Jane Austen portrays a wonderful vision of heroines like Elizabeth Bennet who are hardly doormats to their men. It is important to realize though, that our modern views of marriage did not apply to Jane Austen’s day, and expectations (and realities) of marriage were very different for women then. These differences applied to many areas of life. One of particular notes was the tolerance for domestic violence.
Warm and affectionate marriages were desirable, but practical considerations were probably the backbone of most matches. Loving relationships were more likely to form after marriage than before, if they formed at all. Whatever amiable feelings might develop did so in the context of a clear hierarchy. In regency society, no one doubted that the husband was the head of the relationship, in charge of essentially everything.
There cannot, indeed, be a sight more uncouth, than that of a man and his wife struggling for power: for where it ought to be vested, nature, reason, and Scripture, concur to declare;
… How preposterous is it to hear a woman say, ' It shall be done!' —' I will have it so!' and often extending her authority not only beyond her jurisdiction, but in matters where he alone is competent to act, or even to judge. (Taylor, 1822)
Under legal coverture (a legal concept that determined the legal personhood of married women of the era women had no legal existence. The husband existed for them both in public life. He owned all property, had custody of the children, conducted all business transactions on the family’s behalf, even owned the wife’s earnings should she have income of her own.
He even had the right to physically chastise his wife, divide her from friends and family and severely curtail her movements, if he so wished. (Jones,2009) Mr. Darcy, could have legally forbidden Elizabeth from associating with her disgraceful relations had he chosen to do so.
According to Blackstone (1765)
The husband also, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer.
But this power of correction was confined within reasonable bounds, and the husband was prohibited from using any violence to his wife, aliter quam ad virum, ex causa regiminis et castigationis uxoris suae, licite et rationabiliter pertinet. [Otherwise than lawfully and reasonably belongs to the husband for the due government and correction of his wife.] The civil law gave the husband the same, or a larger, authority over his wife: allowing him, for some misdemeanors, flagellis et fustibus acriter verberare uxorem; [To beat his wife severely with scourges and sticks.] for others, only modicam castigationem adhibere. [To use moderate chastisement] (Translations from Latin, Jones, 1905)
In short, a man had the right to severely beat his wife if he deemed it appropriate. This made proving cruelty very difficult.
So much for Blackstone’s (1765) assertion: “so great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England.”
It is comforting to remember that Judge Buller amended this understanding somewhat, with his ‘rule of thumb’: A man could thrash his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb.
Ironically, instead of improving women’s lot, the ideals of companionate marriage may have made domestic violence worse. The incompatible expectations of men raised in a patriarchal tradition, legal coverture, and the social enlightenment were ripe to create tensions that could easily explode into violence.
A woman could petition the court that her husband inflicted cruel and unjust harm upon her. She could charge her husband with assault and battery or could ‘swear the peace’ by which a court could order her husband to keep the peace if he had inflicted physical injury, imprisonment or some other cruelty on her. (Laudermilk,1989) But to get the sympathy of the court, women had to paint themselves as passive and dutiful victims of truly inhumane treatment. It could be done, but it was difficult at best as evidenced in that of the three hundred twenty four divorces granted between 1670 and 1857, only four were granted to women. (Wright, 2004)
Though these legal rights might sound like a recipe for creating petty tyrants, Rev. Thomas Gisborne (1797), a moralist of the era, argued that true marital harmony came from the husband taking pre-eminence over his wife. She need not fear though, if he were a religious man, he would follow God’s will and be a kind protector for whom she would, in gratitude, be endlessly good tempered and pleasing. Sounds exactly like the marriage the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice enjoyed, doesn’t it?
Yeah, not so much. It certainly does put a different sort of spin on the world of Jane Austen’s heroines, doesn’t it?
Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Vol, 1 (1765), pages 442-445.
Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: Cadell and Davies, 1797.
Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and Marriage. London: Continuum, 2009.
Jones, J.W. A Translation of all the Greek, Latin, Italian and French Quotations which occur in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Philadelphia: T7JW Johnson&Co. 1905. Accessed August 5, 2015.
Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.
Taylor, Ann. Practical Hints to Young Females: On the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress of a Family. 10th ed. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1822.
Wright, Danaya C. “Well-Behaved Women Don’t Make History”: Rethinking English Family, Law, and History, 19 Wis. Women’s L.J. 211 2004), August 17, 2012. Accessed August 1, 2016.
Maria Grace's new release: A Less Agreeable Man
Dull, plain and practical, Mary Bennet was the girl men always overlooked. Nobody thought she’d garner a second glance, much less a husband. But she did, and now she’s grateful to be engaged to Mr. Michaels, the steady, even tempered steward of Rosings Park. By all appearances, they are made for each other, serious, hard-working, and boring.
Michaels finds managing Rosings Park relatively straight forward, but he desperately needs a helpmeet like Mary, able to manage his employers: the once proud Lady Catherine de Bourgh who is descending into madness and her currently proud nephew and heir, Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose extravagant lifestyle has left him ill-equipped for economy and privation.
Colonel Fitzwilliam had faced cannon fire and sabers, taken a musket ball to the shoulder and another to the thigh, stood against Napoleon and lived to tell of it, but barking out orders and the point of his sword aren’t helping him save Rosings Park from financial ruin. Something must change quickly if he wants to salvage any of his inheritance. He needs help, but Michaels is tedious and Michaels’ fiancée, the opinionated Mary Bennet, is stubborn and not to be borne.
Apparently, quiet was not the same thing as meek, and reserved did not mean mild. The audacity of the woman, lecturing him on how he should manage his barmy aunt. The fact that she is usually right doesn’t help. Miss Bennet gets under his skin, growing worse by the day until he finds it very difficult to remember that she's engaged to another man.
Can order be restored to Rosings Park or will Lady Catherine’s madness ruin them all?
Excerpt: Fitz discovers Mary’s secrets
Colonel Fitzwilliam straightened his cravat and patted his hair, turning this way and that before his long mirror. It had been months since he had dressed so carefully. His dark blue wool hammer-tail coat nipped in nicely at the waist, held securely by shining brass buttons. A hint of burgundy silk from his embroidered waistcoat peeked just about the lapels, over a fine starched white shirt. Buckskin breeches and polished boots completed the ensemble.
He was not a bad looking man, certainly not the dashing dandy some of his fellow officers had been, nor as handsome as Darcy. In truth he was actually ordinary and even a little plain. Something his sister never hesitated to remind him of. But he cleaned up rather well, and his manners could make up for what his face might lack. At least when he made the effort at it.
Bright sunlight and cool air slapped his cheeks as he left the shadow of Rosings Park, his boots crunching crisply on the wide gravel path. It was a satisfying, purposeful, official sound, invigorating, even powerful. Perhaps he should get out of the house more regularly. He had not felt this alive in days—maybe weeks.
What was that?
A dark blur raced along the corner of the fence marking the parsonage’s land. It paused at the stile, climbing across it with measured, dainty steps. On the other side, it picked up speed again, toward the woods—decidedly feminine in all its motions.
Fitzwilliam chased after in a long easy lope, following at a discreet distance. The form was familiar, but the urgency of its movements was not. Who was it?
His heart pounded and his breath came in measured pants as she turned down a little used path. Estate legend held the path was haunted by the ghosts of long-forgotten squatters who lived in a shack, now gone to ruin. Few even knew about the place anymore, and fewer still visited there. Whoever it was knew her way around Rosings very well indeed.
She stopped at the end of the footpath, between the tiny tumble-down wood hovel and the lopsided stone well that contained a bubbling spring, in a patch of sunshine that broke through the dense hardwood canopy. Her swishing skirts wrapped around her and clung to well-shaped legs.
Fitzwilliam ducked behind a conveniently large oak—it had grown since the days he and Darcy had played hide-and-seek here—and peeked around. To whom did those delightful limbs belong?
Head thrown back, the figure untied her bonnet and cast it aside with one hand, attacking the buttons of her spencer with the other.
Fitzwilliam gulped as the spencer followed. Miss Bennet leaned against the stone well, shapely bosom heaving, gasping for breath.
She liberated her fichu from her bodice and yanked it free, exposing the pale swell of her chest to the sun and wind—and him. Sunbeams glistened off a fine sheen of sweat.
His mouth went dry, and every fiber of his being tightened, aching to respond. Tree bark ripped from the trunk and crumbled in his hand. How long had it been? Far longer than ever before. Maddeningly, painfully long.
She dipped her hand into the well, reaching deep. Just a little farther and her bodice might cease to contain her. He licked his lips.
What had he become? She was betrothed to another! He slipped back behind the tree.
Was he a peeping Tom now, lusting after gentlewomen? Willing partners had never been difficult to find back when every spare penny was not tied up in the cursed estate.
He peered around again.
She drank from cupped hands, water trickling down her cheek and neck, staining the edge of her grey bodice dark. Her breathing slowed as she half-sat at the edge of the well, feet dangling just above the ground. Tendrils of hair escaped their pins and framed her face, backlit against the sun.
Her figure was better than he had given her credit for. Far better. Her curves were generous but her frame slender, and she moved with fluid ease. How many women would have envied her grace?
Her face caught the sun and became nymph-like, no longer so plain, but intriguingly different.
Did Michaels know she came here like this? Would he approve, seeing her this way—wild and impractical, running free in the sun like a colt before it was broken to the saddle? Not likely. What would he do when he found out she was not what he expected?
Fitzwilliam licked his lips again and swallowed hard.
Mary—Miss Bennet—pushed the dripping water from her neck with her hands, then dragged her palms over her cheeks.
Good Lord, the woman was crying. A red mark traced the crest of her cheek, tinges of purple showing through.
His ardor shifted into something less troubling but no less potent.
She slowly reassembled her walking ensemble, tied her bonnet and wandered to a rough-hewn stone bench in front of the shack. Slowly, very slowly she lowered herself onto it. What other pain was she concealing?
Fitzwilliam counted to one hundred. That should be long enough. He sauntered out from behind the oak and dipped out a cold drink from the well before pretending to notice Mary for the first time.
“Good day, Miss Bennet.”
The poor girl jumped so violently she nearly fell from her perch. “Colonel Fitzwilliam! Forgive me, I did not mean to trespass …”
“By no means, you are most welcome. Darcy and I used to play here as children. The shack was in little better condition in those days, but the well was as sweet.” He shook water droplets from his hands.
“Thank you. I should go.” She rose and straightened her simple grey skirts.
It was a damn shame to lose sight of her lovely legs.
“Pray, do not.” He stepped closer.
She averted her face, turning the reddened cheek away from him.
He ducked to that side and peered close.
She covered her cheek with her hand.
“It does not signify.”
“Does Michaels know?”
He caught her chin carefully and pushed her bonnet back. “This.” He traced her cheekbone with a fingertip. No, it was not proper. Yes, it was far too intrusive, but …
She winced and pulled from his grasp. “It is not your concern.” That was a good sign, a bit of fire returning to her voice.
“I beg to differ. It is not the example I wish my clergyman to set for the parish.”
She stepped back and replaced her straw bonnet, plain as her gown, tying it a little more firmly this time. “He is my cousin, and I, a member of his household. It is his right to maintain order.”
“I knew there was reason I did not like him.” His lip curled back.
“It was my fault. I should not have lost my temper.”
“How would he know about that?”
“Nothing moves faster at Rosings than gossip.” She wrapped her arms over her chest. “I should return to the parsonage. Mrs. Collins will need me.”
“I was on an errand there myself. Might I walk with you?”
“Mr. Collins might not…”
“Might not approve? I scarcely see how he is in a position to judge my behavior.”
“But he does examine mine.”
“I shall make it clear that I sought you out.”
Her eyes narrowed in an expression uncomfortably like her sister’s. Elizabeth always knew too much when she looked at him that way. “Why, sir?”
“Because you are my errand, Miss Bennet.” They walked several dozen steps in silence. Why did the words come so slow now? “My behavior has not been gentlemanly toward you.”
“Lady Catherine has left you rather frayed.” She shrugged as though to dismiss him altogether.
“That is no excuse for my boorish conduct.”
“You may not find it a compliment, but I hardly noticed.”
He threw his head back and laughed. “I do not know how to take that. Is my behavior so bad, or are you so accustomed …”
She looked aside, silhouetting her face in the sunlight.
Still nymph-like. He would always see her that way now.
“I am sorry that you have such low expectations of the men around you.”
She shrugged again, fire fading away, her mild-seeming façade—that is what it was, was it not?—replacing it.
Bloody shame, but probably safer that way.
She kicked a clump of dry leaves aside. “I believe I owe you an apology. I must remember my place and the great condescension I am offered by Rosings Park.”
Damn that bloody old finger-post. “Collins is wrong on many counts. I believe you are due an apology.”
“That is thoughtful of you. But forgive me for being plain: it is rather a dangerous sentiment, one that I would beseech you not to utter in Mr. Collins’ hearing.”
They walked the next mile through the haunted path in silence. But the ghosts whispered on the breezes.
About the Author
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.
She has one husband and one grandson, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, is starting her sixth year blogging on Random Bits of Fascination, has built seven websites, attended eight English country dance balls, sewn nine Regency era costumes, and shared her life with ten cats.
She can be contacted at: