Officially the widow of a peer is known as the Dowager Countess (or whatever) of X, unless there is already a dowager peeress of the family still living. In the latter event, the widow of the senior peer of the family retains the title of Dowager for life, and the widow of the junior peer in that family is known by her Christian name, e.g., Mary, Countess of X, until she becomes the senior widow.... When the present peer is unmarried, by custom the widow of the late peer continues to call herself as she did when her husband was living, i.e., without the prefix of (a) dowager, or (b) her Christian name. Should the present peer marry, it is usual for the widowed peeress to announce the style by which she wishes to be known in future.Now, on my father's side I am descended from a long line of Austrian tailors and rabbis, ghetto-dwellers who didn't have a last name until the government imposed one upon them. But on my mother's side I trace my ancestry right back to Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, who came over on the Mayflower. I can therefore say with some assurance that my ancestors fought and died so that I would never have to concern myself with the intricacies of the British peerage. And though I have been known to read reference works for fun, I don't get much of a kick out of this kind of thing. The most I get out of it is a kind of doomed, righteous feeling, such as St. Blaise might have had as those pagans closed in on him with the wool combs. No, I have to read this stuff because I'm editing a Regency romance.
In case you don't know it, a Regency romance is a romance that takes place during the Regency period, which is to say the period of the reign of Prince George IV, who was regent because his father, King George III, was crazy. This period lasted from 1811 to 1820, and was characterized by extreme opulence, which is why romance authors like it. It was also characterized by, on the other end of the social spectrum, crushing poverty, child labor aplenty, and a laissez-faire business model that made fourteen-hour workdays the norm, but romance authors tend to gloss over that part and focus instead on the glittering oligarchy and its gorgeous costumes. Particularly the gorgeous costumes -- and the slang: barely a chapter of some Regencies goes by without someone developing a tendre for someone else or causing a hum or mentioning that Lord Potsticker's eldest son holds his vowels.
Tedious? You bet! Especially given how much Regency authors get wrong. They throw in historical figures who were dead at the time the story takes place, or in another country; they push their characters through the steps of outdated dances, in ballrooms that won't be built for another fifteen years; they put into their mouths words like "semantics." It's all an excuse to talk about dresses and dukedoms, the way putting the Marx Brothers on a boat was just an excuse for them to impersonate Maurice Chevalier. I understand that. I understand that the author didn't want to write the Regency equivalent of Shogun or I, Claudius. But would it have been so hard for her to crack a book? Just one book? Ideally, it would have been one telling her that you can't become a duke by marrying a duchess. Because that's a major plot point, and it makes no freaking sense.
Reading: it's not just for other people!