Mourning Becomes Elizabeth

It is probably a fatal sin to have your first P&P variation begin with Elizabeth as a widow. Not Mr Darcy’s widow, of course—that sin may be unforgiveable. But this Elizabeth isn’t the carefree Lizzy Bennet of the original. She is a widow with a past, with current responsibilities, and, in her own mind, no clear future.

To give you an indication of Elizabeth’s marriage before her widowhood, let me start with the Mistress of Netherfield’s opening lines:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that on escaping an unhappy marriage, a young widow will be delighted to remove to the dower house and lease the marital abode to a single man in possession of a good fortune, provided he looks elsewhere to fulfil his want of a wife.

From which you may gather that the widow’s past was not a happy one. Despite this, Elizabeth would spend the first months of her widowhood in mourning. No matter what her feelings were about her dead husband (and relief probably figured in there somewhere), society required she show his memory respect by donning black clothing and secluding herself.

Most of what we think we know about 19th century mourning customs are really those of the later high Victorian period, when, following Queen Victoria’s example after the death of Prince Albert, mourning became almost a life-long vocation. It certainly was for Victoria. By that time, mourning periods were set in stone: a widow wore deepest mourning (that is unrelieved black clothing in dulled, matte fabrics such as crepe or bombazine) for two years, before going into the muted greys and lavenders of ‘half-mourning’. Men, of course, got off more lightly by wearing black gloves and cravats, but then by the Victorian Age, men’s clothes were already so dark and dull, black gloves might even be considered an exciting sartorial change.

But in the Regency period, mourning was far less prescribed. Widows still tended to remain in a state of mourning for a longish time—up to a year was expected. In the cases where property was involved, the reason for such a long mourning period was because any posthumous child she bore in that time would be decreed by law to be her husband’s, and therefore deemed to be an heir. During that period she could still see her friends and family at quiet, private gatherings and attend church, but she wouldn’t be going to dinners and balls. After 18 months to 2 years, she would likely resume a livelier social life.

Regency fashion plates, such as those from Ackermann’s Repository, include some quite elaborate mourning gowns. Take a look at flounces and furbelows on these:

But unless the family was rich, buying elaborate mourning dresses was a most unlikely extravagance. Most people made do by dyeing existing clothing black, and removing all ornamentation from hats to retrim them with black ribbons and crepe. Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra several times mention the arrangements they are making to go into mourning. In one, their mother is described as having “…picked her old silk pelisse to pieces, and means to have it dyed black for a gown…” Such thrift was not unusual.

In Mistress of Netherfield, James Grayson had been persuaded (cough! You’ll have to read the relevant chapter to discover the moral pressure put upon him) to leave his unentailed property—that is, Netherfield—in trust to his very young widow, who would have full control over the property when she came of age. Mr Bennet and Mr Philips being the principal trustees, Elizabeth was probably a great deal better off than most young widows in the Meryton area. I like to think that she had one specially-made dress, even if, like most young women, she did dye other dresses while she went through her enforced isolation from society.

I can’t imagine Elizabeth being quite as demure as this young widow, and she will certainly protest at the imposition of a widow’s cap, but I think I’ll allow her a dress this pretty and becoming. It’s rather better than the flounces and furbelows of most of the Ackermann fashion plates, and closer, I suspect, to Elizabeth’s restrained style.

Mistress of Netherfield is published TODAY, 28 June, and is available from an ebook seller near you. Find the bookseller of choice from this link:

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