Ethel M. Dell’s The Bars of Iron (1916) is a melodramatic romance published during the First World War. Public expressions of mourning were swiftly becoming in appropriate because of the huge number of casualties. Unlike in the Victorian period, women were no longer encouraged to display grief through their appearance.
Instead, they were expected to deal with their grief and hardship in silence. The war therefore gave rise to what we now know as the “coper” or the “can-do woman”. Alison Light says that, by the interwar period, “the only acceptable face of independent modern femininity [was] that of the ‘coper’, usually the domestic manager, making the most of the little things in life”. War widows were often the perfect embodiment of the “coper”: their economic hardship, the grief over their lost husbands, and their new loneliness meant they potentially had plenty of issues to face. Yet, they had to keep calm and carry on.
Dell’s The Bars of Iron presents us with just such a coper. Avery Denys, the novels heroine, lost her husband and her blind daughter. But in response to these tragic events, Avery simply reflects that she was “left […] with nothing to do”, and finds a job that allows her to act out the mother role she now misses. A rock to her female friends, Avery is rational yet caring, but also submissive in the face of her eventual second husband’s violence towards her and others. The novel does not criticise Avery’s selflessness and self-deprecation; instead, it applauds it. As her father-in-law explains: “a soberminded woman like you who will see to his comfort and be faithful to him is more likely to make him happy than any of your headlong, flighty girls”. This sentiment is almost identical to the lines of a song that would be performed one year after the publication of Dell’s novel: “Widows Are Wonderful” (1917).
In novels such as Bars of Iron, the war widow becomes a true coper indeed, managing her own circumstances as best as possible, providing support to other women, and accepting – even rationalizing and excusing – male violence against her, so much so that she marries the man who, it turns out, killed her first husband. Like many texts of the time, Dell uses the figure of the war widow to advocate a new, reticent form of womanhood and, at the same time, to remind women that despite their temporary war-time freedom they were still duty-bound to be subservient and resume their places as wives on the men’s return after the war.