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She's a widow, not a wife.

It had to do with the marriage contract and the fact that Lady Catherine de Bourgh isn't married: she's widowed. Widowed women could own property.

Women like Lady Catherine Fitzwilliam (to give her maiden name) were married off under contracts. A standard contract would pass land along to the husband with the marriage, but not free and clear in that he could use and control it, but he couldn't sell it.

The standard contract provided that if the wife predeceased the husband, the land would be inherited free and clear by the oldest son or, barring sons, to all the daughters equally. Usually the husband would be given a "life interest", which meant he could live on the land for the rest of his life but could not control it after his son reached 21. If there were no children the land would usually revert back to the wife's most senior surviving male relative, again with a "life interest" clause.

If the husband predeceased the wife, which was much rarer in the 1800s than it is now, the land would again go to either the oldest son or to the daughters en masse, but the widow would have a life interest.

AnswerI believe the above answer is incomplete and misses a subtle, but important, point. As a literary device, the real point is not whether or not Lady Catherine owns the property, but that it is not entailed. For practical purposes she may do anything she wants with it except, perhaps, dispose of it without passing it to her daughter.

Lady Catherine and her family offer an interesting counterpoise to the Bennet family. If Mr. Bennet predeceases his wife, neither his wife nor his daughters inherit anything at all of the estate, because it is entailed, meaning it must pass to a male heir. By contrast, as Lady Catherine herself points out at Elizabeth's first dinner at Rosings (Volume II, Chapter VI) "...I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. -It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family."

Mrs. Bennet was given an inheritance of 4000 pounds from her father, and this will be divided at her death among her children (it becomes 5000 in at least one of the films). Aside from that, none of the women in that immediate family will have any inheritance because the father's estate is entailed to a male heir. This is why Mrs. Bennet talks of their being turned out on Mr. Bennet's death, and particularly why she was so anxious for one of her daughters to marry Mr Collins.

By contrast, Lady Catherine's estate will pass to Anne de Bourgh, who will be sole heir. And this is why a marriage between Miss de Bourgh and Mr. Darcy would unite the two estates.

The difference arises from the differences in the ways the wills were drawn up by ancestors of the two estates. The Bennet ancestor entailed the property to male heirs only (as was common). The de Bourgh ancestor did not, which allowed it to come into the possession of women.

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Q: Why could Lady Catherine de Bourgh own property when other women could not?
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