Love, Regency Style
April 25, 2007 7:05 PM   Subscribe

What was Anne Elliot's dowry? What if Sir Walter couldn't pay?

I got to thinking about the dowries of Jane Austen heroines today.

The other books are pretty clear:
Catherine Morland £3000
Elizabeth Bennett £1000
Elinor Dashwood £1000
Emma Woodhouse £30,000
Fanny Price (nothing)

Anne Elliot of Persuasion, we are told, received "but a small part of the share of ten thousand pounds which must be hers hereafter."

What does "share" mean? Her share was £10,000, but her father could not afford to pay it -- or she shared that £10,000 with Elizabeth (and Mary?) and he couldn't give her her half (or third)? Or what? I have heard that dowries sometimes were given as the income only from an investment, not the principal. Is that what is meant -- that Anne's father couldn't give her even the full income from her £10,000, let alone the principal? Income = share?

And must it be hers? Anne's father is deeply in debt, and couldn't sell the family estates if he wanted to. If, say, marriage settlements gave each of the daughters £10,000, and their father spent it -- what then? Would the mother's family (who had negotiated this deal) go after the father in some way? Would Anne's husband go after her father? Or would everyone think the father was a loser, and Anne would just not get her money?

They made Sense and Sensibility in Tamil ... In countries where dowries are still customary, the husband's family can send the bride back to her parents if the dowry is not received (or they want more), which is social death for the bride and her family, but need not preclude the groom from marrying again. Would that have been true in Regency England also?

There is a lot of info on Jane Austen and her times in the tubes, but I am not finding what I want to know.
Any Janeites in the hizzouse?
posted by Methylviolet to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This always boggled me a little too. I read it as her "share" was supposed to be a portion of that ten thousand pounds. I wasn't sure if said ten thousand pounds was the money that was intended to be set aside to be split among the sisters as their dowries or if it referred to the value of the entire estate. My understanding (via wikipedia) is that a dowery "was seen as an early payment of her inheritance, such that only daughters who had not received their dowry were entitled to part of the estate when their parents died." So it could be that the estate (were it not in such debt) would be worth ten thousand pounds, but since because of the debt, she only gets a small portion of whatever it is worth. Wait. . . now I'm even more confused.

I do think, however, that the dowry was due at the time of the marriage. I got the impression that if the bride's family wasn't paying up, the groom could call off the betrothal, but that if he went ahead and married her without cash in hand there wasn't much he could do. That is, unless her dowry came in the form of a yearly income, in which case. . . blast, confused again.

Luckily, none of it seems to matter to Captain Wentworth (sigh!).
posted by mostlymartha at 8:37 PM on April 25, 2007

My guess is that failure to pay the dowry would not result in sending the bride back to the family, especially if the marriage had been consummated. That wouldn't be acceptable to Regency morals. Failure to pay a dowry probably could result in legal action if a certain amount had been promised.

However, I'm not sure dowries really worked in such a formal manner. From reading Austen's novels and other literature of the period, my feeling is that the dowry wasn't a dowry at all, but rather a large sum of money gifted to the bride by her father or other male relative upon marriage. Obviously, since married women were unable to have their own property and/or bank accounts, the money became their husband's money by default. But it wasn't an actual legal contract between the bride's father and the bride's intended, so I'm not sure legal action would have been possible.

But in that period, it probably would have been quite costly socially to fail to give your daughter her inheritance. It would most certainly affect the marriage prospects of your other daughters if you had any, and if your failure to pay the dowry were to be seen in the light of a breach of promise it could also probably affect your social standing. However, just being too poor to give your daughter a large dowry would not be seen that way. But having a small inheritance/dowry did affect your marriage prospects.

In Persuasion, I believe "share" refers to Anne's portion of the total £10,000. In other words, £10,000 was supposed to be divided among the three daughters equally. It's possible that Mary, having married before the action of the book, actually got her full portion of the £10,000 (£3,333). My guess is that the £10,000 was the inheritance to be shared because their father had at least that much in assets, but he couldn't pay even her share of £3,333 by the time Anne was ready to be married because he didn't have that much cash, or "ready money" as they would have referred to it at that time. It was probably tied up in his land holdings and so would not be available until he died and/or any male inheritors were willing to sell the land.
posted by katyggls at 9:05 PM on April 25, 2007

You could try emailing John Sutherland - he's made a business of these kind of puzzles, as you probably know. His email address is on the University College (London) site.
posted by paduasoy at 4:43 AM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: The 10,000 was likely what Anne's mother brought into the marriage. During the marriage, the husband got control of the interest, but not the initial amount. After the mother dies, and the children marry, the amount is usually divided up equally.

All of this would be spelled out in the marriage contract by the bride's father and the groom; it didn't happen automatically. That is why stealing away an heiress and eloping could be so financially rewarding- you don't get her interest, you can control her whole fortune.

When Anne's mother married Anne's father, she had a dowry of 10,000 pounds. The marriage contract likely said that each child gets an equal share after the death of the mother when they get married. Sir Elliot only gets the interest of this money. I don't know how he could legally get to the principle, but he was very deeply in debt. When Anne married, her portion, or share, should go to her. Since she didn't get it then, she likely will never get it at all. (When Sir Elliot dies, it isn't likely that the new Sir Elliot will pay the debt- he wanted to marry Anne but she refused.)

This highlights the irony of Anne's family thinking they are so much better than the Captain. They are rude, and they can't pay off their obligations.

The one I feel sorry for is Elizabeth. When her father dies, she will have no home and no money.

From Pride and Prejudice:

"Five thousand pounds was settled by marriage articles on Mrs. Bennet and the children. But in what proportions it should be divided amongst the latter depended on the will of the parents. This was one point, with regard to Lydia, at least, which was now to be settled, and Mr. Bennet could have no hesitation in acceding to the proposal before him. ... He had never before supposed that, could Wickham be prevailed on to marry his daughter, it would be done with so little inconvenience to himself as by the present arrangement. He would scarcely be ten pounds a year the loser by the hundred that was to be paid them; for, what with her board and pocket allowance, and the continual presents in money which passed to her through her mother's hands, Lydia's expences had been very little within that sum."

A good place to learn all about these things is
posted by Monday at 7:20 AM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Especially given Sir Walter's rank, but also how I read it, I always assumed "share" meant Anne and her sisters were each entitled to £10,000; her circumstances would have to be more in line with Emma's (first family in their area) than the other (poorer) heroines, I'd think. Because of his debt, she couldn't get all of it, since he couldn't afford it. However all the steps he took at the beginning of the book (taking on a tenant, moving to Bath) are to help him clear out his debt within a few years; once he cleared out the debt, she'd eventually have the rest of the money "which must be hers hereafter"; right now that money (income) is going to pay off his debt.

The dowry seems to be a mix of the gift of the father and the inheritance of the mother (see here); the settlement of the mother is not necessarily under her control, so it could be used by the father, but it doesn't belong entirely to the father; therefore I would assume legal action could be taken if the settlement agreed to did not (eventually) come through. Also the settlement division could be affected by shifting circumstances: "Five thousand pounds was settled by marriage articles on Mrs. Bennet and the children. But in what proportions it should be divided amongst the latter depended on the will of the parents. This was one point, with regard to Lydia at least, which was now to be settled, and Mr. Bennet could have no hesitation in acceding to the proposal before him." Darcy paying off Wickham enough to get him to marry Lydia means the other Bennet sisters' dowries will not be affected by the need for Mr. Bennet to pay him off.

And if the dowry expected to her would not come through at the time of marriage (which the suitor would find out when announcing intent of betrothal to her father) he could drop her (awkward but allowable); it'd happen before a formal announcement of the betrothal. AFAIK yes, legal action could be brought if a dowry wasn't paid, but, legal action could also be brought to dissolve an announced betrothal without penalty because her circumstances were misrepresented; that is why they do the "what are your circumstances, young man? and here are her circumstances" dance first thing once the suitor decides to pick a particular girl, since it was necessary on both sides to find each other's circumstances acceptable before proceeding.
posted by Melinika at 7:28 AM on April 26, 2007

Response by poster: OK, that makes sense. Thank you all. Thanks for the Pemberley link, Monday -- I had only seen their bulletins boards, which I found frustrating. I didn't know about the rest of it.

I knew that a woman at the time of her marriage might have money settled on her and any children the couple have. But no one could know how many children they would have (poor women!) and so could not assign a proportionate sum to each, at that time. So I found that confusing. But in what proportions it should be divided amongst the latter depended on the will of the parents. Of course, if it is the woman's own dowry, plus any addition from the husband's family, then it is a finite pot to be divided among all the children, perhaps excepting the first-born son, who'd have all his father's property.

So yes, I agree that Anne's share would probably have been a third of £10,000, Lady Elliot's dowry. Unless it was thought that Elizabeth should have a greater than equal share in hopes of her making a better marriage, as the beauty of the family -- or as the old maid!

As for sending her back to her parents, I learn, he would not be able to marry again but he would be liable for her maintenance, so that probably never happened. That punishment, the public punishment of disgrace, should in a just measure attend his share of the offence is, we know, not one of the barriers which society gives to virtue. True dat.
posted by Methylviolet at 4:36 PM on April 26, 2007

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