The Worth of A Woman
By Elsie Fulbrook, author of The Warmth of Her Affection
The Warmth of Her Affection opens with the women of Meryton discussing the arrival in Hertfordshire of Mrs Wilson, a young widow with two small children. As a newcomer, it is inevitable that she becomes a topic of interest and discussion amongst the local residents; as a widow, that interest inevitably includes her status, as the women establish amongst themselves what her place might be within their community.
In Jane Austen’s time, the financial status of a widow reflected specific efforts that had been made, both by her husband and by her family or guardians prior to her marriage, to provide for her. Although there would have been differences according to the class and wealth of the individuals involved, it was common for ‘marriage articles’ to be drawn up prior to a marriage. These would have set out the financial provisions for the woman and her children should she outlive her husband, and unless he saved or otherwise arranged for additional property to pass to her, would likely form the only income she had after his death.
On marriage, a woman’s dowry—defined by the Chambers Dictionary as “an amount of wealth handed over by a woman's family to her husband on marriage”—became her husband’s property. The marriage articles would ensure she had a jointure—“property settled on a woman by her husband for her use after his death”. This would often be based on the amount of dowry she brought to the marriage, and would for example provide her with an income for life from the interest, with the property passing to her children on her death. The jointure replaced the lady’s right to dower—a confusingly similar word to dowry, but which refers to what she got out of a marriage rather than what she put into it. Chambers defines dower as “a widow’s share, for life, in her deceased husband's property”. Importantly for heirs, providing a jointure in place of dower prevented the need to divide an estate, replacing her right to a share of the whole with a defined income.
Austen’s novels feature widows in widely different circumstances. Mrs Jennings in Sense and Sensibility, with her 'ample jointure' and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice are two of the most obviously independent. Mrs Dashwood and Mrs Bennet, from the same two novels, are in more precarious situations. Mrs Dashwood finds her circumstances reduced by her widowhood, whilst Mrs Bennet fears the same consequences or worse. Importantly, however, neither is entirely without an income or family to help them.
In contrast, in Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s friend Mrs Smith is in a state of near destitution. We know that this is, in part, due to “a great deal of general and joint extravagance” during her marriage. We are also told that when at school she had a “want of near relations and a settled home”. Without someone acting for her interests, she may not have had the security of a good settlement. Certainly, her ongoing poverty is a direct effect of having no one to act in her interests—and of being forced to rely on a man who refuses to do so.
Of course, wealth and class, whilst fundamental building blocks of Regency society, were not the only criteria on which a widow might be judged. Socially, a widow was a different creature to an unmarried woman. The typical expectation was that she would remain in mourning for a full year after her husband’s death. This was based on a practical consideration—ensuring that any children conceived during her first marriage were born before she married again. This suggests that it was not uncommon for widows to remarry—indeed, if she were wealthy she might be viewed as a desirable partner. Inevitably, however, in a society so governed by social expectations as Regency England, this practicality sat alongside other considerations.
Conduct manuals of the time went further than twelve months of mourning, recommending
that widows should remain secluded for the rest of their lives—a restriction that did not apply to their male equivalents. Austen acknowledges this in Persuasion in typical style, when she observes:
“That Lady Russell, of steady age and character, and extremely well provided for, should have no thought of a second marriage, needs no apology to the public, which is rather apt to be unreasonably discontented when a woman does marry again, than when she does not; but Sir Walter’s continuing in singleness requires explanation.”
Lady Russell, like the other independent widows of Austen’s novels, has a great deal of comparative freedom. She is able to live alone—unthinkable for an unmarried woman—and by
extension, has more freedom in how she socialises and entertains guests. But widows were an anomaly, able to speak and act for themselves in a way that unmarried women and wives could not, and encouraging them to remain secluded from society was one way to define their place in society.
To the ladies of Meryton, a young, wealthy, pretty widow might be a source of passing interest and gossip, but all the time she does not step beyond her mourning, she is not likely to disturb their equanimity too much. For after all, as recorded on many gravestones of this period, a widow was simply the ‘relict’ of her deceased husband. As Mrs Bennet puts it, “No doubt this young widow will bring little change to our society.”
A Widow’s Stipend, Jointures, Dower, Settlements, and Dowry. Which is Which in the Regency? (Regina Jeffers, 2021)
Mrs. Jennings and “The Comfortable Estate of Widowhood,” or The Benefits of Being a Widow with a Handsome Jointure (Jackie Mijares, 2017)
Wearing Widows Weeds (Maria Grace, 2017)
You can also read more about widows in Linda Gonschior’s blog post, here: https://www.quillsandquartos.com/post/widows-in-regency-england