Widows in Regency England
Updated: May 4, 2022
By Linda Gonschior, author of Bitter Mournings
In Bitter Mournings, Elizabeth Matthews, née Bennet, is a young widow who had the changing laws of inheritance, a prudent husband, and her father and uncle to thank for a financial independence which allowed her, and her children, to live comfortably. Romantic inclination aside, there was little incentive for her to marry again, for she would be surrendering that independence and all she owned to her new husband.
A woman’s options in the early 19th century were bleak from our modern perspective. According to common law, she was either ‘married’ or ‘to be married’; a dependent of her husband or of her father. As a person, she was effectively invisible. As a widow, however, she became ‘a woman at her own commandment’.
Widowhood did not necessarily bring financial independence. Inheritance laws had been changing, and a husband could leave a greater portion of his estate to his wife, if he chose, but a widow’s legal portion was generally small. What she had brought to the marriage, through dowry and settlements, was all she might take away. Her situation was more often reduced, and without the support of family or friends, poverty was a real possibility.
The widow who found herself in possession of enough security to maintain her independence could be considered very fortunate, indeed. However, a woman of such means, with power to direct her own affairs, was often perceived as a threat to the usual order of things in a patriarchal society. She might face pressure to remarry, and again be brought under male dependency and control. To her credit, a woman skilled in financial matters, who demonstrated business acumen, was attractive as a marriage partner. If young enough, she could be serious competition for single young ladies seeking husbands, and be eagerly sought by unmarried men or widowers who sought to benefit from her knowledge and experience.
In a society constricted with rules of behaviour, varying by gender, class and marital status, a
woman’s reputation was, as Mary Bennet said in Pride and Prejudice, ch 47: ‘no less brittle than it is beautiful’. Although a widow had more freedom than an unmarried lady, and maidenly virtue was no longer in need of protection, a widow’s reputation remained important where interactions with unmarried men occurred, regardless of her own intentions. For propriety’s sake she might employ a lady companion to accompany her when necessary. If no chaperone were available, or desired, discretion was an absolute.
Jane Austen included widows of varying means in her novels. In Persuasion, Lady Russell is a wealthy and respectable widow of later years. Then there is Mrs Clay, who is actively seeking a more secure arrangement, the object of which changes during the course of the story. In Pride and Prejudice, we have Lady Catherine de Bourgh, another example of a wealthy and very powerful older widow. By contrast, the prospect of Mrs Bennet’s widowhood is dire. She will have neither wealth nor power, and even her home will be taken from her. The hedgerows are an unlikely prospect, but we can sympathise with her distress when considering the change in circumstances she faces upon the death of her husband.
Perhaps the best illustrated example is in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Mrs Dashwood’s husband had no great fortune put aside, died sooner than expected, but managed to extract a promise from his son to provide for his widow and daughters. In chapter 2, that son’s wife clearly lays out the argument against such a scheme. Money once removed from the estate will never be returned to it, their son and heir would be deprived of that portion. Thus the widow Dashwood and her three daughters removed to a modest but affordable cottage, on their much reduced income and without the additional money her late husband thought he had secured.
All of these examples are of women from the more affluent classes. Widows of the working class had fewer luxuries to lose, or miss. Life was hard and needs were basic. If her husband had been a tradesman, with a business, she could continue to oversee and run that business. If he had been a labourer, poverty was not far from the doorstep. Once again, the widow with resources would be an attractive prospect for marriage, but without it she was forced to fend for herself. No genteel profession of lady’s companion or governess was likely from this background.
Regardless of social class, a widow had one advantage over the married or ‘to be married’ woman. She was now visible in the eyes of the law, and could speak for herself.
Michelle Wolfe. Review of Cavallo, Sandra; Warner, Lyndan, eds., Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.
Dr Alexander Cowan, review of Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, (review no. 165)
Inheritance and the Need for a Widow’s Pension in Jane Austen’s Novels, by Regina Jeffers
Regency Reader Questions: Young Widows and Chaperones, Anne Glover regrom.com