Tuesday, October 7
Mrs. Elton Sez: Entrenched Dowager Displaces New Mistress
Dear Mrs. Elton,
This letter describes a matter of utmost delicacy. Last year I was married to a most respectable man. I have known Mr. Weakpeace all my life and have been told since my days in the schoolroom that we were destined to be married. His father’s property and my father’s lands march side by side, and there was no question but that our union would be proper and right.
Just before our wedding, my fiance’s father died. This most unfortunate event not only put a pall on our engagement (we delayed the nuptials for two years at his mother's insistence) but it placed me in the most untenable position. I am mistress of the mansion in name and by law, but not according to my mother-in-law. Since our marriage a year ago, she has refused to remove herself to the dowager house. Indeed, she still presides at the lower end of the table, opposite my husband who sits at its head! She also consults with Cook as to the menu and with Mrs. Strong, our housekeeper, about the servants. I have been forced to relinquish my rights as mistress of the house. Worse, my husband fully supports his mama! As a consequence the servant treat me with barely concealed contempt.
My mother is incensed, for I am increasing and she feels I must fight for my rights before my lying in. However, my physician has cautioned me from becoming too excited, saying such humours cannot but bode ill for the child. Pray, what shall I do? What steps would you take if you found yourself in my unfortunate situation?
I await your reply most impatiently. Sincerely yours,
Mrs. George Weakpeace
My dear Mrs. Weakpeace,
What steps would I take? What would I do? Why nothing at all, Mrs. Weakpeace, because such a thing could never happen to Mrs. Elton. Can you conceive of a mother-in-law trying to take place of me? Or my caro sposo allowing such a thing to happen? Certainly not. Very fortunately, my husband's mother is dead, so it cannot be put to the trial; but in the event I do not approve of the older generation living with the younger. Do not you remember Miss Jane Austen quoting me in Emma, as saying, "Shocking plan, living together. It would never do. She knew a family near Maple Grove who had tried it, and been obliged to separate before the end of the first quarter." Yes, I did say that; I have always been famous for that sort of wisdom, and I still believe in it. You, I am sure, will not be the one to disagree with me, after your trying experiences of the last few years.
It is all very well using hindsight, but you ought to have known something was amiss when your future mother-in-law insisted on putting off the wedding for two years in deference to her dead husband. Two years! It should not have been two months. That should have warned you of trouble ahead, and certain sure, trouble came. But the worst sign, to my mind, is that never once in your letter do you declare that you love your husband, or that he loves you. You describe yourself only as biddable - you were told since your days in the schoolroom that you were destined to be wed. What girl of spirit in these modern times weds where she is told? Perhaps it was very right that you should marry; but where is the love in all this? The only love I see is your husband's mutual love with his mother, and not theirs for you.
You are in the unenviable situation of a loveless wife, tyrannized over by a triumphant mother-in-law. You cannot now win their love, as they are united in a formidable front against you. Gentleness and sweetness will avail you nothing; they will only persist in their present course. Fury and storming would be still worse, as you are bound to obey your husband; the only result of such unbecoming, unladylike, unwifely behavior would be the possible loss of your child - the child that is your only weapon.
A formidable weapon indeed, especially if that child should prove to be a son. For the numbers of opponents will then become more even. You and your son against your husband and your mother, is a far fairer fight than what you wage at present. Your son will be but a powerless child, you protest, and yet I tell you that every one, servants included, will bow to the rising, rather than to the setting, sun. Your position will immediately assume more importance upon your son's birth, and as sons generally love their mothers, you will have his protection and fealty as he grows older. My advice to you is to give the best possible attention to your health now; ignore the ill judging behavior of your husband, and the ill bred behavior of his mother, as if it does not exist; lie upon the sofa as much as ever you can, drink new milk, small eggs, and a very smooth gruel, as poor old Mr. Woodhouse always used to advise; and be a luxurious creature in every particular. If your mother-in-law wishes to be a bustling do-all sort of body, let her. You play a lady of leisure, read novels, and turn your mind to your children. You will find yourself respected, in the long run; and time is on your side, as your mother-in-law will die, and your household will be rid of its incubus at last. Depend upon it, her displacement is what she fears, but it is inevitable. If you have not the dignified bearing that would turn away insult, then practice
patience, and the worm will turn.
Your esteemed friend and well-wisher,
Mrs. Elton Sez is written/channeled by Austen-esque author Diana Birchall, whose latest book, Mrs. Elton In America, is now available. Please join her once a week for her sage and sometimes sardonic voice, as she graciously condescends to advise on a variety of subjects. Laurel Ann and Vic admit to channeling their Regency doppelgängers as they take turns writing the letters. They are usually surprised by Mrs. Elton's responses, whose mind is as unpredictable and lively as her tongue.
Curious to read more of Mrs. Elton's advice? Click here to enter the archives.