In John Gay’s 1728 farce, The Beggar’s Opera, when the jailer’s daughter bemoans her young husband’s sure execution and her impending widowhood, her father chides her: “Parting with him! Why, that is the whole scheme and intention of all marriage articles. The comfortable estate of widowhood is the only hope that keeps up a wife’s spirits. Where is the woman who would scruple to be a wife, if she had it in her power to be a widow whenever she pleased?” (1.10). Though Jane Austen might not have expressed herself as crassly as Polly’s father, Peachum, she too understood the potential benefits of being a widow with a handsome jointure, and her independent and active widow, Mrs. Jennings of Sense and Sensibility, certainly embodies “the comfortable estate of widowhood.” Through Mrs. Jennings, Austen portrays the pleasures and responsibilities of the comfortably well-off widow who is free to act on her own behalf and on the behalf of others in her fictional world.
A widow held a unique place among women in Austen’s England. A widow’s legal standing and resulting independence gave Austen license to use her widowed characters, including Mrs. Jennings, to convey a degree of feminine authority and freedom that would not be appropriate in married women. In 1765, Sir William Blackstone explained the status of married women under English law in his landmark multi-volume work, Commentaries on the Laws of England:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing. (430)
To put it simply, under English law, a single woman was recognized as a person, and a married woman was not. If and when she became widowed, a woman was once again a single person, able to act on her own behalf. One modern scholar certainly captures the irony of that eighteenth-century mindset when she writes, “A widow who has outlived her husband demonstrates a disconcerting robustness or at least a provocative independence” (Bloom 22). Whether a woman was left richer or poorer, one tradeoff for losing one’s husband was regaining one’s self according to the law. No longer submissive to a husband, a widow could operate outside the patriarchal structure, and exert her own authority—a woman’s authority. Austen uses this womanly authority to great effect in the gregarious, kindly Mrs. Jennings.
Austen introduces Mrs. Jennings as “a widow, with an ample jointure” (36). Mrs. Jennings’s jointure may be solely the generous provision of a considerate husband, or it may reflect a significant dowry she herself brought to their marriage years before. John Dashwood, who weighs all relationships in a monetary light, rates Mrs. Jennings as a woman “of good fortune” (267). When John has the audacity to suppose that Mrs. Jennings might leave part of her fortune to the Dashwood sisters, Elinor firmly replies, “‘Nothing at all, I should rather suppose; for she has only her jointure, which will descend to her children’” (226). The text points to the Jennings family’s having risen through trade to their current status by the time of Mr. Jennings’s death, some eight years earlier, indicating that they are new money (153). Mrs. Jennings might also have had an active interest in the business of her late husband, “who had traded with success in a less elegant part of the town” (153), understanding and sharing in his financial affairs. In relating to Elinor her history, including “all the particulars of Mr. Jennings’s last illness, and what he said to [her] a few minutes before he died” (54), Austen assures readers of this widow’s warm heart and affection for her husband. Mrs. Jennings says of herself,
“Aye, it is a fine thing to be young and handsome. Well! I was young once, but I never was very handsome—worse luck for me. However I got a very good husband, and I don’t know what the greatest beauty can do more. Ah! poor man! he has been dead these eight years and better.” (163)
Note that Mrs. Jennings does not say, “without money I married the best of husbands,” only without beauty.
At the risk of stating the obvious, all widows start off as brides. A widow’s fiscal well-being depended largely on financial agreements made many years earlier. Negotiations before marriage largely determined the jointure or dower rights and, consequently, the financial solvency a widow would enjoy later. Among the gentry, but also among the professional and mercantile classes, financial negotiations, or marriage settlements, were a necessary and expected part of courtship rituals. Before a wedding took place, representatives of both families would meet to draw up “marriage articles”—settlement documents detailing the amount of dowry to be provided by the bride’s parents, specifying when and how payable; maintenance for the couple until the groom would come into his inheritance, if he was not already independent; jointure provisions for his wife if left a widow; and marriage portions for children yet to be born. Depending on the wealth of the families and whether the groom was an eldest son, these financial arrangements could involve lengthy negotiations. A woman’s financial protection under the law depended on these marriage articles being settled justly. In a culture of primogeniture, entailment, and strict settlements, a woman could not depend on a husband’s regard alone to guarantee her financial solvency, because a man’s ability to provide for his widow and children could be severely impeded by the terms of his inheritance, as Austen so vividly fleshes out in the Dashwoods and Bennets.
The amount of a woman’s jointure usually related to the amount of her dowry, or portion, at marriage. The jointure would pay an annual income to the widow, and then upon her death, revert to her children as capital or freehold property, as mentioned in relation to Mrs. Jennings (226). Elizabeth Bergen Brophy explains, “The ideal was to guarantee the woman an income which would permit her to live independently in a manner suited to her station” (100). The commonly accepted ratio of dowry to jointure was about ten to one, or £100 for every £1,000 given in dowry, notes G. E. Mingay, but he also mentions that “[a]llowing for the years of marriage when the husband had the benefit of the dowry, the assessment of jointures in relation to the size of the dowry virtually made the wife self-supporting throughout her lifetime” (35). Susan Moller Okin observes: “The size of portions and the ratio between portions and jointures are of interest because of what they indicate about the changing distribution of power between those seeking a wife for a son and those seeking a husband for a daughter” (128).
Though the ten-to-one ratio of dowry to jointure might yield an annual income of £1,000 to a widow who had brought a £10,000 dowry to the marriage, if the income of that dowry alone, invested prudently, could be £500 annually, or half the jointure, critics of the system argued that dower, one third of the total estate, would in all likelihood yield a larger income. In lieu of specific marriage settlements, English law granted widows the right of dower in one third of their husband’s estates, though, as Gillian Skinner points out, “if there was a prenuptial settlement of jointure on the wife, her right to dower was automatically forfeited” (94). This common law right was increasingly set aside by the equity courts of Austen’s time, until finally abolished by the Dower Act of 1833. Karen Bloom Gevirtz considers the movement from dower to jointure as a move to preserve patriarchy: “Overall, the substitution of jointure for dower appears to have been more about limiting women’s inheritance than about providing for their security” (21). Susan Staves adds, “marriage settlements providing jointure were needed by husbands and husbands’ families in order to deny wives their common law rights to dower” (160). The primary difficulty with the dower system was how to grant a widow’s claim without impinging on the heir’s ability to keep the family estate intact and solvent. Also, keeping the widow out of the business dealings of the estate, whether land or trade based, was usually desirable to both the heir and the widow. A jointure allowed a widow to pursue her own interests, supported by a stable income, and to leave the work of the estate to the male trustees.
Well-situated financially, Mrs. Jennings appears to thoroughly enjoy her comfortable state of widowhood. Though her home is in London, the country is where the reader and the Dashwoods meet the talkative widow and form their first opinions of her as a comic character. Austen describes Mrs. Jennings as “a good-humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar.1 She was full of jokes and laughter, and before dinner was over had said many witty things on the subject of lovers and husbands” (34). This interest in getting husbands is a significant part of her character: “She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world” (36). Irene Collins notes, “Successful mothers sometimes became addicted to the marriage game, which provided an outlet for their managerial talents and an interest outside the narrowly domestic” (123). When Mrs. Jennings does return to her own home, those “managerial talents” are on full display, but while at Barton Park, her constant chatter about romances makes her appear frivolous and idle. Mary Poovey comments on this early, somewhat negative impression of Mrs. Jennings: “Until her compassion is necessary to the plot, even Mrs. Jennings seems dominated by a single uncontrollable desire, the hunger to live vicariously through the romantic attachments of her young friends” (189). A point often overlooked in Austen’s introduction of Mrs. Jennings is that she is a newly-arrived houseguest of her daughter and son-in-law, full of news, and on holiday, so to speak. She is in the country with no other obligation than to be happy and socialize, and she plays off the high social spirits of her son-in-law, Sir John.
Mrs. Jennings’s exclamations and homely idioms contribute to our impression of her vulgarity. Her conversation is peppered with “‘Lord!’” and “‘Aye!’” and “‘monstrous’” (112, 158–59), as well as indelicacies, such as referring to Charlotte’s impending confinement in mixed company (108, 163), and her too obvious pleasure in eating: “Lord! how Charlotte and I did stuff!” (197). Though her marriage-market/meat-market analogy, “‘One shoulder of mutton, you know, drives another down’” (197), referring to Brandon’s chances with Marianne once Willoughby is engaged, is a rather tactless expression to use to Elinor, it is really quite on the mark. Roger Gard observes that “it is one of the triumphs of the book that Mrs. Jennings is beautifully characterized by the way that her good deeds and good nature shine through the excruciating commercial and mundane metaphors which she coins to encapsulate the finer operations of the spirit in other characters” (83).
It’s not surprising that Elinor mistakenly fears that Mrs. Jennings will be a less-than-suitable chaperone in town, but she is pleased to discover a new side to Mrs. Jennings when they arrive at her London home. Paula Byrne notes, “Polite society in Austen’s time was predicated upon strict standards of decorum, particularly for women. Chaperoning was of vital importance for young women of marriageable age” (300). Mrs. Jennings, despite her supposed vulgarity, understands the importance of her charge and provides the sisters with affection and security. She assures Elinor of her watchful care and consideration of propriety: “‘when we are in town, if you do not like to go wherever I do, well and good, you may always go with one of my daughters’” (153). The last part of Mrs. Jennings’s comment, which could potentially be construed as flippant, instead reflects her awareness of social protocols, for Lady Middleton and Mrs. Palmer, as married women, would be highly proper and fitting escorts for the Dashwood sisters.
Mrs. Jennings appears far more socially respectable in the city and in her own home. Austen places Mrs. Jennings’s home in a specific part of London: “Since the death of her husband, who had traded with success in a less elegant part of the town, she had resided every winter in a house in one of the streets near Portman-square” (153). Edward Copeland notes that Mrs. Jennings’s residence is “a carefully considered address of great respectability. The widow of a successful merchant, she chooses Berkeley Street . . . as an address favoured by respectable gentry and successful professionals” (SS 470n1). He suggests that Mrs. Jennings’s later reference to Constantia wine in the cellar is a clue to her late husband’s having been a wine merchant (476n12). Mr. Jennings might have been in another type of business, but a wine merchant would be a favored, profitable trade, as John Dashwood happily discovers, declaring, “‘her house, her style of living all bespeak an exceedingly good income’” (226).
Austen, of course, often uses a character’s home and stewardship to reflect that character’s integrity, and Mrs. Jennings’s home environment follows that pattern. Mrs. Jennings values beauty, comfort, and utility, without ostentation: “The house was handsome and handsomely fitted up, and the young ladies were immediately put in possession of a very comfortable apartment” (160); “The Miss Dashwoods had no greater reason to be dissatisfied with Mrs. Jennings’s style of living, and set of acquaintance, than with her behaviour to themselves, which was invariably kind. Every thing in her household arrangements was conducted on the most liberal plan” (168). Even Fanny Dashwood is impressed by Mrs. Jennings’s style of living when she calls on the older lady (229).
Mrs. Jennings seems to be a good manager of a substantial establishment. Upon arriving home, she meets with her household staff right away. She has a household staff of at least six: Betty, her lady’s maid (153); Cartwright, the housekeeper or butler (163); the carriage driver (184); the footman (161); at least one housemaid to do the menial chores and cleaning, plus a cook (160). Apologizing to Colonel Brandon for her delay in receiving him, Mrs. Jennings explains,
“I have been forced to look about me a little, and settle my matters; for it is a long while since I have been at home, and you know one has always a world of little odd things to do after one has been away for any time; and then I have had Cartwright to settle with—Lord, I have been as busy as a bee ever since dinner!” (163)
Maggie Lane observes that Mrs. Jennings “is well-organized domestically” (125), but also surmises, “Though Mrs. Jennings now has all the money and all the servants she could want, she perhaps betrays a lowly start in life by the very great interest that she takes in the details of other people’s housekeeping as well as her own” (106). Mrs. Jennings’s detailed description of Colonel Brandon’s country estate would be an example of this keen interest, as she recollects the garden and fruit trees, fishponds, and his housekeeper’s accounting of the guest beds available (SS 196–97, 292).
Another indicator of a comfortable degree of wealth in Austen’s novels is whether a character owns a carriage. Copeland explains that £1,000 is the generally agreed upon minimum annual income to support a carriage at that time (Women Writing 31). Mrs. Jennings’s jointure is more likely in the £1,500 to £2,000 range, based upon her servants, well-appointed house, and lifestyle. She has a three-seat chaise, which is an enclosed four-wheel carriage suitable for long journeys (153). When in London, Mrs. Jennings converts the chaise to a chariot, with the driver’s seat attached to the carriage top, more formal and suitable for city driving (184). When Mrs. Jennings makes social calls in the city, a footman accompanies her to deliver her cards, announce her arrival, and assist her in and out of the carriage. For all her boisterousness and lack of pretension, Mrs. Jennings certainly understands and enjoys the decorum and civilities of upper-class London life. She lives in a very comfortable state of widowhood.
Roy Porter writes that wealthy tradesmen and businessmen were especially inclined to provide large portions for their daughters to encourage marriage into the gentry. Porter writes, “Up to £25,000 might be needed to hook a peer” (40). Christopher Clay discusses the rising wealth among the professional and merchant classes, which meant increasingly larger portions for daughters: “Such men were eager to purchase enhanced social status for their daughters and grandchildren by providing lavish marriage portions” (28). That sort of “marriage à la mode,” as famously portrayed by William Hogarth, became increasingly common as the eighteenth century progressed, partly as a result of generations of strict settlements, jointures, annuities, and portions, which might force a landowning father to look for a rich tradesman’s daughter with a large dowry for his son, to bring an infusion of cash into the family so that he could pay off debts and pass on the estate unencumbered.
This marrying of money to land and title seems to be the case with Mrs. Jennings and her two daughters. Both daughters have benefitted from London finishing schools, including lessons in music and art, and have married into landed society. Despite Lady Middleton’s incredible dullness, Austen refers to her “good-breeding and elegance” (32). Her earlier music education is evidenced by sheet music abandoned on the pianoforte—tasteful, classic pieces appreciated by both Marianne and Colonel Brandon (35). Charlotte has at least a silk landscape over the mantle and a fine interest in everything pretty to show for seven years “at a great school in town” (160). The Misses Jennings probably had marriage portions in the £10,000-15,000 range, judging from the landed wealth and status of their suitors and eventual husbands. Eldest daughter Mary wed Sir John Middleton, Baronet, of Barton Park; and the younger, Charlotte, married Thomas Palmer, Esquire, owner of Cleveland and candidate for Parliament. Charlotte candidly remarks to Elinor that Colonel Brandon would have liked to marry her (the narrator’s failure to comment on Charlotte’s story assures readers of the impossibility of any such thing), but Mrs. Jennings, according to Charlotte, did not consider Brandon a wealthy enough suitor with his £2000 a year and Delaford estate (116–17), an indication that Palmer and Middleton are worth more. Mrs. Jennings, benevolent and generous, is nonetheless, an astute financial manager and matchmaker.
Austen’s comic brilliance is on full display in the interactions between Mrs. Jennings and her sons-in-law, the boisterous Sir John and the dour Mr. Palmer. Mrs. Jennings can take raillery as well as bestow it. When Mrs. Jennings says that she and Sir John “‘should not stand upon such ceremony’” in regard to dinner invitations, Mr. Palmer has the audacity to say aloud, “‘then you would be very ill-bred.’” Even the obtuse Charlotte notices his rebuke and calls him on his rudeness:
“My love you contradict everybody,”―said his wife, with her usual laugh. “Do you know that you are quite rude?”
“I did not know I contradicted any body in calling your mother ill-bred.”
“Aye, you may abuse me as you please,” said the good-natured old lady, “you have taken Charlotte off my hands, and cannot give her back again. So there I have the whip hand of you.” (111–12)
Mr. Palmer is the one left looking foolish. The “good-natured old lady,” as Austen calls her, who deftly inserts a bit of “Parliamentary” humor (the whip hand), is quite aware of having gotten the best of Mr. Palmer: she enticed him to marry Charlotte by a large dowry, and he met her qualifications of social status, with a country manor and a house in town. Although Mrs. Jennings later comments, “‘I have no notion of people’s making such a to-do about money and greatness’” (259), and sincerely means it in her general outlook toward everyone, she nevertheless has arranged socially and financially advantageous matches for her daughters, despite the hilarity of their mismatched personalities. Mrs. Jennings traded up quite well for both Charlotte and Mary.
Because her actions and motivations are always benevolent toward the heroines of the novel, Mrs. Jennings defies the negative stereotype of the conniving and mercenary, status-driven city widow, as often portrayed in the eighteenth-century novel. Mrs. Jennings’s virtue does not depend on her environment but on her good nature. She counters Mrs. Ferrars (Austen’s “city widow”) and daughter Fanny with her kindness and generosity toward Elinor and Marianne. Not swayed by mere civilities, Mrs. Jennings accurately perceives Fanny Dashwood as “a little proud-looking woman of uncordial address” (229), and she shows little patience for Mrs. Ferrars and her treatment of Edward (268–69). Josephine Ross points out that “all the honourable characters in Jane Austen’s fiction place Christian values above ‘the distinction of rank,’ and points of etiquette” (215). Gevirtz adds that Mrs. Jennings displays a “redemptive maternalism,” making up for her conversational indiscretions by her care for the Dashwoods (161). When Mrs. Jennings cares for the gravely ill Marianne, the narrator reveals that Mrs. Jennings’s “heart was really grieved” when contemplating Mrs. Dashwood’s greater grief and pointedly adds, “Mrs. Jennings considered that Marianne might probably be to her what Charlotte was to herself, her sympathy in her sufferings was very sincere” (313).
Austen significantly develops Mrs. Jennings from a vulgar old tease to a competent, caring mother figure, while never quite letting us forget that this widow is a comic character. Wrapping up the drama at Cleveland, Austen writes that “Mrs. Jennings was summoned to her chaise to take comfort in the gossip of her maid” as she sends the good widow home to London (341). Mary Lascelles, in her classic work, theorizes:
When Elinor criticizes Marianne for her failure to see in Mrs. Jennings anything but a vulgar busybody, she forgets that she has herself been Mrs. Jennings’s severest critic—and I suspect that her author forgot it too, and, half aware later of what had happened, pushed her unruly creature out of sight and allowed no more to be heard of her in the close of the story than might remind us of the Mrs. Jennings of the opening. (150–51)
Lascelles seems a bit dramatic in claiming Austen “forgot” how she had used one of her key characters. Austen more likely considered Mrs. Jennings unnecessary and unsuited to the subsequent reflective scenes at Barton, but as the novel proceeds to a happy climax, she reintroduces the elderly widow’s voice through correspondence and her eventual presence in the comedic ending of wedding celebrations and housewarming visits. Far from pushing her offstage, Austen even gives Mrs. Jennings a mention in the penultimate paragraph of Sense and Sensibility, as she and Sir John anticipate future dances and romances for Miss Margaret Dashwood (380).
Austen’s development of Mrs. Jennings may be a bit disconcerting to some critics from the last century, but we can also credit her verisimilitude, because many with questionable manners are initially misjudged, only to reveal their true worth upon better acquaintance. Devoted readers know that Austen firmly believed “first impressions” might be prejudiced. Cynthia Griffin observes, “Both Elinor and Marianne make strongly hostile comments about [Mrs. Jennings], and yet, she is often sympathetically portrayed as a kind and generous person, thoughtful of her own family and almost excessively good to the Dashwood sisters” (47). By the end of the story, Marianne and Elinor both come to value their elderly friend and to appreciate her kindness and genuine concern for them.
Mrs. Jennings is undoubtedly one of Austen’s most delightful characters, from her exclamatory, “‘Lord! we shall sit and gape at one other as dull as two cats’” (280), to her sotto voce exit on tiptoe out of Marianne’s bedroom (192). This forthright and optimistic widow is a woman of action whom Austen uses to move her two heroines around, as she generously shares her home, her resources, and her company. Without a doubt, Mrs. Jennings lives exceedingly well, personally and materially, thanks to the autonomy of an ample jointure and the freedom of a carriage—marking her as Austen’s best representation of “the comfortable estate of widowhood.”
1Pat Rogers, editor of the Cambridge edition of Pride and Prejudice, explains the eighteenth-century use of the word “vulgarity”: “This sense of lacking in refinement had come into general use quite recently: it is not found very much in literature before the last third of the eighteenth century. Austen uses this same word, “vulgarity,” in describing Mrs. Philips, Mrs. Bennet’s sister, near the end of Pride and Prejudice, referring to Darcy’s need to put up with certain of Elizabeth’s relatives” (539n5).