07 June 2010

What Surprised Me: Mourning in Austria

By Carrie Lofty

One of the standard conventions of historical romances revolves around a widow in mourning who falls in love with a new man, often the hero. Their potential for a happy ending is postponed by strictures against a hasty remarriage. This postponement can lead to delightfully naughty scenarios such as clandestine meetings, premarital sexual encounters, and even secret marriages.

I was confronted with just such a predicament when writing SONG OF SEDUCTION, released today from Carina Press. Mathilda Heidel, my widowed heroine, falls in love with Arie de Voss, the renowned composer and pianist she's idolized for years. When presented with the opportunity to study music with her idol, Mathilda jumps at the chance. Their relationship soon escalates to one of mutual longing.

But then what?

Because SONG OF SEDUCTION is set in 1804 Austria, I needed to find out what mourning restrictions would've been placed on a young widow in Mathilda's position. A week? A month? A year? What was the expected mourning period, and what restrictions to her daily life would she have experienced?

Research led me to understand that Salzburg's highly Catholic society determined most customs. Unlike in England where, come Victorian times, mourning periods were codified almost to the point of being writ in law books, Salzburg's customs were not to strict or uniform. The local priests set the standard for his flock, and any more complex rulings--generally to do with the nobility--were left to the bishop.

Here's an exchange between Mathilda and her best friend, Ingrid, as they discussion possibilities for her future:

"Until you are remarried," Ingrid said firmly, "you do not need to leave."

Mathilda glanced down at the mourning gown that enshrouded her body. The glaring contrast of pale trim against black bombazine shouted without words: my husband died unjustly. She shrank from the attention fostered by those garish adornments, the curious looks and pity intent on stealing her peace.

"Do not tease, Ingrid. You know I cannot remarry, most likely not for months."

"But you've helped us beyond measure. I can at least find you a dance partner."

"No dancing either," Mathilda said.

"Still? Father Holtz is being unreasonable. A year of mourning is all he requires of the war widows, and even those restrictions are ignored if they have enough money."

Her fingers wrapped in black kid leather, Mathilda toyed with her pendant. She recognized the anxious habit and tucked the protective amber amulet into her bodice. "He's only ensuring that I respect Jürgen's memory."

"You do already," Ingrid said.
Notice the part about the pale trim on her mourning gown? This isn't a nod to the English custom of half-mourning, where widows were permitted to mix white, gray and even lavender with their black garb. No, Austrian widows whose husband had been murdered wore white lace trim on their cuffs and bodices. This may have been a hold-over from the medieval "white mourning," which was worn when enduring the deepest form of grief.

This symbol of the injustice Mathilda's late husband suffered came in very handy. The scandal of her birth means she shrinks from public notice, and those glaring white cuffs--thank you, history!--became yet another symbol of why she was different. The last thing she wants it to stand out, which is why she hides her miraculous talent for playing the violin.

If only a stubborn, ambitious musician would come into her life, intent on showing her how wonderful it can be to indulge in one's true passions...