One of my favorite characters in Downton Abbey is the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, and I’m betting that many of you share my affection for her. Despite the fact that she’s single and elderly, she wields a powerful influence in the Crawley household, and indeed within the whole community. She is widely quoted online and has a lot of memes dedicated to her. I sometimes wonder if Downton’s writer, Julian Fellowes, didn’t get some of his inspiration for the Dowager from Jane Austen’s novels.
While it’s obvious that Jane Austen wrote about single women, it’s not quite as obvious that some of the most powerful secondary characters in her novels are also single women, particularly older, wealthy widows. Many of these characters play antagonistic roles in the books, preventing the main characters from achieving their goals, but there are also powerful single women who do quite the opposite. I’d like to examine some of these secondary characters today.
Jane Austen’s novels make it obvious that a rich widow could be a formidable force in society. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the most obvious example among these, but I can also point to Fanny Price’s Aunt Norris in Mansfield Park, Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility, and Lady Russell in Persuasion. Though each of these women could be regarded as mentors and benefactors to other characters, they could also be menaces.
Clearly, much of the rich widow’s influence had to do with her money. Mr. Collins fawns over Lady Catherine, hoping to secure a share in her wealth, which makes him a laughing stock for Elizabeth and her sisters. In Persuasion, when the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple comes to Bath, Anne’s father insists they pay her a visit although they have never met her before. Maria and Julia Bertram similarly seek to please their Aunt Norris, who turns out to be a source of monetary support for both of them. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings supplies the means for Marianne to go to London, where she hopes to find Willoughby.
Like Elizabeth setting Lady Catherine straight in Pride and Prejudice, other Austen characters show their inner strength by refusing to bow to the whims of the rich widows in their lives. This is most obvious in Mansfield Park when Fanny refuses to comply with the wishes of her aunt, who insists, among other things, that she participate in a questionable play and marry Henry Crawford. At the end of Persuasion, Anne must stand up to Lady Russell and prove her case for marrying Captain Wentworth.
One of my favorite widows in Jane Austen’s books is Mrs. Smith, Anne’s former schoolmate. Though she was once a woman of wealth, she has fallen on hard times, due to the fault of Mr. Elliot. But what she lacks in wealth, she makes up for in knowledge and experience. Her advice to Anne drives the plot, rescuing Anne and her family from Mr. Elliot’s influence.
Jane Austen certainly makes widowhood look like an enviable position. The wealthy widow seemed to enjoy freedom and power that most women could only imagine. They were not subject to entailments that left the family fortune to male heirs, nor did they have husbands to control their choices. Rather, they seemed to be able to step into the role their husbands once occupied. As Emma said, “a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else.” I wouldn’t be surprised if there were quite a few women in Regency society who aspired to wealthy widowhood, hoping to become as powerful as Lady Catherine or Mrs. Jennings. What do you think?