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Women without Men: Barbara Hofland and the Economics of Widowhood Stephen C. Behrendt The widow of a Gentleman of the rank of major, in His Majesty's service, is left with Seven Children without any means of support, unless by the assistance of the public a sum can be raised to enable her to continue an engagement to which she has been introduced, and which affords a reasonable prospect of a provision for her family ... . Subscriptions for the above benevolentpurpose will be received at the following Bankers ... .' The appeal diat 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 widi 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 ofwidows and dieir children than they had been even a century earlier. Indeed, "the romantic proposition that true love required awoman's legal and economic 'annihilation' within marriage,"2 as happened to Mrs 1 World, no. 1010 (Tuesday, 30 March 1790), 1. 2 Amy Louise Erickson, "Property and Widowhood in England 1660-1840," in Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Sandra Cavallo and Lyndon Warner (New York: Pearson Education, 1999), 146. EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 17, Number 3, April 2005 482 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION Stricdand in Clara Reeve's The Schoolfor Widows (1791), had become more than merely a cultural truism. Polly Peachum's parents' advice that she snap up MacheauS in order to become a wealdiy 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 die rule. Given that even the third of her husband's estate to which the law ostensibly entided her was generally insufficient to provide economic security, a widow's family's security "depended to a large extent on her efforts."3 Thus in Clara Reeve's TheSchoolfor Widows (1791), when Mrs Darnford, the widow ofa London tradesman, is leftwidiout provision, she must hire herself out as a governess to some young ladies. Still, documentary and anecdotal evidence alike points to die comparatively large number of English families headed by single persons, includingwidows widi—frequendy—numerous dependent children; widows may have accounted for as many as 14 per cent ofall heads of households.4This sortofrelativelyindependent (albeit co-dependent) existence apparendywas die norm, for in die eighteenüi century some 70 percentofallwidowswere die heads ofdieirown households.5This same evidence suggests that, their difficult circumstances notwidistanding , significant numbers of widows did not remarry, choosing instead—like Lady Russell in Jane Austen's Persuasion (1818)—to make dieir own social and economic waywitíiin a society in which diis option must have been both attractive and workable. The success of such un-remarried and presumably celibate widows, bodi in society and in fiction, provides an important complement to the image ofdie lascivious "merry widow" often represented in die 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 3 Bridget Hill, Women, Work, and Sexual Politics in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 250-51. 4 See especially Peter Laslett, "Mean Household Size in England since die Sixteenth Century," in Household and Family in Past Time, ed. Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 146-49; Olwen Hufton, "Women without Men: Widows and Spinsters in Britain and France in die Eighteenüi Century," Journal ofFamily History 9:4 (1984), 355-76; Hill, chap. 13, "Widows." Hannah Barker claims diat women were die heads ofsome 9 to 14 per cent ofeighteendi-century English households. Hannah Barker, "Women, Work and die Industrial Revolution: Female Involvement in die English Printing Trades, c. 1700-1840," in Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: Roles, Representations and Responsibilities, ed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 481-508
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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