“The Bath paper one morning announced the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Carteret. . . ” – Jane Austen, Persuasion
I have often wondered about dowagers and their status in Regency society in relation to widows. When did a widow become a dowager? Did all 19th century widows acquire the title? Why or why not?
Mirriam Webster Dictionary provides an answer : “Dowager – The widow of a peer, eg the Dowager Countess of Somewhere. The term was not added to a woman’s title unless and until the new holder of the title married.” The definition contains the clue. Until the new heir married, an aristocratic widow retained the title she acquired on the day of her own wedding.
Widows were legally entitled to a dower share or a third of the value of her husband’s estate after his death, for under the law of primogeniture he was the only real property owner. Dower rights meant that she would benefit for the rest of her life from a third of the income produced by a farm or from rental property on his estate:
“Under English common law and in colonial America, dower was the share of a deceased husband’s real estate to which his widow was entitled after his death. After the widow’s death, the real estate was then inherited as designated in her deceased husband’s will; she had no rights to sell or bequeath the property independently. She did have rights to income from the dower during her lifetime, including rents and including income from crops grown on the land.
One-third was the share of her late husband’s real property to which dower rights entitled her; the husband could increase the share beyond one-third in his will.
Where a mortgage or other debts offset the value of real estate and other property at the husband’s death, dower rights meant that the estate could not be settled and the property could not be sold until the widow’s death.” Women’s History
Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, would actively assume the title of dowager upon her son’s marriage so that there would be no confusion of having two Countesses of Grantham in the same room. But she did not always go by that title. Generally speaking the dowager would be known by the simplest title when encountered alone. Therefore, Violet would be referred to as the Countess of Grantham unless she attended the same event as her daughter -in-law. In that case, she would be referred to as the dowager countess.
Upon the heir’s marriage, it was expected that the dowager would move from the estate into a house of her own to guarantee a smooth transition of power. This was not always the case. As Amanda Vickery made clear in her fascinating book, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, some brides needed to summon a great deal of patience and cunning when their mamas-in-law dragged their heels in moving to the dower house. In real life, the Dowager Duchess of Leinster chose to live at Number 14 Harley Street in London. She would leave town occasionally to stay in her cottage in Wimbledon. Eleanor Percy, the Dowager Duchess of Northumberland, was the childless widow of the 4th Duke. The dowager moved into Stanwick Park following her husband’s death in 1865, and after the 5th Duke had moved into Alnwick Castle, the ducal estate. Eleanor lived a productive life at Stanwick Park, creating elaborate gardens and cultivating fruits and flowers. Sadly, Stanwick Hall no longer stands today due to lack of fortune. – Stanwick Hall: England’s Lost Country Houses
Widowhood could emancipate a woman or lead her to poverty, depending on the income she derived from her dower rights and her dowry, which was the money and goods that a bride’s father had negotiated for her upon her marriage. Take Lady Russell from Persuasion. She did not remarry again from choice. Her independent life, free from money worries, was so improved without the presence of a husband who could dictate her every move and who would have control over her possessions that she would be a fool to remarry unless she fell head over heels in love. In that event she would lose her first husband’s income as stipulated by dower rights, although she would retain her dowry and any property she received through her mother.
In contrast to Lady Russell’s situation, Mrs. Dashwood’s circumstances in Sense and Sensibility were instantly reduced due to the stipulations of the estate her husband was overseeing, which decreed the inheritance would go directly to the son, regardless of how much Mr. Dashwood desired to make provisions for his second wife and daughters. This is why on his deathbed he tried to extract a promise from John Dashwood, for Mr. Dashwood had not lived long enough to save money from the income of the estate for his second family. Due to Fanny’s stinginess, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are left to live on the modest income from her dowry (which was barely enough to keep them comfortable) and the beautiful items that she had brought into her marriage (which she retained as her own, much to Fanny Dashwood’s chagrin).
The dowry was one of the reasons that it was more than foolhardy for a young woman of fortune to elope to Gretna Green. Upon marriage all her worldly goods were legally handed over to her husband. An unscrupulous man could spend every single one of her pennies – except the amount that her father had settled upon her. A young woman who eloped had no such protection, for her family, caught unawares, would not have had the time to provide for her personal welfare. Her husband could go through her fortune (and his) with impunity, leaving her penniless and without recourse after his death.