Jane Austen closes the last chapter of Persuasion on a dark note with lines reminding her readers of the possibilities that were the daily reality of a martial wife.
“Anne was Tenderness itself;—and she had the full worth of Capt. Wentworth’s affection. His Profession was all that could make her friends wish that tenderness less; the dread of a future War, all that could dim her Sunshine.”
Yet, in this case, gentlewoman Austen’s concern appears to have been more for Anne’s heart than her actual wellbeing. Captain Wentworth was, after all, a successful post-Captain having made his fortune through the Royal Navy’s lucrative system of prize money. Once he had successfully pressed his suit, the good Captain likely had made ample provisions (as we are continually reminded in JAFF by Darcy pulling a sheaf of settlement papers from his pocket) for his new wife in the event that he never returned from a trip beyond the blue horizon.
Less so in the Canon…and more often in P&P variations where Colonel Fitzwilliam plays more than a supporting role…we are frequently reminded of a Regency woman’s financial uncertainty when she aligned herself with a military man. In the 21st Century, imbued as we are with the concepts of female agency and independence, we tend to focus with no little amount of schadenfreude upon the off-stage comeuppance for party-girl Lydia Bennet Wickham.
However, Austen’s readers in the early 19th Century would have considered the most difficult of all possibilities that the youngest Bennet girl in Napoleonic Great Britain could face—widowhood. As Austen herself understood after her father’s death in 1805, widowhood was a feature of daily life with about 12% of all households headed by widows. These women would encounter uncertain futures unless they had been fortunate enough to marry a man of means who could support them even in death.
On the other hand, while there were successful instances of Army officers and subalterns finding wealth through plunder (see the aftermath of King Joseph Bonaparte’s disastrous decision to bring the entire Spanish treasury with him to Vitoria), most lived a tenuous existence on the edges of tolerant families or, worse, barely ahead of the bailiffs. For an officer’s wife at home while her man was at the front, the difference between social position/survival and exclusion/poverty was separated by the King’s post delivering a letter from Headquarters.
The question of military widowhood had been a stark reality in Great Britain since 1792. However, until the British finally faced off against the Grand Armee in Spain after 1806, the bulk of the deaths had been absorbed by the Royal Navy. After Trafalgar in 1805 and the imposition of an effective blockade, the mortality burden necessarily began to shift toward the Army.
By 1810, nearly one sixth of all British males were under the colors. Wellesley was ramping up the Peninsular Campaign. With hundreds of thousands of men under arms at any time…and over 300,000 identified deaths from battle and disease over nearly a quarter century…the number of widows in British society substantially increased during the first two decades of the 19th Century. Nearly 12% of all households were headed by widows.
Death in battle, while glorious, was also an unmitigated financial horror for any family left behind. We are frequently reminded that Wickham may have hoped to sell his lieutenant’s commission (for which Darcy could have paid upwards of 500 pounds) to garner a nest egg. The common practice in the British Army—until the Crimean War demonstrated the cost of incompetent officers—was to allow the purchase of commissions for all ranks from Coronet to Colonel. This practice ensured the social hierarchy within the Army. The holder of that office could sell out (or up if he was able to purchase a promotion) for the prevailing rate.
Unless he died in battle.
Then the purchase price of the commission was forfeited to the government. The widow or family got nothing. Unlike Mrs. Bennet who would at least have her 5,000-pound dowry upon Bennet pere’s death, Lydia Wickham could, at best, expect an annual pension of 40 pounds from the Compassionate List—the charitable trust established by the King. However, these pensions were neither immediate nor guaranteed. Higher placed widows frequently had to fight for years to win pensions that rarely exceeded 120 pounds. Lady Fanny Nelson’s 2,000-pound annuity was beyond a rarity.
The post-notification options for most of these women were limited. Unless the widow discovered a tolerant bachelor or widower willing to ignore a probable lack of dowry and be willing to care for another man’s children, remarriage within her class was not an option. She might find a farmer seeking a mother for his children and be willing to house her and her children in exchange for companionship and labor.
Assuming she could raise the fare and have some funds to establish herself, a childless widow could emigrate to an area needing marriageable women. However, with the loss of the American colonies thirty years before, only the most adventurous women would venture to Afrikaans South Africa, HEIC-controlled India or the convict haven of Australia.
Jane Austen offered the clearest solution for educated gentlewomen widows: employment as a companion or governess. These, though, demanded connections and references something which many widows simply lacked. For if they had connections upon which they could depend, they may not have found themselves in the difficult straits their husbands’ deaths brought.
Yet, the widows of impoverished officers, non-gentlewomen or women estranged from their families were those whose choices were necessarily circumscribed and descended further into prostitution, crime and death.
I chose to highlight this situation in the aftermath of Waterloo as the now-widowed Lydia confronts the reality of widowhood sans a loving and supportive family such as hers. Please enjoy this edited excerpt from The Keeper: The Extraordinary Journey of Mary Bennet (2016). And please be sure to enter the drawing for a copy of the e-book by leaving a comment below. The giveaway will end at midnight EDST, March 23.
(((Prior to the events discussed in Chapter XXXVIII, George Wickham died heroically at Waterloo. Wellington acknowledged that “He saved us all.” General Richard Fitzwilliam had been sent with dispatches announcing the great victory. He carried Wickham’s corpse back to London.)))
Darcy House, London, Monday, June 26, 1815
Even in death, George Wickham would disrupt the best-laid plans of the Darcys and Bennets one more time.
The family had planned to depart for Derbyshire by Tuesday morning as soon as final arrangements for the transportation of Wickham’s coffin could be made. Trunks were pulled from the attics and the staff had planned to spend most of Monday packing for a lengthy stay in the North.
Mary descended from her chambers after checking on Lydia who, to Mary’s surprise, was dressed and prepared to join in the morning meal. The two were walking across the great hall entrance when Mr. Wilson purposefully turned the corner with two burley footmen in his wake. He pulled open the front doors onto a huge crowd filling the front steps of the Darcy mansion.
“Away with you. This is private property. Clear off,” he shouted.
“Oi—is this the Darcy House where Cap’n Wickham is to be found?” a voice called back.
Mr. Wilson looked down at the masses in stony silence.
“What is all this about? Mr. Wickham is of the Pemberley family, to be sure, but the poor man died in battle days ago,” the butler stated.
“Aye, we know that. We want ta see ‘im. Ta shows our respects, like.”
Wilson was at a loss for words. Finally he assumed his best Master Below the Stairs’ icy mien and replied, “I am afraid that is impossible. He will be moved to Derbyshire tomorrow. The family is in mourning, and I insist that you disperse at once.” With that he posted the two footmen at the bottom of the stairs and returned inside.
Mary asked, “What was that all about? How do they even know George’s body is here much less know enough to want to see him, a total stranger?”
“I have no idea Miss Bennet. Perhaps the Master will know more,” Wilson intoned.
The two women followed the butler into the breakfast room where Richard and Darcy were already eating.
Once they were seated, Richard rose to bring them rolls and pots of chocolate. Mary looked over at Darcy who was staring down at his plate but not eating, all the while drumming his fingers atop the newspaper that lay folded at his place. Mary cleared her throat to gain his attention.
“Excuse me Fitzwilliam, but Lydia and I just observed the most remarkable situation. There are dozens of people standing out in front of the house asking to see Wickham’s casket. Why would they want to do that? And how do they even know he is here?” she quizzed.
The Master of Pemberley in his most stern and displeased manner, unhappy at being made the center of a public spectacle, handed her his copy of The Times. With a long forefinger he pointed to the leader on the front page.
Waterloo Hero Rests In Grosvenor Square
Our correspondent has discovered from sources in Horse Guards
that Cap’n. George H. Wickham the hero of the orchards
by Chateau Hougoumont in Sunday last’s great battle now
lies in his coffin at Darcy House in Grosvenor Square. Rumor
has it that the Darcy family, with which the hero has had
a long connection, and with whom his young widow resides, plans
to move his body to Lambton, Derbyshire to be laid to rest
in his family plot.
Mary handed the newspaper to Lydia who read the column silently. As she made her way through the roughly written but heartfelt ballad, tears began to course down her cheeks. She looked at the faces around the table.
“We have to do something. I doubt if they will be satisfied unless they see the casket. Could we not put it on a stand under the front portico? They could file past on the street without coming onto the property.”
Darcy sat back, shaking his head.
“Everything I had ever thought of Wickham has been turned upside down. I had always expected lines of people wanting to see him, but only to demand payment of his debts. Oh, my apologies, Lydia. I am just not used to this new image of George.”
“Mr. Darcy, you need not ask forgiveness. Your true words cannot injure me. We all knew what George was about,” she soothed.
Within an hour, the body of George Wickham, late Captain in His Majesty’s Army, lay in state under the front portico of Darcy House. The coffin was draped with the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George. Two captains of Wellington’s Buffs—the 33rd Foot—stood at attention flanking the casket. The crowds began to file past without uttering a sound except a periodic “God, bless you Mr. Wickham.” And “You was a great ‘un Cap’n Wickham.”
Over the course of the next several hours, the line flowed along in front of Darcy House.
The queue was a cross-section of London life. Tattered street vendors stood in front of more substantial merchants. There were women of quality with their tailored dresses standing beside seamstresses who may have sewn the garments. Sad were the maimed veterans with pinned up sleeves or hobbling on pegs. But, most heart-rending were the widows—some old, but far too many young, few if any north of twenty.
Lydia was startled when she recognized one of the women in widow’s weeds. She grabbed her skirts and ran from the room, out through the door, past her husband’s casket and down the steps. The crowd parted and the line stopped. “That must be Mrs. Wickham!” “His wife has come out!” Scattered cheers broke out.
Lydia accosted the little lady, “Martha…Martha Smithvale? Is that you? Marty…oh my, I never knew that you had lost Billy. I am so sorry. How are you doing?”
Martha Smithvale raised her thin, hungry face up to Lydia’s, her hollowed cheeks bruising delicate features.
“Oh, Lydie, darling. You have my condolences. George did his best in the end, did he not? Billy has been gone over a year. He died in front of Toulouse the first time the Duke beat that bastard.”
Mrs. Smithvale seemed to deflate as she ended her speech and wobbled a little. Lydia grabbed her to keep her on her feet. As it was a typical steamy London June day, Martha had come out without stays. Lydia was astounded that she could feel every rib and vertebrae in the young woman’s body. She was starving.
Turning to look up the stairs where Mary and Mr. Wilson stood having followed her out, Lydia yelled, “Get Mrs. Wilson and a doctor now. Mrs. Smithvale needs to come inside and be looked after. Broth first. Food later once the doctor agrees.”
Once Mrs. Smithvale had been carefully escorted to a guest room, she was bathed and dressed in a fresh nightgown and tucked into bed. Lydia ran into Mrs. Wilson as the housekeeper was leaving the room with Martha’s clothes bundled in her arms.
“Are those Mrs. Smithvale’s clothes?”
“Yes, Mrs. Wickham. I was going to take them downstairs to wash them, but I fear they are so old they may not survive the soap. They are even thinner than the poor thing.”
Lydia took Martha’s dress and held it up in front of her. The light from the windows behind showed through the worn muslin. She grabbed the stockings. They are more darning and patches than hose. And her shoes—the uppers are split and sewn together with butcher’s twine. She pulled carefully cut pieces of newspaper out of the inside from where they had covered the gaps in the soles.
“Mrs. Wilson. Burn her smallclothes, and gently…very gently…soak and wash the dress and the stockings. When they are dry, please put them and her shoes in a box in my chamber. Mrs. Smithvale won’t wear these clothes again. But, I want them as a reminder.
“When she is ready to move about, we will find some of Mrs. Darcy’s older clothes for her. They are about the same size.”
Turning away from Mrs. Wilson, Lydia knocked on the door. A maid opened it. Lydia entered and saw Martha propped up in bed looking tiny against the fluffy pillows. The doctor was angrily packing his bag. He looked at Lydia.
“Mrs. Wickham, is it? My condolences about your loss,” he said gruffly, “I am Angus Campbell, physician.” He bowed. “And I am appalled. I spent my past years with the Highlander regiments sewing up men who were fighting so their wives and lovers could live and enjoy the bounty of a free people.
“Then I see this” pointing at Martha, “A wee small lady in her prime. Her only misfortune is that her husband accepted the King’s Shilling to keep her safe from the frogs. He takes a bullet and that is it. We forget all about her.
“Thank God you saw her. Another week livin’ like this, an she would have blown away in the next strong wind.”
Lydia began to cry. The Scot softened. His brogue deepened even more as he calmed.
“Ach, lass, I am so sorry. I ken how much strain ye bin under. But this sort of thing stirs my haggis. We’re no’ speakin’ o’ thousands o’ pounds here, but even a hundred a year could keep her from dyin’ in a gutter.”
Lydia gulped and asked, “What must we do right now, doctor? Don’t worry about my friend’s future. I will take care of her. But, how can we pull her back to us?”
Campbell smiled, “Well, t’is a gran’ hotel ye have here at Darcy House. I’d say a few days of broth and soft food like a good scotch egg an’ some porridge should get her back in fine fettle. Advance her diet if she seems to tolerate it. No big fancy meals, though. Just honest food. I’ll check back every day.” Turning to Martha, he smiled, “Your job now, my little one, is to rest an’ eat an’ get some meat back on your bones. Ye’ll be dancin’ the jig in no time.
“I will be takin’ my leave now. Ladies.” He bowed and left the room. Lydia sat on the bed next to Martha.
“Oh Marty. What happened to you? When you left Newcastle to go to your parents after Billy went with the First Battalion for France, I lost touch.”
Martha weakly replied, “For the first few months, it was all good. Mama and Papa and I picked up just like before I married Billy. The estate was not large, but it did turn about 1,500 pounds a year…enough to live comfortably. I got the news of Billy’s death in the spring of ’14.
“Then the fever came in summer. Both Mama and Papa died. Still, I thought I was secure. The estate was not entailed. All would come to me. Except, it turned out that Papa was not as good a manager as I thought. He had been borrowing money against the estate for years. When the will was read and his debts became known, I lost everything to the creditors—everything except the clothes on my back and a tiny fifty-pound bequest from my grandmother.”
She began to weep. “I tried, Lydie. I tried. I could not stretch fifty pounds to last a year. I could not find employment because even though I am a gentlewoman, I had neither connections nor references. Nobody would even speak with me, much less hire me.”
Lydia could not help but think how closely her story ran to Martha’s, although for Martha, her situation was caused by poverty not silliness. Well, it need not be the case.
“Marty…you are here now. And we widows have to stick together. You stay with me. We’ll figure out this facing the world on our own thing. You just rest now. You are safe and home.”
Laura Fairchild Brodie “Society and the Superfluous Female: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Widowhood.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 Vol. 34 No. 4 (Autumn 1994), pp. 694-718.
Robert Burnham & Ron McGuigan. The British Army Against Napoleon: Facts, Lists and Trivia, 1805-1815. (Yorkshire, UK, Frontline Books), 2010.
Amy Lynn Smallwood. “Shore Wives: The Lives of British Naval Officers’ Wives and Widows, 1750-1815,” Unpublished Thesis, Wright State University, 2008. Accessed from http://corescholar.libraries.wright.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1990&context=etd_all
Meet Don Jacobson:
Don Jacobson views life like Hemingway’s “Movable Feast.” There is so much to sample and experience. His literary output is as varied as his worldview. His fascination with cooking has led him to write cookbooks for hikers and boaters. His popular “The One Pan Gourmet” has been a bestseller for 20 years and is a favorite in the backpacks of Boy Scouts and Trekkers across the USA.
With his wife, Pam Whitfield, a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator, Don wrote “Roadcookin’: A Long Haul Driver’s Guide to Healthy Eating” which offers health and nutrition information as well as recipes for America’s Long-haul OTR truckers.
And, Don is an avid Jane Austen Fan Fiction fan! His “Bennet Wardrobe” stories put a new twist on the Austen canon–time travel. The magical transport ideas of C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and Susannah Clarke are expanded with a new device. Using it as the “MacGuffin”, the personalities of Austen’s secondary characters are allowed to grow to “satisfying” conclusions, although not necessarily in the Regency Era.
He lives in the Seattle Washington Area with his wife and rather large (24 pound–a puma?) cat named Bear. Don is an avid cyclist, riding dozens of miles every week in preparation for one-day Centuries (100 Miles) as well as multi-day charity rides like the AIDs Ride (500 miles) and the Make-A-Wish Michigan ride (300 miles). Don also enjoys entertaining friends and family with multi-course dinners with wine pairings throughout.