Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Jane Austen Drinking Game -- Dowries

After seeing this skit a few years ago, we Austen fans in the family could never see one of her movies without continually calling out categories and raising imaginary glasses to our lips. Ah, the themes of Austen's world come up again and again, instructing us how important and ubiquitous they were in her times, and how much society has changed since then. So let us, and Dolly and Minerva, go through them, shall we?

The whole concept of dowry and bridewealth seems, at very least, degrading to the modern mind, although it continues to be practiced in many cultures around the world. It's interesting to see which cultures have adopted the dowry system (in which the woman brings goods to the man or his family) or the bridewealth system (in which the man brings goods to the woman and her family). It's also horrifying to see how dowries have become the root of terrible violence and abuse of brides, particularly in present-day South Asia. If we can abandon the modern mindset that the woman is being bartered in some fashion, they each have their merits.

In bridewealth cultures, the man must offer the woman's family a substantial amount of property in order to marry her, the rationale behind this being that the family is losing a valuable contributing member. This was common among North American native nations, as was reported by white "mountain men" who took native wives, and were required to come up with hefty gifts of horses, blankets, and such items. It is still common in many parts of Africa, where men must purchase cattle to offer to the woman's father.

The original purpose of a dowry was for her family to give her something to bring into her marriage in order to set up a home and have something to fall back on in case the marriage did not work out. It was also her inheritance, given to her as she left her family, rather than at the death of a parent. In Islam, a woman brings property into the union, but in case of divorce, she is entitled to take it with her. However, as laws or custom concerning women's property throughout the years have not been favorable to women, dowries became the property of the husband to do with whatever he wished. The higher up in society one went, in Regency times as an example, the more mercenary this trade became. The Prince Regent's marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick was nothing more than a way to pay off his looming debts with her dowry. In Jane Austen's social class, an inadequate dowry could seriously hamper a girl's prospects of landing a man of an equal or better standing.

The September 1813 issue of Ackermann's Repository has an interesting article on the question of dowries among the wealthy class. The author is definitely against the custom, but his solution (to forbid them altogether) ignores the most obvious remedy, to legislate equitable inheritance and ownership laws.

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