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How many times in Pride and Prejudice does Mrs. Bennet shriek: “Mr. Bennet, my poor nerves!”?
What on earth happened to her nerves? Well, probably lots of things. But foremost on her mind was that she had five single daughters to marry off before their father dies and leaves them, poor old maids with small doweries, relying on family charity.
But why are her daughters so poor? And, why does it seem so unlikely that anyone will want to marry them? And what does any of this have to do with Mr. Collins?
These are fantastic questions, and we’re going to answer them here for you today.
So, why are Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters so poor, and why does that make it hard to marry them off? In short, they have incredibly small dowries.
You might be familiar with the term dowries from this post on “Why is Mr. Darcy So Rich?” where we talked about Regency Economics 101. A dowery is the amount of money and property that a lady brings to her husband at marriage. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at them.
We’ll be answering these three crucial questions about doweries:
- Where did the dowery money come from?
- How did dowries affect marriage?
- How did dowries affect being an old maid?
In Regency England, a girl’s dowery, or fortune, was very important. The more money a girl had in her dowery, the better, both for attracting husbands and supporting herself after her parents died, as we’ll discuss later.
Like many families today who have college savings funds for their daughters, Regency parents saved and acquired money for a girl’s future marriage. They did this in three significant ways.
First, the mother’s dowery.
The mother of a regency family had a dowery when she got married before starting their family. As we learned in “Why is Mr. Darcy So Rich?“, her dowery money was most likely invested in the bank, and they used the interest as extra family income.
However, the mother’s dowery also became a source of her daughter’s dowries. After the mother died, her dowery would be divided among her daughters, providing them with an excellent start to their fortunes.
This is the case in Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Bennet’s dowery was 4,000 pounds —which was a pretty decent sized dowery at the time. However, since she had 5 daughters, they stand to inherit only about 1,000 pounds apiece—a very, very small dowery.
Second, from the family estate.
The second way a family can save for their daughter’s dowries is by breaking up the land estate. For example, if the father sells a field to a farmer, he could use that money to add to his daughters’ dowries. However, this was not a popular method because it weakened the oldest son’s inheritance and broke up the family’s legacy. Not to mention, if you’ve watched this video about inheritance in Regency England, you already know that was often illegal too because many of the estates were protected by entails.
However, some heiresses, such as Miss Anne De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, stand to inherit their father’s entire estate as part of their fortune.
This was one of the best methods for creating a dowery. This is very similar to a college fund in that the family just put aside a little something every year so that when the daughters came of age, they’d have a respectable fortune.
Of course, saving, then like now, required foresight, dedication and time. Something that not all families had in Regency England.
For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet regrets that he never thought of saving for his daughters.
Meanwhile, in Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Dashwood planned on starting to save for his daughter’s doweries after he inherited Norland Park’s income—-but he dies within the year and never has a chance too.
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2. How do dowries affect marriage?
Oh marriage and money? Why do you so often go together?
Doweries affected marriage because men wanted to marry rich girls. In a world where not having to work meant that you were genteel, men were always looking for a way to increase their family income without stooping to getting a job. Like clergymen or military men, even those in genteel professions wanted to climb the social ladder with a more considerable income than their current living allowed.
So, in Regency England, how much money made a decent-sized dowery that would attract those dashing suitors?
Let’s look at a few examples in Austen’s books.
Elizabeth Bennet has one of the smallest dowries at just 1,000 pounds. That is a tiny fortune and makes attracting a husband quite tricky. This is why Mr. Collins expects Lizzy to marry him because he doesn’t think she’s rich enough to attract anyone else.
On average, many of the girls in Austen’s books have a dowery of between 3,000 to 4,000 pounds — including the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey and Anne Elliot in Persuasion. This isn’t a brilliant amount and makes husband-attracting a bit difficult too, but also is somewhat respectable.
Mrs. Elton of Emma has 10,000 pounds, which is just about right.
Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park has 20,000 pounds, which definitely makes her marriage material.
Emma Woodhouse has a fortune of 30,000 pounds as does Mr. Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. They’re definitely at the top of the marriage market.
The largest fortune is mentioned in Sense and Sensibility and belongs to a particular Miss Grey—50,000 pounds, which makes her quite the catch for Mr. Willoughby—if you want to be caught by Willoughby.
3. How do the dowries effect being an old maid?
Oh, old maid. You were such a real term in Regency England.
Today, the idea of calling women of a certain age who never got married “old maid” is preposterous. Yet, in Jane Austen’s world, old maidenhood was real, and all girls wanted to avoid it like the plague. Regency women viewed marriage as the primary way of supporting themselves—especially because old maids usually ended up in poverty and relying on charity after their parents died.
However, in comes the dowery. A lady’s fortune made the difference between being a poor old maid and a rich old maid. As we learned in “Why is Mr. Darcy so Rich?”, a lady could invest her dowery in a bank, and if her fortune was large enough, she could live off the interest.
So, in a way, living off the interest of one’s dowery is a backup plan if the whole marrying a rich guy plan never works out.
Emma Woodhouse’s fortune is so large that she even plans on being an old maid—because she will be wealthy for the rest of her life whether she gets married or not.
Sadly, most old maid’s fortunes were not as large. Especially because if they did have large dowries, chances were they wouldn’t end up old maids to begin with.
So, why are the Bennet sisters so poor?
Because they have tiny fortunes.
They will each only inherit 1,000 pounds—not enough to attract suitors and not enough to live off should they end up old maids. If Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley never came along and Mr. Bennet died, they would have been dependent on their relatives’ charity.
“Mr. Bennet, my poor nerves” indeed!
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Featured image from Pride and Prejudice 2005.
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