Thursday, May 11, 2017

Wills and Married Women in the 1800s

Thursday, May 11, 2017
Loretta reports:

Certain of my early 1800s characters—the heroines, usually—will refer in some way to their lack of legal power. Yes, we know they couldn’t vote. But it’s hard for us to grasp just how little control they had over their lives. This excerpt from Tomlins’s Law Dictionary, 1835 edition, dealing with wills, is only one of many I could present. A glance at Caroline Norton’s situation offers several examples of the difficulties women faced.

Even Queen Victoria believed she ought to submit to her husband’s will…to a point. (For an eye-opening, beautifully written exploration of that marriage, I recommend Gillian Gill’s We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals).

Married women & wills
Married women & wills

Image: Rowlandson, “The Wedding,” from The English Dance of Death 1815

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.


Regencyresearcher said...

It said she could dispose of her pin money as she pleased as long as it wasn't invested in land or tangible property. One wife was very thrifty and invested her pin money and gifts . She bought a house and let it and then did the same with another. All of this out of pin money and gifts. However, when the husband died, the courts agreed with his heir that the houses were part of the estate. She lost everything. If the money had been left in consols she could have kept it. The husband had approved of what she did but hadn't put anything in writing about those houses being hers.
One would think that a Queen would have had more sympathy with other women and at least given them the right to some control of their own property. The article doesn't mention trusts and other devices that existed to keep husband's from taking everything. However as Catherine Tylney Long discovered such didn't always stop a determined husband.

Cynthia Lambert said...

My father always told me, "Marriage is a bad deal for a woman." This, of course, being said in the late 20th century. In the 19th century, it was much worse. As a woman of property, I wouldn't have wanted to marry and surrender it all. One wonders why they did. Blinded by love, I suppose, or by society's demands that women marry. In my case, autonomy reigns supreme. I would have lived and died like Elizabeth I - a "virgin" queen. No inducement could have been strong enough to allow anyone else to control me.

Tegan said...

Because living penniless and beholden upon whatever relative was supporting you at that time is not a better solution. Most unmarried women didn't have property - they were maiden aunts to be kept in house and were a burden upon their families (in that they made no money and produced no children ).

Just not getting married was not the rosy world it is now.

(And my framing of the situation is equally simplistic.)

Annette Naish said...

At this point, I believe every woman reading this post should get on her knees and thank God for the women who fought on our behalf. Think of all the women who demanded the vote. Think of all the women who campaigned for the laws to change and for candidates who would support those changes.

When women and children were considered property, it is not amazing that what would be considered their best interests were not normally considered.

Cynthia Lambert said...

My statement was, "As a woman of property." I realize that women without an income were beholden to relatives and society for support unless they married. But heiresses, some actresses or courtesans, and even widows, did have property, and thus had a choice about how they led their lives. They need not marry, even if impregnated, although their offspring were tainted with illegitimacy. But even that could be set aside in the case of royal offspring, whom the king could confer titles upon, in spite of their bastardy.

Lucy said...

This is why the "marriage articles" were so significant in any negotiation between the father and the prospective husband. It was the father's duty to secure as many financial guarantees for his daughter and her daughters as was possible. Not infrequently, a woman's private spending money would be specified in contract; and in the 18th century, complaints arose because some parents even specified in the contract that their heiress-daughter must be allowed to control her own money, and that her husband could not make use of it for himself. (An instance of this practice is named in The Wife, an 18th century marriage manual written by the author of The Female Spectator.)

So, in fact, a woman might be in a position to control her money, but: it depended on how determined her father was to secure it to her use, and (perhaps) the honesty of her husband.

Tegan said...

Ah, quick reading and so I misread. :)

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