Saturday, February 11, 2017

Wearing Widow's Weeds

by Maria Grace

From the very poor to the very well off, death of a spouse was a common experience during the Regency era. High mortality broke up nearly as many marriages as divorce does today. Many individuals were widowed in middle age.


As in life, marriage did not affect men and women equally in death. Widowers rarely faced financial difficulties due to the loss of their spouse while widows were often left impoverished and dependent upon the kindness of others for survival.

Widowers experienced little financial change at the death of their wives. He retained a life interest (curtesy) in all his dead spouse's land, not just the one third a woman had as specified by dower laws. Curtesy is a principle in common law in England and early America by which a widower could use property held in his deceased wife's name until his own death, but could not sell or transfer it to anyone but the children of his wife. At his death (and not before), the property would go to his wife’s heirs.

Mourning protocols for widowers did not include the extensive restrictions experienced by women. They were not expected to dress in mourning garb nor delay remarriage for at least a year. Widowers frequently remarried quickly, without societal censure, especially if he was left with young children.


Widows faced a very different lot. When a woman’s husband died, she was expected to spend a full year (long enough for a baby conceived in her marriage to be born) in full or deep morning. During this time she was expected to dress in all black refraining from public appearances.The next six months she would wear subdued colors like grays and lavenders, suitable for half-mourning and begin a slow reintroduction into society.

Many conduct writers suggested a widow should continue to live a life of somber retirement for the remainder of her life. Without the man who defined her legal personhood, society had a difficult time understanding what to do with her. Keeping her out of sight and out of mind was one way of dealing with that.

Social class made a significant impact on what a life of a widowhood would look like. They might enjoy freedoms they never previously experienced, find themselves thrust into desperation and poverty, or something in between.

Upper class widows

A woman could become the master of her own destiny at the death of her husband. If her marriage had been blessed with property and assets, she might be fortunate enough to receive a dower or jointure that could support her in her widowhood. After the 1833 overturning of the dower laws, marriage settlements were the only provision a widow could depend upon. (Davidoff, 1987)

In most cases, the widow was not the heir to the estate. The estate was inherited by the eldest son, who could be the son of a prior marriage. A woman would inherit a jointure, effectively an annuity, established in the marriage settlements. Usually it would equal one tenth of the amount of her dowry per year. This would be her portion to live on the remainder of her life.

Some received substantial dowers or jointure arrangements, which allowed them to continue to live comfortably and independently. Without coverture to limit them, they held and managed their own assets in ways married women could not. Many widows in these circumstances did not remarry as to do so would incur the loss of their assets and freedoms when they entered the coverture of their new husband.

Wives of peers also retained their titles after their husband’s death. The title ‘Dowager’ might be added to her name, if her son who inherited his father’s title were married. His wife would take the title (countess, duchess etc.) and his mother would become the Dowager countess, duchess, etc.

Lower class widows

Upper class, independent widows were by and large, rare creatures. Far more common were the widows for whom a husband’s death sent them and their children into desperate states.

The loss of the primary breadwinner could send a family spiraling into dependency and poverty. By age 65, one third of widows depended on the state or charity. Many ended up in workhouses or other institutions. Society was often hostile or at least suspicious toward widows both because of the potential burden to society they represented and their uncertain social role without a man to legally define their personhood. (Shoemaker, 1998)

Widows of the middling sort

Widows of the middle class might find themselves with the means to enter into public life and earn an income without resorting to prostitution. What occupations might a widow take on?

Widow’s Occupations

The options a widow might have open to her varied widely with the resources available to her. Without education or assets she might seek a position as a housekeeper, either among relatives, or a paid position in a household. If left with some education and some accomplishments, she might hire herself out as a governess or lady’s companion.

Others turned to writing books on a variety of subjects including: children, household and cookbooks, conduct books even history, biographies and science. Publishing for public recognition was considered unwomanly, so many women published anonymously.

“Although publishing on commission was considered perfectly respectable, female writers usually preferred to sell the copyright of their works … She was paid by the publisher in a lump sum either on acceptance of the manuscript or within a year of publication of the book. No further communication need take place between him and the author until the end of the 14 or 28 years for which the copyright had been purchased.” (Collins, 1998)

If a woman had a house, she was in the happy position to be able to rent rooms to lodgers putting both her housekeeping expertise and her property to good use. A woman with some education and a house might use her home to run a school, possibly with the help of her older daughters.

With sufficient capital, a widow might continue on with her husband’s business. While too much ambition, especially for a high income, was discouraged, she would be permitted to enter into the market place. Shops and even farms might be and often were headed by widows.

Widows left with capital but no business often invested in loans or property and lived off the proceeds. “Recent research suggests that widows owned a sizable proportion of the London housing stock and played a vital role in the provision of loan capital through the bond and mortgage markets.”(Shoemaker, 1998) Female capital supported the joint stock companies behind municipal utilities and railways. Widows and spinsters were the core of those investors requiring a steady income without administrative worries (Davidoff, 2002). Interesting, the important economic role played by individuals society didn’t have a place for.


While men often remarried quickly after the death of their wives with nary an eyebrow raised, women faced varying degrees of opposition to remarrying. Custom decreed that they should spend a year in deep mourning for their husband, so a woman who married sooner than that was extremely suspect. Conduct manuals strongly urged widows to honor their husband’s memories rather than go about looking for further married felicity. After all, one could not reasonably expect to be fortunate enough to find two good husbands in a single lifetime, right?

Men who remarried were also eye with suspicion, especially when considering older widows. For when:
…old Women marry young Men. Indeed, any Marriage is in such, a Folly and Dotage. They who must suddenly make their Beds in the Dust, what should they think of a Nuptial Couch… But this Dotage becomes perfect Frenzy and Madness when they choose young Husbands; This is an Accumulation of Absurdities and Contradictions. The Husband and the Wife are but one Person; and yet at once young and old, fresh and withered. It is reversing the Decrees of Nature. (The Whole Duty of a Woman, 1737)

The only possible reason a man could want to marry an older widow would be for her money. Such fortune hunting, though, was generally frowned upon. A wealthy virgin though, she would be an entirely acceptable choice.

Find previous installments of this series here:

Get Me to the Church on Time: Changing Attitudes toward Marriage
To Have a Courtship, One Needs a Suitor
Nothing is ever that simple: Rules of Courtship
Show me the Money: the Business of Courtship
The Price of a Broken Heart
Making an Offer of Marriage
Games of Courtship
The Hows and Why of Eloping
Licenses, Laws and Legalities of Marriage
Short, Simple and to the Point: Regency WeddingsAfter the Wedding Comes a Marriage: Regency Marriages


Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, the Parson's Daughter. London: Hambledon Press, 1998.

Corbould, Edward Henry. The Young Lady's Own Book a Manual of Intellectual Improvement and Moral Deportment. Philadelphia: Key & Biddle, 1834.

Davidoff, Leonore & Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850. Routledge (2002)

Erickson, Amy. Women and property in early modern England (1993)

Gener, S., and John Muckersy. M. Gener, Or, A Selection of Letters on Life and Manners. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: Printed for Peter Hill ..., A. Constable & and A. MacKay ;, 1812.

Gregory, John. A Father's Legacy to His Daughters By the Late Dr. Gregory, of Edinburgh. The 2nd ed. London: Printed for W. Strahan ;, 1774.

Heydt-Stevenson, Jill (2005) Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Palgrave Macmillan

Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and Marriage. London: Continuum, 2009.

Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)

Lewis, Judith Schneid (1986) In the Family Way, Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860: Rutgers University Press

Shoemaker, Robert B. (1998) Gender in English Society 1650-1850: Pearson Education Limited

The Whole Duty of a Woman, Or, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex. Containing, Rules, Directions, and Observations, for Their Conduct and Behaviour through All Ages and Circumstances of Life, as Virgins, Wives, or Widows. With Directions, How to Obtain All Use. The 2nd ed. London: Printed for T. Read, in Dogwell-Court, White-Fryers, Fleet-Street, 1737.

The Young Husband's Book a Manual of the Duties, Moral, Religious, and Domestic, Imposed by the Relations of Married Life. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1839.

Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.

Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)


Featured pictures are all Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email


  1. Very interesting. Do you know whether a right of curtesy could be changed or waived in a marriage settlement?

  2. I enjoyed this, Maria Grace! Do you think it possible that one reason widows were discouraged from remarrying might be the issue of available men? After all, a widow had already had her chance; remarriage might well deprive another lady of her first and only chance. Although not as catastrophic to a generation as WWI, the Napoleonic Wars did put a significant dent in the number of marriageable men.

  3. I enjoyed this a lot, thank you. So glad I live in this age, and not that one!


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