Thursday, 20 August 2015

Maiden Ladies

For three hundred years, until the latter part of the Twentieth Century, respectable maiden ladies were an established part of the British social scene. This large class of people was created by the dowry system, followed by the First World War.

Until that war changed everything, there were few decent employment opportunities for females. Commercial institutions and professions were closed to them. Therefore, good class fathers had to buy husbands for their daughters. In return for a dowry, the bridegroom would agree to keep the bride in the style to which she was accustomed. Divorce was difficult, considered disgraceful and rare. The amount of the dowry was based on what the father could afford and the lifestyle of the bridegroom. The higher his status, the greater the dowry the husband would require. His wife took his status and so could not marry beneath her own. The problem for the father was thus finding a husband good enough for her, who would accept the dowry on offer. This often proved impossible.

As a result, a third of good class females could not find husbands and became maiden ladies. Amongst them were three daughters of King George III and Jane Austen. When the father died, he would leave his estate to his eldest son, who would be morally obliged to provide for any unmarried sister (as Jane Austen’s brother did).

An added problem was that the bride had to be a virgin, otherwise the husband would be entitled to a double dowry! So when being introduced to suitors, she would have to be accompanied by an older female chaperone. Once a binding engagement had been concluded, she might let herself go. That is why breach of promise to marry attracted large damages for the wronged woman, because her reputation was sullied resulting in her father having to find a replacement husband for an increased dowry. In the early Nineteenth Century, weekend “Regency House Parties” were held to introduce unmarried good class females to potential husbands. The girls’ fathers would hire older married women to accompany their daughters as chaperones and report back on the men. Some of these women took their duties to the extreme; they road-tested the suitors by copulating with them to check their potency! In southern Italy this test was performed by the girl’s mother. She required the potential husband to penetrate her!

The First World War swept away the dowry system in the United Kingdom by removing most gender discrimination, though it survived in France until the Second World War, and continues in both Greece and India. That war, however, brutally replicated the shortage of potential husbands by killing a million nubile British men. The surplus single women had to support themselves in the professions newly opened to them eg schoolteacher. The novel The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie refers to this. Finally, the permissive society of the 1960s, promiscuous females and the availability of men, ended the whole sad business.

While it lasted, however, it was important. The large class of idle, single, good class ladies had to (at least ostensibly) live like nuns and so devoted themselves to trivial pursuits. Gilray produced a print showing a group of them attending the funeral of a cat!

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