Monday, 7 March 2011

"More Power by Tears" - women's rites within marriage.

I am an independent woman of the 21st century; a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. I married for love and carried on working, except for a short break when my two sons were born. But in Georgian England, until well into the Victorian era, things were very different and when a woman married she became her husband’s property. Any money or property she owned became her husband’s.

“…on marriage the husband and wife are one person in law….the very legal existence of the woman is suspended.”  Sir William Blackstone.

If they had children and the husband abused her such as the marriage broke up, it was the husband who had custody of the children. In law, a married woman was in the same legal category as wards, lunatics, idiots and outlaws!

Celeste Armitage, the heroine of my debut novel ‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ is determined not to marry for these very reasons. She longs to travel and determine her own future, which is impossible within the bonds of marriage; especially when it was the attitude of the day that parents decide on an advantageous husband for their daughter. Love had little, if anything to do with it as illustrated in Lord Halifax’s advice to his daughter:

“Marriage is too sacred to admit a liberty of objecting to it. You are therefore to make the best of what is settled by law and custom and not vainly imagine that it will be changed for your sake.”

Lord Halifax’s book ‘Advice to a Daughter’ first published in 1688, was so popular it ran to 25 editions, featuring other such gems as:

“Men…who are the law-givers…because they have the larger share of reason bestowed upon them.”


“Women…have more strength in your looks than we have in our laws, and more power by tears, than we have in our arguments.”

Is your blood boiling yet?


  1. I laugh because it beats screaming to know that the legal existence of the woman is suspended by marriage. I have to have some big, strong douche-bag to take care of me. No wonder I never got married. LOL.

  2. I, personally, love men, love marriage but "larger share of reason " ?? Argh. I would have made a lousy Elizabethan or Victorian.

  3. The one thing that some woman would retain would be the "marriage settlement". This was not the same as the dowry. The dowry went to the hubby, but should she be widowed, the settlement money or home, whatever it was, from her father would always be hers. Likely most fathers couldn't afford both... but some did. You see an example of that in the movie "Howard's End". The house belonging to (Anthony Hopkins') first wife was left to (Emma Thompson). (Haven't watched it in a while.) Somehow, the wife's son tried to claim it- can't remember the details now. Really a good movie, especially if you understand the way that worked. The house was the wife's to do as she wished with. Whew, at least a wealthy father could leave something to his daughter if he wanted to bother with it. I have used that fact in my upcoming book.

  4. Having been at the computer for several months, nonstop- or so it seems, I decided I would likely die if I did not sit down and watch a movie. I put on "Howard's End" since I had discussed it here and to my chagrin, the house was not left to the first wife by her father as a settlement. It was left to her by her brother. I was wrong about that. And this was in the early 20th century. People were driving motor cars but women still wore ankle length dresses- no crinolines anymore, though. Still, the marriage settlement arrangement did exist earlier, I am glad to say for the benefit of those women who did need to live out their lives after the death of their husbands, and who had been left something. As for the majority of widows, unless there was a male relative who would care for them and their children, it was hardship for them all. The children actually did not even belong to their widowed mother, and might be put into Chancery, the children's welfare court, where they could be handed out to this or that male guardian.

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