Whether you’re watching Downton Abbey, reading a novel set in nineteenth century England, or keeping up with the Royals today, sooner or later, you’ll run into a dowager. Often times, literature and productions show them as silver-haired ladies with a will of iron. But that wasn’t always the case.
Take the lovely Lady Hascot of my upcoming release The Husband Campaign. Caro married Lord Hascot, who had a twin brother named John. When her husband died, John became the new Lord Hascot. Caro remains Lady Hascot, but once John marries, she is the dowager. A young, curvaceous, cunning dowager who causes no end of trouble, but that’s a story for another time.
So, what exactly is a dowager? The term originally applied to a widow who could apply for dower, or a certain portion of her husband’s estate that would be hers to use while she lived. So some estates had a dower cottage, a house where the dowager might live after the new title holder moved into the larger house. Although dower was still legally supported in nineteenth century England, more often families arranged matters of what the wife would inherit before the wedding in marriage contracts. The term dowager, then, was generally used to distinguish between two ladies whose husbands had held the same title.
For example, if Lord Whistlewait marries Amelia Peascoat, she becomes Lady Whistlewait. Let’s say they have a charming son named Horace. When Lord Whistlewait dies, Horace inherits his father’s title and proposes to his one true love, Constantinople Trubadore. Dear Connie now becomes Lady Whistlewait, and Horace’s mother becomes the Dowager Lady Whistlewait.
Now, there is some question as to whether the term was ever used to the lady’s face. Then as now, most women who became dowagers were of a certain level of maturity to which I am currently aspiring. As you can imagine, not all ladies of such maturity took well to being called a dowager, even behind their backs. Certainly, if only one of the Ladies Whistlewait was present, there would be no need to mention the term dowager. Even if the two were together at an event, conversation might easily be arranged to avoid the potentially offensive term.
Could anyone offer a restorative cup of tea while I ponder becoming the Dowager Mrs. Scott?