Thanks so much for having me, Maria Grazia! I love getting to visit with you.
I’m so excited to share with you and your readers about courtship and marriage in Jane Austen’s day. Customs have changed so dramatically in the two centuries since Jane Austen wrote her novels that things which were obvious to her original readers leave readers today scratching their heads and missing important implications. It’s amazing how much of Austen’s stories we miss not understanding the context she wrote it.
One of the most bewildering aspects of marriage in the regency era was the legal position of women in the era. Single and widowed women enjoyed very different legal status than married women whose legal personhood was subsumed into her husbands in a doctrine called coverture..
This excerpt from Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s World explains more about coverture and what it meant to women.
Married Women's Legal Position in the Regency
In 1765, William Blackstone presented a common man’s language interpretation of English law. He explains the law’s approach to women’s legal existence and rights in marriage which remained largely unchanged until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884.
Blackstone said: By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband… and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.… For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: … a husband may also bequeath anything to his wife by will; for that cannot take effect till the coverture is determined by his death.… the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture; upon which we may observe, that even the disabilities which the wife lies under are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit: so great a favourite
is the female sex of the laws of England. Effectively this common law doctrine rendered married women unable to sign bills of exchange, make contracts, buy property, write a will, act as a business partner, own her own earnings or have custody of her children. I’m not sure the law favored women the way Blackstone thought it did.Ironically, single women and widows were able to act with much greater independence. In many cases widowhood gave a woman the greatest legal freedoms, which many wealthy widows were loath to give up by remarrying.It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884 that married women enjoyed the same legal rights as unmarried women. Women like Austen’s characters Georgiana Darcy or even Caroline Bingley who had outrageous amounts of money in their dowries, Anne de Bourgh who owned real property, or widows, like Lady Russell who inherited large fortunes from their late husbands might wish to protect their fortunes since at marriage (or remarriage) EVERYTHING would belong to their husbands and she had no further rights to it.(Technically, there was one exception. Wedding presents and "paraphernalia"—clothing and jewelry—given by friends or family were considered the wife's property.) As early as 1620, trusts were used to create separate estates (though the term was not used in the era) that would prevent a husband from accessing his wife’s property. All the protected assets would be placed in the trust, prior to the marriage, and trustees appointed to administer the trust. Through the trustees, a woman could draw her own income from the trust, access the contents of the trust, and ensure that its future disposition was according to her wishes. In some cases, the husband could be named trustee. But, he would be bound by the terms of the trust and would answer to the Chancery Court which oversaw the terms of the trusts.Trusts could contain both money and real property like shipping fleets, mills, landed estates, even unset gemstones.
Separate property also protected a woman’s assets from her husband’s creditors. Her property could not be seized and sold off to pay her husband’s debts. Not surprisingly, heiresses and other women of wealth were strongly dissuaded from protecting their property in this way because it showed a decidedly unromantic distrust in their future husbands.How romantic.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my new book, Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s World, available at Amazon, Nook and KOBO. It details the customs, etiquette and legalities of courtship and marriage during the regency era and how it relates to all of Jane Austen’s works.
About the book: Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen's World
Jane Austen’s books are full of hidden mysteries for the modern reader. Why on earth would Elizabeth Bennet be expected to consider a suitor like foolish Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice? Would Lydia's 'infamous elopement' truly have ruined her family and her other sisters’ chances to marry? Why were the Dashwood women thrown out of their home after Mr. Dashwood's death in Sense and Sensibility, and what was the problem with secret engagements anyway? And then there are settlements, pin money, marriage articles and many other puzzles for today’s Austen lovers.
Customs have changed dramatically in the two centuries since Jane Austen wrote her novels. Beyond the differences in etiquette and speech, words that sound familiar to us are often misleading. References her original readers would have understood leave today’s readers scratching their heads and missing important implications.
Take a step into history with Maria Grace as she explores the customs, etiquette and legalities of courtship and marriage in Jane Austen's world. Packed with information and rich with detail from Austen's novels, Maria Grace casts a light on the sometimes bizarre rules of Regency courtship and unravels the hidden nuances in Jane Austen's works.
About the author
Maria Grace has her PhD in Educational Psychology and is a 16 year veteran of the university classroom where she taught courses in human growth and development, learning, test development and counseling. None of which have anything to do with her undergraduate studies in economics / sociology / managerial studies / behavior sciences.
She blogs at Random Bits of Fascination, mainly about her fascination with Regency era history and its role in her fiction. Her newest novel, The Trouble to Check Her, was released in March, 2016. Her books, fiction and nonfiction, are available at all major online booksellers.
Random Bits of Fascination (http://RandomBitsofFascination.com)
Austen Variations (http://AustenVariations.com)
English Historical Fiction Authors
On Twitter @WriteMariaGrace
On Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/mariagrace423/
Book available at:
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/courtship-and-marriage-in-jane-austens-world-maria-grace/1124489792