Under English law, women were subordinate to their husbands. It was expected that the woman 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 (which means she could inherit 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, The Mistress of Rosings Park. 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. I did not do so this time, but it is possible. Please consider the “chance” that 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. 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 at age 104. Therefore, Anne De Bourgh could be the next baronetess of Rosings Park and our “dear” Lady Catherine would then become the dowager baronetess and need to remove to the dower house. Imagine how that would go over, and you have the idea behind The Mistress of Rosings Park. Throw in a husband for Anne in the form of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, and you have the gist of the tale, but not all the twists and turns I adore adding.
The Mistress of Rosing Park: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary
I much prefer the sharp criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses. – Johannes Kepler
When she arrives at Hunsford Cottage for a visit with her long-time friend Charlotte Collins, Elizabeth Bennet does not expect the melodrama awaiting her at Rosings Park.
Mrs. Anne Darcy, nee de Bourgh, has passed, and Rosings Park is, by law, the property of the woman’s husband, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy; yet, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is not ready to abandon the mansion over which she has served as mistress for thirty years. Elizabeth holds sympathy for her ladyship’s situation. After all, Mrs. Bennet will eventually be banished from Longbourn when Mr. Bennet passes without male issue. Elizabeth inherently understands Lady Catherine’s “hysterics,” while not necessarily condoning them, for her ladyship will have the luxury of the right to the estate’s dower house, and, moreover, it is obvious Rosings Park requires the hand of a more knowledgeable overseer. Therefore, she takes on the task of easing Lady Catherine’s transition to dowager baronetess, but doing so places Elizabeth often in the company of the “odious” Mr. Darcy, a man Lady Catherine claims poisoned her daughter Anne in order to claim Rosings Park as his own.
Enjoy this excerpt:
And what, in that case, would become of Charlotte’s future? Elizabeth would not enjoy viewing Charlotte living in poverty. As Charlotte’s friend, she could not help but to wonder the extent of the living Lady Catherine had presented to Mr. Collins. Elizabeth knew some vicars lived on as little as thirty pounds per year. She suspected Mr. Collins received more, but how much more? It would take somewhere around one hundred pounds per year for the illusion of a modest lifestyle, which was what Elizabeth had observed at Hunsford Cottage. However, it was well understood that the right of presentation could be bought and sold. Was her father’s cousin receiving any of the tithes? She would write to her father and ask him what he knew of Mr. Collins’s position.
Like her mother, Elizabeth had made assumptions regarding Lady Catherine’s presentation of the living; none of the Bennets, perhaps with the exception of her father, had thought to question Mr. Collins’s constant praise of Lady Catherine’s generosity—just periodically roll their eyes at his foolishness mannerisms.
Now, since viewing her ladyship’s lack of care of parts of the estate, Elizabeth thought perhaps having Lady Catherine as Mr. Collins’s patroness might not be such a blessing, after all. She could not image her father’s cousin had come away from his days at Oxford with glowing reports that would draw the notice of any among the aristocracy. Then how came Mr. Collins to her ladyship’s notice? Perhaps he was acting in the place of another, more in the role of curate, and had not told anyone of the fragility of his position. Elizabeth made a silent promise to remain at Rosings to determine if she might be of service to her friend and mend the gap that had brought a breach in said friendship nearly a year prior and to learn the truth of Mr. Collins’s role in Hunsford’s future.
Her thoughts were thusly engaged on what she might do to assist Charlotte, beyond taking over some of her friend’s duties at Hunsford Cottage, when the “play” before her shifted with the entrance of new character.
“The Earl of Matlock, my lady,” the butler announced unexpectedly.
Along with the Collinses, Elizabeth scrambled to her feet to curtsey. She had never been presented to an earl, and the idea pleased her, for she thought both her father and her sister Jane would find Elizabeth’s recollection of the encounter amusing. As the earl crossed the room, totally ignoring anyone but Lady Catherine, both Mr. Collins and Charlotte slowly and silently drifted toward the corner of the room which Elizabeth occupied. The earl’s ample figure filled the room with its stoutness and with the gentleman’s obvious importance. In Elizabeth’s opinion, there was a strong likeness between his lordship and Lady Catherine. They both had the same aristocratic features, but in Elizabeth’s opinion, the cut of their noses and jawlines was more attractive on the gentleman than they were on her ladyship.
“What the deuce are you doing, Catherine?” he demanded of his sister without even an acknowledgement of Elizabeth’s or the Collinses’ presence in the room.
The invisible servant, Elizabeth thought. She had often heard her father say those words in a derisive manner when observing others’ treatment of the working class. Now, she fully understood his contempt. The earl completely ignored her presence in the room, marking her place in his esteem, despite her being a gentleman’s daughter.
“I expected to discover you removed to the dower house,” the earl continued. “Never thought you would take it upon yourself to set up such an uproar.”
“I have not had enough time to make my move official,” Lady Catherine protested.
“Nonsense,” the earl countered. “Anne, rest her soul, passed some fourteen months prior. Darcy has provided you more than enough time to vacate the manor house. Sir Lewis left everything to Anne. This house and estate have been your daughter’s, not yours, for some seven years. Rosings Park does not belong to you. It never has. From the day Anne met her majority, Rosings no longer was yours to oversee. You must come to terms with this situation. My God, you are a Fitzwilliam. We do not condone such hysterics. In her kindness, Anne erred in allowing you to remain in the role of the Mistress of Rosings Park, but, you must understand, legally, you cannot remain at the manor house. Darcy has the right to demand your withdrawal. If you do not comply, he can have the magistrate force you from your home. Save your dignity, Catherine, and do what is necessary. Such would be our father’s expectations for his eldest daughter.”
“Darcy,” Lady Catherine hissed. “I am certain I have learned to detest that name! How can it be lawful for him to claim everything simply because he was Anne’s husband? I am Anne’s mother. Should I not have some rights to a home I have nourished and cherished since my wedding day? Darcy has only visited Rosings when it was necessary. He holds no allegiance to the estate.”
“It was your wish for Darcy to marry your daughter,” the earl reminded his sister in cold tones. “You cannot deny that it was so. When George Darcy was still alive, Darcy’s father denied the connection, but, with George’s death, you again began to badger the boy into marrying Anne. You knew Darcy would never make Rosings Park his home seat when his ancestral home is in Derbyshire, and the life blood of that estate runs through his veins. You wanted Rosings for yourself. And that is exactly who you must blame for this fiasco.”
“He carried Anne off to Derbyshire, without even as much as a by your leave,” her ladyship argued. “Darcy was to protect her, not kill her. You know he poisoned Anne.”
Elizabeth could not disguise her gasp of surprise. However, before anyone took notice of her presence in the room, Charlotte caught Elizabeth’s hand and tugged her further along the passageway.
“You are to forget what you just heard,” Charlotte warned. “This is none of your concern. None of mine or Mr. Collins’s concern beyond our duty to Lady Catherine as her tenants. We owe my husband’s living to her ladyship.”
Although Elizabeth would not soon forget the remark nor her questions regarding Mr. Collins’s pandering to Lady Catherine, she understood the unspoken words: Mr. Collins’s living depended upon what occurred between Lady Catherine and the unknown gentleman by the name of Darcy. “Certainly, Charlotte,” she whispered. “You are correct. I shall do nothing to jeopardize your position in the neighborhood.”
“Mr. Collins and I will be expected to assist her ladyship,” Charlotte reiterated. “It grieves me not to be in a position to entertain you properly.”
Elizabeth dutifully said, “I shall be content to walk the park and to learn something of the Kentish countryside.”
Charlotte nodded sharply. “It shan’t be a total solitary endeavor. My brother John has been presented leave from his duties with the Dover militia. He thought to return to Hertfordshire, but I convinced him to visit with me instead. I hope you will not mind that I have asked him to spend time with us at Hunsford Cottage.”
Elizabeth prayed Charlotte did not mean to push for an alliance between Elizabeth and John. She knew her mother and Lady Lucas often connived to place Elizabeth in John Lucas’s way. She adored the young man, but only in a “brotherly” manner. She had not set her cap for him.
“Devilish rum business,” Lord Matlock’s voice reached them again before Elizabeth could respond. “But Darcy has his rights. You chose to force his hand, and, now, you must live with your manipulation. Our nephew married Anne. It is not his fault your daughter died in a little over half a year of pronouncing her vows. Even though they held nothing more than familial affection for each other, who is to say they might have made the best of it for the remainder of their days—mayhap they would have had a half-dozen children. That might have satisfied you to have grandchildren about you. Might have softened your nature. However, I do not think such a marriage would have made either Darcy or Anne happy. Like it or not, Catherine, they did not suit. Darcy adored his parents, and, whether you wish to recognize it or keep fooling yourself, George Darcy and our younger sister Anne were happy together. They loved each other deeply. Your belief that he should have chosen you instead of Anne—that you should have been mistress of such a breathtaking beautiful estate as Pemberley—is what drove you to force Darcy and your daughter together. You made your bed, now, you must lie in it.”
“Why did you not say all this beforehand—before my Anne’s marriage?” Lady Catherine demanded.
“I did say it, as did Lady Matlock, and my sons. You simply chose not to listen because you wished to be mistress of Rosings Park and use your courtesy title of ‘Lady Catherine’ from your reign as the daughter of an earl, rather than become the Dowager Lady de Bourgh,” the earl clarified. “Demme it, Catherine, with Anne’s passing, you did not even need to take on that dreaded stigma of ‘dowager.’ You could have simply been ‘Lady de Bourgh,’ a baronetess in your own right.” A long silence followed before Lord Matlock asked with a hint of sympathy, an emotion missing earlier from his voice. “Darcy is not the vindictive type. The boy says he has plans for Rosings Park that will provide you additional funds as part of your widow’s pension for the remainder of your days. Permit Darcy to tend the estate. It is admirable how you have handled Sir Lewis’s holdings for so long, but the political environment has placed even the wisest of land owners in this great kingdom at a disadvantage. If you heard half of what I do in the House of Lords, you would gladly step back from this charge. Permit Darcy to shoulder the responsibility. Accept the use of the dower house and enjoy your days without all these duties hanging over your head. Better yet, choose Bourgh Hall and join Society in London. There was a time you enjoyed the Season and all it brings. Allow the boy to do the work and claim what is your due. You served your husband well. No one can say otherwise.”
“Do I possess a choice?” her ladyship grumbled in what sounded of sarcasm.
“None whatsoever,” Lord Matlock pronounced in a cold tone. His lordship clapped his hands together as if the business was finished. “Should I summon your butler and your maid to assist in your removal to Bourgh House?”
“As yet, I have not one foot in the grave. I am capable of removing to the dower house without your supervision. My staff is quite efficient. Moreover, Mr. and Mrs. Collins will make certain my orders are completed in a timely manner.”
“Mr. Collins?” the earl asked.
Charlotte shoved her husband toward the still open door just as Lady Catherine declared, “Mr. Collins.” As if she suddenly recalled their presence in the room, the mistress of Rosings Park called out, “Mr. Collins? Where are you?”
“Here, my lady.” Collins bowed deeply as he stepped into the framed doorway.
“Tell his lordship you mean to assist me in this ugly business,” Lady Catherine ordered.
Elizabeth watched in amusement as Mr. Collins swallowed hard. He bowed again, nearly falling over in his obeisance. “Mrs. Collins and my cousin Miss Bennet will consider it not only our Christian duty, but, also, our pleasure to be of assistance to Lady Catherine in whatever manner necessary.” Mr. Collins motioned Charlotte and Elizabeth to join him in the doorway.
Elizabeth was just in time to note how the earl rolled his eyes when Mr. Collins bowed a third time in less than a minute. Dutifully, Elizabeth followed Charlotte in a curtsey.
Having recovered some of her renowned bravado, Lady Catherine said, “I have only been notified this very day that the necessary cleaning and painting at Bourgh House has been completed. As Darcy initially indicated I might remove at my leisure, I did not press the workers in their task.”
Elizabeth thought her ladyship’s reasoning foolish to assume, but she made no comment where her opinion would not be welcomed.
Lord Matlock shook his head in a disapproving manner, however, confirming Elizabeth’s opinion without it being voiced.
Lady Catherine quickly added in excuse, “I have not heard from Darcy for nearly a month.”
Lord Matlock overrode her objection by saying, “I dare say Darcy means to be in Kent by tomorrow, and I doubt you are not aware of his arrival. The boy has not one spontaneous bone in his body. We both know Darcy is not the type to appear without notice. You were informed, but chose to ignore the message. You have wasted your time, your ladyship. You have acted in denial of the inevitable.”
“Yet, there is no means for me to leave Rosings for, at least, another week.”
“You cannot demand that Darcy stay at the local inn. It would be little-minded to demand he do so. You will make everyone in the family, including you, uncomfortable. Making them choose sides will not be a wise choice if you cherish your dignity.” He returned his gloves to his hands. “Yet, I doubt you much care for the opinion of others. You never did. Therefore, as I am not required in this matter, I will return to London.”
“Will you not, at least, stay for tea?” her ladyship countered.
“My countess has a supper planned this evening. If I press my horses, I could be there in time for the first course.”
Lady Catherine drew herself up in obvious indignation. “Then you held no intention to be of service to me.”
“I would have stayed if you were not so headstrong, but I do not care to argue with you. You cannot be swayed. As to the supper, Lindale promised to assist his mother, but you know the nature of my eldest son.” With that, the earl brushed past Elizabeth and the Collinses without even a nod of his head in recognition. A quick glance to Lady Catherine noted a crestfallen expression for the briefest of moments, which was quickly replaced by aristocratic arrogance.
A pregnant moment passed before Charlotte found her voice and moved forward to curtsey again to Lady Catherine. “With your permission, your ladyship, I shall ring for tea, and we will assess how best to proceed in solving your dilemma.”
“Yes . . . yes,” her ladyship stammered. “You are very kind, Mrs. Collins. It appears even my own brother means to see me removed from the house that has been my home for nearly thirty years.”
GIVEAWAY: I HAVE TWO eBOOK COPIES OF THE MISTRESS OF ROSINGS PARK AVAILABLE TO THOSE WHO COMMENT BELOW. THE GIVEAWAY ENDS AT MIDNIGHT EST ON THURSDAY, JANUARY 7, 2021. WINNERS WILL BE CONTACTED BY EMAIL AFTER THE BOOK RELEASES.