The appeal that appeared in the World in the spring of 1790 was unusual only in that its presence in a London paper offered the widow a relatively uncommon public advantage in securing funds to help her and her family cope with her widowhood. Widowhood itself was anything but uncommon at the time, and the dire straits hinted at in this single notice were familiar to countless women. Despite the existence of relatively egalitarian inheritance laws, property laws relating to marriage in Romantic-era Britain (c. 1780–1835) had grown less (rather than more) accommodating to the needs of widows and their children than they had been even a century earlier. Indeed, “the romantic proposition that true love required a woman’s legal and economic ‘annihilation’ within marriage,” as happened to Mrs Strictland in Clara Reeve’s The School for Widows (1791), had become more than merely a cultural truism. Polly Peachum’s parents’ advice that she snap up Macheath in order to become a wealthy widow may have resonated with the audiences for John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728), but as Bridget Hill points out, the widow who was left in “comfortable circumstances” was the exception to the rule. Given that even the third of her husband’s estate to which the law ostensibly entitled her was generally insufficient to provide economic security, a widow’s family’s security “depended to a large extent on her efforts.” Thus in Clara Reeve’s The School for Widows (1791), when Mrs Darnford, the widow of a London tradesman, is left without provision, she must hire herself out as a governess to some young ladies. Still, documentary and anecdotal evidence alike points to the comparatively large number of English families headed by single persons, including widows with—frequently—numerous dependent children; widows may have accounted for as many as 14 per cent of all heads of households. This sort of relatively independent (albeit co-dependent) existence apparently was the norm, for in the eighteenth century some 70 per cent of all widows were the heads of their own households. This same evidence suggests that, their difficult circumstances notwithstanding, significant numbers of widows did not remarry, choosing instead—like Lady Russell in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818)—to make their own social and economic way within a society in which this option must have been both attractive and workable. The success of such un-remarried and presumably celibate widows, both in society and in fiction, provides an important complement to the image of the lascivious “merry widow” often represented in the era’s cautionary tales and whose widowhood is typically marked (in society and in fiction alike) by a looseness of social and sexual behaviour that implicitly challenges the historically entrenched patriarchal order.
Behrendt, Stephen C.
"Women without Men: Barbara Hofland and the Economics of Widowhood,"
3, Article 1.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/ecf/vol17/iss3/1