Under English law, women were subordinate to their husbands. It was expected that she was under the “protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord.” The law stated the old adage of “two shall become one.” She was her husband’s “feme covert.” Any property she owned—real or personal—came under his control. A married woman could not draft a will or dispose of any property without her husband’s consent.
Women rarely inherited property. She could inherit “personal” belongings such as, furniture, jewelry, clothing, moveable goods, etc. But that does not mean that a woman could NOT inherit real property (meaning land, or what we now call “real estate”). The practice of primogeniture under English law presented the oldest son with the real property upon the death of the father. [Note: Matrilineal primogeniture, or female-preference uterine primogeniture, is a form of succession practiced in some societies in which the eldest female child inherits the throne, to the total exclusion of males. The order of succession to the position of the Rain Queen is an example in an African culture of matrilineal primogeniture: not only is dynastic descent reckoned through the female line, but only females are eligible to inherit.] Daughters could only inherit in the absence of a male heir. The law of intestate primogeniture remained on the statue books in Britain until the 1925 property legislation simplified and updated England’s archaic law of real property.
Aware of their daughters’ unfortunate situation, fathers often provided them with dowries or worked into a prenuptial agreement pin money, the estate which the wife was to possess for her sole and separate use not subject to the control of her husband, to provide her with an income separate from his.
In contrast to wives, women who never married or who were widowed maintained control over their property and inheritance, owned land and controlled property disposal, since by law any unmarried adult female was considered to be a feme sole. Some of the peeresses, in their own right had property, as well as the title which the husband couldn’t touch. Still, inheritance through the female of a peerage by patent was extremely rare and usually only put into the patent while the 1st peer was alive. Usually, the patents didn’t allow for female inheritance. It was rare for a woman to be able to inherit a peerage created by patent. The Duke of Marlborough had his patent changed when it was obvious he would not have a son, but that was a rare occurrence. Most females succeeded to a lesser peerage created by writ. Once married, the only way that women could reclaim property was through widowhood.
The dissolution of a marriage, whether initiated by the husband or wife, usually left the divorced females impoverished, as the law offered them no rights to marital property. The 1836 Caroline Norton court case highlighted the injustice of English property laws, and generated enough support that eventually resulted in the Married Women’s Property Act.
Lately, England has considered what is cleverly known as the “Downton Abbey” law. The Bill is so called after the anomaly of female succession at the heart of ITV’s Downton Abbey, in which the character of Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the drama’s fictional earl, was unable to inherit the family seat because it had to pass to a male heir. The bill adds the rank of “baronets” to those titles in which females can inherit.
Like many in the JAFF community, I often write how Anne De Bourgh can inherit Rosings Park. I do so again in my latest novel, MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs. But how is that possible? As mentioned above, Anne can inherit if she does not marry. By English law, she could inherit when she reaches her majority at age 21. I customarily add something in Sir Lewis’s will that has her wait until she is 25. [Mayhap, Sir Lewis anticipated Lady Catherine’s “unwillingness” to be removed from the reins of Rosings Park, and provided Anne a bit of time to find a strong husband who would depose her ladyship, or some such story line.] Yet, in reality, it is also possible for Anne to inherit because her father’s title is one of baronet. The rank of “baronet” was created by James I, who founded the hereditary Order of Baronets in England in 1611 to be conferred on 200 gentlemen with large, profitable estates on the condition they funded the salaries of 30 soldiers for the war with Ireland. In these early baronetcies, it was written into the letters patent from the monarch when the titles were created that women could inherit if there was no male heir. The last baronetess, Dame Anne Maxwell Macdonald, whose ancestors became baronets in 1628, died in 2011 aged 104. Therefore, Anne De Bourgh could be the next baronetess of Rosings Park.
Introducing MR. DARCY’S BRIDE…
I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.
ELIZABETH BENNET is determined that she will put a stop to her mother’s plans to marry off the eldest Bennet daughter to Mr. Collins, the Longbourn heir, but a man that Mr. Bennet considers an annoying dimwit. Hence, Elizabeth disguises herself as Jane and repeats her vows to the supercilious rector as if she is her sister, thereby voiding the nuptials and saving Jane from a life of drudgery. Yet, even the “best laid plans” can often go awry.
FITZWILLIAM DARCY is desperate to find a woman who will assist him in leading his sister back to Society after Georgiana’s failed elopement with Darcy’s old enemy George Wickham. He is so desperate that he agrees to Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s suggestion that Darcy marry her ladyship’s “sickly” daughter Anne. Unfortunately, as he waits for his bride to join him at the altar, he realizes he has made a terrible error in judgement, but there is no means to right the wrong without ruining his cousin’s reputation. Yet, even as he weighs his options, the touch of “Anne’s” hand upon his sends an unusual “zing” of awareness shooting up Darcy’s arm. It is only when he realizes the “zing” has arrived at the hand of a stranger, who has disrupted his nuptials, that he breathes both a sigh of relief and a groan of frustration, for the question remains: Is Darcy’s marriage to the woman legal?
What if Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet met under different circumstances than those we know from Jane Austen’s classic tale: Circumstances that did not include the voices of vanity and pride and prejudice and doubt that we find in the original story? Their road to happily ever after may not, even then, be an easy one, but with the expectations of others removed from their relationship, can they learn to trust each other long enough to carve out a path to true happiness?
EXCERPT from MR. DARCY’S BRIDEs (Chapter 18): This scene is Darcy’s threat to Lady Catherine when his aunt insists that he cannot back out of his marriage to Anne. [Trust me. Even with Darcy’s commanding tone in this excerpt, Lady Catherine is not easily put off.]
“Lady Catherine, sir.” His servant barely had time to open the door before his aunt strode into the room.
“Mr. Nathan, have my bags placed in my usual room,” his aunt instructed without so much as a by-your-leave.
Darcy’s ire grew quickly. He despised such presumptuousness. “Mr. Nathan, you will leave her ladyship’s bags upon her coach. And instruct my aunt’s coachman to remain nearby with her carriage. Lady Catherine will not be staying at Pemberley.”
Mr. Nathan nodded his understanding and rushed from the room, closing the door behind him.
“So this is the welcome I am to receive,” her ladyship harumphed. “Your mother would be ashamed of you, Darcy.” She sat heavily in an armed chair.
Darcy remained standing beside his desk. He spoke in clipped tones. “I was considering something similar as to Lady Anne’s reaction to your poor manners, Aunt. I can guarantee that George Darcy would never have tolerated your ordering his servants about, and neither will I. This is Pemberley, madam, not Rosings Park. I am the master here.”
His aunt snarled, “I see your insolence continues.”
“And I see you still think that the world will bend to your whims,” he countered.
Rather than to fuel their standoff with more inflammatory accusations, Lady Catherine switched tactics, a devise he had observed her employ previously. Darcy had always thought her doing so was an intelligent means for a woman to earn agreement over business matters in a man’s world, but her diversion would not work on him. “Is that girl in this house?” she demanded.
Darcy propped a hip on the corner of his desk and attempted to appear casual when he responded, “I fear Georgiana is not at home at this time. My sister will be sorry to have missed your call.”
Lady Catherine’s chin rose in stubbornness. “So that is the way you wish to discuss this matter. Very well. Then I shall be more direct. Did you bring Miss Elizabeth Bennet to Pemberley when you left Matthew Allard’s estate in Scotland?”
Darcy schooled his features. Someone would pay dearly for sharing his business with Lady Catherine. “I am not in the habit of discussing my personal life with anyone, and you of all people should realize I am more Darcy than Fitzwilliam. Your line of questions will not win you my favor.”
“I see you mean to protect this upstart! Are you so enthralled with the woman’s arts and allurements that you cannot see reason? If you fancy her, Darcy, then make her your mistress. Anne will ignore your indiscretions. I will instruct my daughter in the ways of men. Anne can be your wife while this strumpet can suffer your lust.”
His aunt’s description of aristocratic life sickened Darcy. “I have no intention of marrying Anne. You may beg. You may threaten. You may cajole. You may bargain. But I will never change my mind. I permitted you to use the memory of my dear mother to coerce me into agreeing to marry Anne, but Fate had other ideas. Anne was late, and I spoke my vows to another.”
“We both know those vows are not legal,” she drawled in warning tones.
Darcy had heard from his solicitor regarding those first vows exchanged with Elizabeth, and as expected, his first marriage to the woman had proved void. Mr. Jaffray had filed the papers to have the ceremony declared null. “Such knowledge does not change my resolve. I will not marry Anne.”
“Would you prefer that I instruct Anne in suing Miss Bennet for criminal conversation?” she challenged.
“Although neither Anne nor I could officially testify in such a suit, the truth would win out. A skilled barrister can make certain all the facts are relayed to the judge. The lady in question could not have claimed my affections away from your daughter, for beyond a fondness between cousins, I never loved Anne.” He would not say that Elizabeth Bennet held his heart in her delicate hands. “Moreover, as I did not hold the lady’s acquaintance until several hours after that morning at St. George, it would be impossible for her to draw me away with her arts and allurements. All such a suit would do would be to bring ruin upon Anne’s head and mar my family name, as well as yours. I doubt your brother Matlock will be most pleased with your choice. You would have your vengeance and little else to keep you warm in the winter. No man would ever claim Anne after such a public display, but I suppose that is what you wish. You wish Anne forever to remain under your control.”
“Anne’s dowry of thirty thousand pounds can cover any flaw you name,” Lady Catherine argued.
“Yes, I suppose her dowry and the promise of Rosings Park can conceal all but one of my cousin’s failings: that of possessing an overbearing and controlling mother. Only the most desperate of men would consider aligning his name with Sir Lewis’s daughter. You would be willing to turn over Anne’s future to a man of no principles. That fact should surprise me, but it does not,” he said in sad tones. “Such a man would run through every penny of Anne’s inheritance, leaving you and your daughter as Matlock’s poor relations. I suppose that must be my justice.”
“You think me so cold-hearted?” his aunt demanded. “Everything I do, I do for Anne.”
“You may tell yourself these lies,” Darcy cautioned, “but your family and soon society will recognize you as a bitter, vindictive woman.” He sighed heavily. “If you persist in this madness, I will sue Anne for breach of promise. Her fortune will be greatly reduced, for I will win my suit. There were at least two dozen witnesses that can swear to the fact that she left me at the altar. If not for the false exchange of vows, I would have been long gone from the church by the time Anne arrived. You, too, would have been gone, likely looking for your wayward daughter to strangle her, as you attempted to do when she did arrive. Are you willing to tarnish your daughter’s name twice in the court of public notice? Poor Anne who has never had a Season. Who has never been permitted the freedom to form a friendship. Who is poorly educated beyond what her governess provided her. That Anne will be irretrievably ruined.” His tone held the warning of winter’s embrace. “I do not wish to see Anne suffer, but I will not permit you to injure an innocent just to puff up your consequence.”
“An innocent?” his aunt accused in her most implacable voice. “The woman traveled with you to Scotland where she passed herself off as Mrs. Darcy. You see, Mr. and Mrs. Allard were quite pleased to tell my man of your indiscretions. Allard was most displeased that you withdrew your financial support of his latest venture.”
Allard’s financial future would be nonexistent when Darcy finished with the man. He would permit no one to bandy about Elizabeth’s name in a vile manner. “We could debate this matter all afternoon,” he announced as he stood. “I believe somewhere within your hard resolve you want what is best for Anne, and I am flattered you think me a suitable match for my cousin, but I wish to marry in affection, and my feelings for Anne are more brotherly than those of a potential husband.” A profound sadness crept into his tone when Darcy spoke of his cousin’s situation. He should have executed more to assist Anne before things had reached this turning point. Like most in the family, he had thought all would change when Anne inherited Sir Lewis’s properties and fortune. He had never considered the fact that Lady Catherine would do all she could to shove Anne out Rosings Park’s door in order to maintain control of all of Sir Lewis’s holdings. “Do you not wish something more for your daughter and your dearest sister’s only son than a marriage of convenience?”
“I wish to see Anne well settled,” she declared in undisguised contempt.
Darcy hesitated briefly before accepting the gauntlet. His aunt would force him to be ruthless. “Then you leave me no choice, madam. If you force me to marry Anne, I will leave you with little more than a humble cottage and a pair of servants to tend you for the remainder of your days. Anne will be five and twenty in two months. I will postpone the wedding until your daughter inherits Rosings Park per Sir Lewis’s will. All of it will belong to her, and as the estate and the fortune are entailed upon the female line, when we marry, as Anne’s husband, I will have control of it all. I have no intention of bringing Anne to child, so your many manipulations will be for naught. As you say, I will take my lust elsewhere. At Anne’s death, I will sell Rosings Park and all it holds piece-by piece, until nothing remains of Sir Lewis De Bourgh’s legacy. All you hold most dear will be scattered among the households of those with the funds to purchase it. I will destroy everything you have ever loved: Rosings Park and Anne. And each day of your miserable life you will know that I did these things in retribution for your foolish sense of consequence.” Needing to be away from his aunt, Darcy started for the door. “Good day, your ladyship. I will have Mr. Nathan see you out.” With that, he was gone, never looking back to view the look of astonishment upon his aunt’s features.