay Mechling, ‘Advice Literature’ in Bret Carroll (eds.), American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia (New York, 2003), p. 14,+2003)&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi8vcCl-tLYAhWjCMAKHfI4AyoQ6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=American%20Masculinities%3A%20A%20Historical%20Encyclopedia%20(New%20York%2C%202003)&f=false

[4] Frances Frommer, Surviving and Thriving Solo: Options When You Live Alone (Bloomington, 2009), p. 147.

Beginnings: A Book for Widows (1977)