Imagine a world in which marriage meant, quite literally, transfer of property from a woman to her husband. Now imagine that Lizzie, through clever management of her money, had managed to put together a small sum of money she intended to use to buy herself a small cottage. Then she married Mr. Collins.
The moment she pronounced the words “I will,” and signed that Church register, the money would no longer be hers. If Mr. Collins chose to use up every penny of it to buy gifts to give to his patroness Lady Catherine, he could do so. The money, from that moment, was his, as was every little thing Lizzie owned, except for some personal effects, or what was called “paraphernalia.”
Of course, we know that Lizzie didn’t save up any money. The only money that she “owned” was her share of Mrs. Bennet’s own marriage settlement — the £5000 settled on her and her children. And luckily, Lizzie didn’t marry Mr. Collins. By marrying Darcy, she was assured of a very comfortable lifestyle. Mr. Darcy would shower her with money. He would buy her jewelry. He would make sure she lacked nothing.
But supposing Mr. Darcy was out on the hunt, and his horse fell into a ditch, and very tragically Dary fell and broke his neck :Cry: – not an uncommon thing in those days – all before Lizzie had conceived a son. Or if Lizzie, like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, produced five girls and no son. What then?
Then Pemberley and everything in it, including all the jewelry Mr. Darcy bought her, would go to Mr. Darcy’s heir. In The Other Mr. Darcy, the heir is Robert Darcy, an American cousin. If Robert had taken over the estate, Lizzie would have to move back to Longbourn, of course. Like the in the case of the Dashwoods, where Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret were at the mercy of a verbal promise made by John Dashwood on his father’s deathbed, very quickly forgotten. Robert Darcy and his wife (if you’ve read the novel you’d know who that is, but no spoilers here) would move in and Lizzie would need Robert’s permission if she wanted anything at all from the household. Even the China set that Lady Catherine gave them as a wedding gift would belong to Robert.
Unless she had a Marriage Settlement.
Now don’t get me wrong. Lizzie would never, under any circumstances, be entitled to inherit Pemberley, any more than Mrs. Bennet or any of her daughters were entitled to inherit Longbourn. The heir to an estate like that had to be male. Being a gentleman by definition meant being part of the landed gentry. You couldn’t split up the land into portions because that would remove your basic source of income.
The bottom line was, as long as a woman was married and her husband was alive, any money she had received before or after the marriage was his by law. A marriage settlement was her only guarantee of owning anything at all in the event of her husband’s death.
A marriage settlement would most likely assign her the following:
1. Pin money. Mr. Darcy would sign an agreement that he would give her a certain amount of money a year as “pin money,” money that would be hers – separate from money to be spent on housekeeping – her pocket money, so to speak.
2. Her dowry could be held “in trust” which meant it would be kept intact and revert to her upon her husband’s death. So Lizzie’s dowry – her share of Mrs. Bennet’s money – would be hers if Mr. Darcy died.
3. Any money held in trust could be passed down to her children, particularly if they were girls, though of course Mr. Darcy’s daughters would be entitled to inherit anything unentailed from their father.
4. She may be entitled to “dower” money, a certain amount of money from the estate after Mr. Darcy’s death. The marriage settlement would specify how much.
5. The settlement would specify what she would receive in the event of remarriage.
This is why the first thing Mr. Gardner when Lydia and Wickham are to marry is arrange a marriage settlement. He writes to Mr. Bennet:
I am happy to say there will be some little money, even when all his debts are discharged, to settle on my niece, in addition to her own fortune.
Of course, we know there wouldn’t have been any money to settle on her, if it were not for dear Mr. Darcy. As we find out from Mrs. Gardner’s letter to Lizzie, it was Darcy who arranged for Wickham’s debts are to be paid “amounting, I believe, to considerably more than a thousand pounds, another thousand in addition to her own settled upon her, and his commission purchased.”
Lydia is more than fortunate to have Darcy given her some legal protection. This is something to bear in mind because if poor Georgiana had eloped with Wickham, she would have had no legal recourse at all. Wickham would have taken everything she owned, and she would have been left stranded if something happened to him. From being a rich heiress she would have become a pauper, because we can be almost certain he would have gone through her fortune in the blink of an eye. What a terrible mistake for a fifteen-year-old to make!
But to come back to Lizzie — there could be no doubt that Mr. Darcy would be very generous in any settlement on Lizzie. After all, as we know, he was madly in love. I’m just the tiniest bit curious, though, aren’t you?