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Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Plight of Regency Era Widows | guest post from Maria Grace!

Maria Grace is joining us again this morning with a look at just how bad widows had it in the Regency era. Maybe (just maybe) it'll give us all a little more sympathy for Lady Susan. Maybe.
Maria has graced us with many an edifying post over the years, including some awesome ones this year, so make sure to give those a browse! And don't forget to check out my review of the first book in her Jane Austen's Dragons series, where you can enter to win a copy!

Jane Austen’s Lady Susan portrays a rather unique vision of a widow, a little surprising to modern eyes. In many ways the character embodied exactly what the culture most feared a widow would be; she is a caricature revealing the attitudes of the period. To better understand this, we need to look a little at widowhood in the era,

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 mourning. During this time she was expected to dress in all black, refraining from public appearances. If you watch the movie Love and Friendship you can, watch for the changes in Lady Susan’s wardrobe as she moves from half mourning colors like greys and lavenders, in brighter, more showy garments.

While men often remarried quickly following the death of their wives with nary an eyebrow raised, women faced varying degrees of opposition to remarrying. Many conduct writers suggested a widow should continue to live a life of somber retirement for the remainder of her days. 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.

A woman who married sooner than a year after her husband’s death was extremely suspect. Soldiers' wives, especially those who ‘followed the drum’ and accompanied their husbands on deployment often remarried within days or even hours of their husband's demise. They were deeply criticized as hardened, unfeminine creatures.

The choice though was usually one of necessity.
Not only would a widow lose her husband’s income, but if she followed her husband on deployment and worked in the camp as she would be expected to do, she would lose both her privilege of working there and her way home without her husband. Finding another husband was a matter of survival.

Society though, was more apt to consider the remarriage a consequence of voracious sexual appetite. The prevailing belief was that once a woman was introduced to sexual activity, she would be consumed by lust. This makes the characterization of Lady Susan much more understandable; Austen was merely portraying the contemporary stereotype of a widow—a woman on the prowl to fulfill her baser motives.

Special condemnation was reserved for older widows interested in younger men (sounds like Lady Susan to me). 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.

Given these social attitudes, it is easy to see Austen’s Lady Susan as caricature of the sort of woman society feared most and a prelude to the more subtle characters Austen would write of in her more mature works.

Just a little food for thought, compare widow Lady Susan to widow Mrs. Clay of Persuasion. They both embody the worst possible traits society dreaded in widows, but in very different ways.

Want to learn more? Try Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen's World, available in ebook and paperback!

A Lady of Distinction - Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)
A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory by a Younger Brother, published in 1742.
Day, Malcom - Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David & Charles (2006)
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.
Jones, Hazel - Jane Austen & Marriage . Continuum Books (2009)
Lane, Maggie - Jane Austen's World. Carlton Books (2005)
Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L. - The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing (1989)
Le Faye, Deirdre - Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)
Ray, Joan Klingel - Jane Austen for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc. (2006)
Ross, Josephine - Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners. Bloomsbury USA (2006)
Selwyn, David - Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)
Vickery, Amanda - The Gentleman's Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)

If you’re interested in reading Lady Susan, come by my website, RandomBitsofFascination.com and download a free copy of Lady Susan. Be careful though, because once you pick it up, you won’t want to put it down.
You can contact Maria Grace at: author.MariaGrace@gmail.com.
You can find her on Facebook: facebook.com/AuthorMariaGrace
Or on Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/mariagrace
or visit her website at RandomBitsofFascination.com

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  1. Lady Susan's widowhood and the situation of the times was the only moments I felt any understanding for her and her actions. I forgot about Mrs. Clay and Anne's friend Mrs. Smith for that matter... Interesting topic and so glad to be living in a different social climate.

    Thanks, Maria!

  2. I am happy to see the guest post by Maria Grace.She is my favorite writer and I thoroughly enjoy reading her article.I am glad to see her un expected post today.

  3. I completely sympathize with the soldiers' widows--I admire their tenacity and fortitude!


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