How did dowries provide for a young woman’s future?
A Woman’s Dowry
Though Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennet referred to dowries as “bribes to worthless young men to marry his daughters,” dowries were more commonly considered a means by which a responsible family compensated a husband for their daughter’s lifelong upkeep. How’s that for a romantic notion?
Dowries (or more commonly the interest earned off a dowry) were used to provide a woman’s lifetime spending money, establish her income if she became a widow, and eventually distributed to her children at the death of one or both parents.
Settlements specified a total amount of money set aside for future daughters’ dowries. The more daughters a family had, the more ways the sum would have to be divided. The division of the money was generally not specified, so it did not have to be divided evenly amongst the daughters. A father might add to the sum during his lifetime, but if not stipulated in the settlement, it was not required. So the five Bennet daughters had to divide their mother’s five thousand pound dowry among them, with nothing added by their father.
There was no guarantee that a woman’s family would have the cash on hand to pay a dowry upon a daughter’s marriage. Oftentimes, that sum was tied up in estate capital or investments. The family might have to take out a mortgage to pay the dowry, or a down payment on it, with the final portion due from the estate at the father’s death.
To replenish the loss of capital, the heir of the estate needed to marry a bride with her own fortune. Marrying a woman without sufficient capital could harm the financial position of the family estate. For Mr. Darcy, of Pride and Prejudice, his sister, Georgiana’s, considerable fortune of £30,000 would come out of the Pemberley coffers on her marriage. By choosing a bride who could not replenish that, Darcy, was putting Pemberley’s financial future at risk.
Dower and Jointure
Until into the nineteenth century, without a jointure in a premarital contract, English common law ensured the widow had a right to a life interest in one third of the freehold lands in her husband’s hands at the time of her marriage. The only way the widow could lose these rights was if her husband or herself was found guilty of treason, felony or adultery.
The jointure, the settlement on a bride by her future husband of a freehold estate secured for her widowhood, came into practice with the Statute of Uses (1535). To receive this settlement, the prospective wife had to surrender her dower (not to be confused with her dowry which was something different altogether.)
With formal repeal of dower in 1833, wives lost the absolute right to inherit. So in the absence of jointure provisions or explicit provisions in a husband’s will, the widow could be left without support at her husband’s death. Even if a man left his wife property upon his death, it might be marked with the stipulation that it would revert to his heir or another designate if she remarried.
Jointures were rarely on the same level as the dowry a woman brought to the marriage. They were usually anchored on the amount that a woman brought into a marriage. Generally it was an annuity, payable by the heir of the estate, equal to one tenth of a woman’s dowry. The annuity would be payable by the heir of a man’s estate until the woman’s death upon which time the principle would descend to her children.
The ratio of jointure to dowry was established by the expectation that the average wife would outlive her husband by about ten years. Thus, she would most likely receive back the amount she brought into the marriage over the duration of her widowhood.
The issues of jointure and inheritance created the initial problems for the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters in Sense and Sensibility. Mrs. Dashwood was the second wife of Mr. Dashwood and not the mother of his heir (his son). The estate passed into his son’s hands at the senior Mr. Dashwood’s death.
Since the current Mrs. Dashwood was not the heir’s mother, he had no obligation to provide for her or her daughters–and did not deign to do so. Instead, the widow and her daughters were forced to live on the income supplied by the jointure, £500. (This implies that she brought £5000 into the marriage as her dowry.) While the amount is sufficient to maintain them, it is not enough for luxuries like a carriage which would generally require twice that income to support.
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