Widows: Support and Freedom in the 18th Century
If a lady became widowed, would she be turned out, or would she have her run of the house, complete with love affairs?
The topic for this research interest section is an interesting one because it was inspired during my research for The Colonel and The Enchantress but doesn't factor into the story in obvious ways. The research stemmed from a curiosity while considering Mary and Duncan's views on Catherine's motivations to marry her daughter to an aged nobleman. Even Catherine eluded to her daughter's possible life after marrying first for status and wealth. We see often in historical romance novels that widows live a life of freedom and pleasure. Once widowed, they can take lovers at leisure. Right? Well, let's take a look at what it was really like to be a widow and address this very issue.
The main concern for a widow was how to support herself. Unlike how it is in modern society where a widow inherits on her husband's death, the money and estate would have gone to the next in line to inherit--a man, not the widow. We'll get to dowers and jointures momentarily. Let's just deal with the fact that a man would inherit, not the widow, and then we'll go from there. Seeing as how the next in line would inherit house and money, this left widows in a sticky situation, as they were now at the mercy of whoever inherited.
There were five possible courses of action, three of which could really be lumped into one category: (1) hope the person who inherited (if not her son) would financially support the widow and allow her to remain in the home, (2) hope her son (if he inherited) financially supported her and allowed her to remain in the home, (3) hope her other children (or other family) would accept her into their home to support her, (4) remarry, (5) find a trade of some sort, such as serving as a governess or companion, opening a shop, selling needlework, etc. About thirty percent of the widows documented in 18th century England remarried within nine months, but it was a far lower percentage for aristocratic widows. It's the aristocratic widows we're going to focus on here, as the less wealthy would have had a far rougher time as a widow. Aristocratic widows, however, were a whole different world.
There are three ways in which an aristocratic widow obtained money/home from the death of a husband: (a) jointure, (b) dower, (c) marriage settlement. Let's work backwards through these.
As you can imagine, wealth factored into this, namely the wealth of the woman's family and what she was allowed to bring into the marriage. Women didn't just bring money in the way of a dowry. They brought a great number of other assets, and properties are on that list. If a woman brought any property into the marriage, it could be restored to her in the event of her husband's death, allowing her a place to live if her marriage home was not an option. Any trusts that her parents setup for her pin money could also be hers once widowed, including anything that remained of her dowry. Should she have come from a family that did not include such things in her marriage contract, then obviously, she would not be getting these things. Should the husband have already spent or sold what was given to her in the marriage contract, she would not be getting these things. Having children was a kind of insurance, as well, for surely one of the children would accept their mother into their home, either directly into the house or in the dower house (newly constructed just for her or already established). The marriage settlement should detail what is owed to the widow. If the marriage settlement does not detail this, then the widow can claim what's called the "common law rule" which says she is due one-third of her husband's wealth. This, however, was tricky, as the heir who inherited could protest this and potentially leave the widow unprotected and penniless. We'll go into more complications of this in just a moment. The bottom line is, the marriage settlement should detail what she's owed to avoid any future legal complications. This is one of the reasons why marriage settlements were so important and why families discouraged elopement, which could leave a bride/widow in a sticky situation in the future.
This webpage offers a great little comparison of the differences in situation between Lady Russell from Persuasion and Mrs. Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, wherein one became a wealthy and independent widow and the other nearly destitute and reliant on a relation who was less than generous.
Now, let's talk dower. (For information on dowagers, specifically, scroll all the way to the end of the Nobility blog post.) Legally, the wife was entitled to one-third of the estate (an amount settled after any outstanding debts were paid). This should place widows in a secure position financially, especially if their husband willed more to her (the wealth not tied up in an entail, that is). The trouble was that since courts did not recognize women as a legal person of her own right, all a husband had to do was will her out. The likelihood of a court listening to a widow's plea for money or home was slim to none if there was a will or any indication that the husband didn't want her to inherit her part. Another interesting aspect of dower law was that any money or board from the estate received would be lost if she remarried (an incentive not to remarry in some circumstances). There were also any number of settlements a man could do to ensure the money and estate stayed in the family line and excluded the wife.
There was also a little something called jointure which overrode the dower law, wherein a fixed sum (doled out annually) would be settled on the widow rather than the one-third rule. The good part about jointure is the amount could potentially be more than the worth of the third of the estate, especially if it later went into decline or debt. The problematic part was if the fixed sum was paltry while the estate and lands were profitable. The widow would be stuck with the fixed sum regardless of the wealth of the estate and lands. Something else problematic is that jointure was established in the marriage contract, not after marriage, such as in a will. This would be decided between the suitor and guardian when devising the contract. This means any money earned or any land or property obtained after the marriage wouldn't be included in the jointure. This sum protected a future wife in some respect by ensuring she had a fixed sum waiting for her in the event of the suitor's death after marriage, but it was entirely fixed, regardless of what happened during marriage. And let's not even think about the complications of a widow outliving the annual allotted amount or how the cost of living rates might have turned an acceptable annual sum into an unlivable annual sum. The good part was the widow could keep the jointure sum if she remarried, unlike the dower.
Interestingly, statistically, there were more male widowers than female widows once physicians took childbirth away from midwives. The number of women dying in childbed skyrocketed when physicians took over childbirthing, leaving quite a few grieving widowers. So an accurate depiction of 18th century England would be of more widowed men than women. Also statistically speaking, men were likely to marry three times during a lifetime; whereas, the women were more likely not to remarry.
Two great sources to check out are Amanda Vickery's Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England and Hannah Barker's Women's History: Britain 1700-1850. Both explore the status of widows in 18th and early 19th century England. The Gentleman's Daughter, also by Vickery, is a must read, as well.
The ideal situation for a widow would be if she were an aristocrat with a husband who left either a wealthy estate that she could have a third of or a handsome jointure. Assuming she was already in good standing with society, she would maintain that standing. If she had the financial means to support herself through the estate or jointure, and she had a place to live with family or at the estate, there was no reason for her to remarry (especially since she'd then lose what she'd just gained--freedom and money).
Let's return to the question of widows taking lovers--did they? Was it socially acceptable? The literature of the time certainly leads us to believe this is true. If you've not read Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, add it to your list, to get a real account of the 18th century rake, as well as widows. In the story, we have the Hamstead widow making moves on the main male lead. Another tale of the time that indicates this to be true is the character of the Widow Wadman in Laurence Stern's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. There are plenty more cases in literature of widows taking lovers and it being socially acceptable, but the rule of historical accuracy is in finding examples of real cases.
I bring your attention to Lady Mary Coke, daughter of a duke, a widow at twenty-six. She was a prolific letter writer and diary writer, so the accounts of her life are well documented. She never remarried, though there were plenty of rumors that she might. She maintained her position in society, even keeping company with royalty, and she had a string of lovers throughout her life, some open enough to cause the stir of marriage rumors--though in each case, the affair ended as soon as the rumor began. If you ever get curious about her, read her tale in The Letters and Journals of Lady Mary Coke.
While there are more examples like Lady Mary Coke to breathe truth into the historical romance account of widows being free to take lovers and live a comfortable life of financial freedom, I like Lady Mary Coke's account the best because it is what Catherine might have had in mind for her daughter (though without the marriage turmoil the real Lady Mary suffered). Had our Lady Mary Mowbrah married an aged noble and then been widowed, she would have regained all of the properties and money from her side of the marriage contract, as well as a third of her husband's estate. She would have been respected in society, and she could have taken Duncan as her life-long lover. Marrying him would not have been in Catherine's mind, I don't think, since all of her properties and freedom would have then just gone to him, defeating the purpose of her having reached the freeing moment of widowhood.
Something I could not determine with any clarity from my research was the challenge of pregnancy with widows. By taking lovers, widows obviously risked pregnancy, regardless of their methods of birth control. My assumption is that if/when this happened, the widow would remove herself to the country for confinement, keep the whole of the event quiet, and give birth in secret, followed by (a) giving the child to someone else, (b) sending the child to an orphanage, foundling hospital, or workhouse, (c) or keeping the child hidden from prying eyes. It's likely that there were widows who had many abandoned children, some who had none, and others who happily kept their children but raised them out of sight of society. These are just my assumptions, of course.
With such assumptions, though, we can be certain that our Mary never would have taken Duncan as a lover should she have married one of the men and been widowed. She wanted children of her own and would not have wanted those children to be illegitimate. Without fear that Duncan was a fortune hunter, she would have married him.