For the gently bred female, marriage was the only acceptable occupation, and all aspects of her life reflected that fact. Her childhood would be spent quietly at home, sheltered from most social interactions, keeping her pure and untainted. At about the age of sixteen though, everything changed. The schoolroom was set aside, and she would be come-out into the world of the marriage market.
Preparing for Courtship: Becoming Accomplished
Prior to coming out, a young woman was not to call attention to herself. She dressed demurely, often with a deep-brimmed bonnet that hid her face. Young men in particular were not to pay her any notice. She would not speak to adults unless asked a question. Effectively she did not exist in society.
During her early years, a young woman’s focus would be directed toward learning those skills that would make her a marriageable woman: a social asset to a man and able to effectively run a household. She might be sent to school for a few years, after the age of ten, but often a governess or the girl’s mother handled her education from home.
To run a household, a girl needed to be able to read and write; elegant penmanship was of course a plus as her letters could be widely read. She would need to sew, with decorative needlework an added bonus. As the keeper of the household accounts, she needed sufficient understanding of mathematics to manage household ledgers. Gardening, food preservation, the work of servants and household remedies could also prove quite useful.
To be a social asset, and considered ‘accomplished’ a girl needed more. Singing and playing an instrument would allow her to entertain her husband’s guests. Her drawings and paintings would decorate her husband’s homes. By speaking French and possibly Italian, she could converse elegantly on the history, geography, literature and poetry with which she had been made familiar.
Girls were warned, though, to “be ever cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume superiority over the rest of the company. But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.” (Gregory, 1774)
Debut into Society
Being ‘out’ demanded both financial resources and the assistance of friends and connections to extend invitations and make introductions. A family with several daughters might easily be spread too thin if more than one girl were out at once. It also offered the embarrassing possibility that a younger daughter might receive an offer of marriage before the elder. So, younger sisters often waited until the elder was at least engaged, if not married, before coming out. But if an elder daughter had several seasons out without an engagement, parents might allow a younger girl to come out as well.
There was no single established way for a young woman to make her entry into society. Girls in the highest levels of society might expect to come out during the London season, starting around sometime after Christmas. She could anticipate a ball in her honor and an official presentation at court to the sovereign. Court presentation required a sponsor and a very specific (and expensive) presentation gown. A whirlwind of society events would follow, all in the hopes of attracting the notice of the right sort of gentleman.
Girls in lower social strata came out with somewhat less pomp and circumstance (and expense). A girl’s parents might plan a ball or party in her honor. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s uncle held a ball in honor of her and her brother which marked her coming out.
A major event was not necessary, though. A mother might simply allow a girl to begin pinning up her hair (a sign of adulthood) and begin accompanying her on her morning calls and social events to indicate she was out in society. At these events, parents, friends and acquaintances would essentially show her off to potential suitors, for, once a girl was out, a courtship might begin at any time.
Meeting Potential Suitors
Being ‘out’ allowed a girl to establish formal acquaintances. Until a formal acquaintance was recognized, individuals could not interact. Formal introductions by, a third party acquainted with both were essential.
Though it might seem cumbersome to modern sensibilities, introductions provided a means by which young ladies might have some control of social interactions. The men had the power of “chusing whom they may address, and (women) of rejecting whom they may dislike.” (Gener, 1812)
Young ladies needed this option as not all acquaintances might pursue noble design. Not surprisingly, women of fortune were particular objects of pursuit, especially by younger sons not eligible to inherit the family estate. One such man, under the pen name of ‘A Younger Brother’, went so far as to publish, A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory in 1742.
The book contained a list of London heiresses, their expected fortune and the general location of their residence. The Younger Brother advised:
“Thus Gentlemen, have I in the following Sheets I think, opened a fair Field for Action for you; a fine Choice and a fine Collection of Ladies; — Open the Campaign directly then yourselves, that my next may be a new Sett. I have one favour to beg of you, and then I take my Leave; that no one of you, of what Degree soever, presume to attempt the Lovely Charmer I dedicate to; as to the Rest, I heartily wish you all Success …”
An Alternative to Traditional IntroductionsNot everyone enjoyed success in the efforts to meet prospective suitors. Some lacked the family or social connections to do so. Others simply desired an economical alternative to the marriage mart. For them, matrimonial advertisements could provide the solution. Though some viewed the practice as anything from indelicate to dangerous, men and women from every age group and social class placed advisements.
Some advertisements emphasized the seeker: a woman of considerable accomplishments and easy independency, a man of respectable rank. While others requested specific characteristics for the applicant: an income equal to his/her own, age not less than 30, no more than 35, an agreeable partner. Meetings might be arranged by a third party or by the matrimonial advertiser him or herself. A single interview might be all that was required to secure a proposal of marriage.
It comes as no surprise that matrimonial advertisements were not always safe. The sensational 1827 case of the Red Barn Murderer, William Corder, involved a marriage through just such an advertisement. His wife, Mary Moore, who met him through an ad in the Morning Herald, discovered he had murdered his previous lover and buried her body in a barn.
Despite the risks, the difficulties of introductions and courtships insured matrimonial advertisements continued as a popular way to find a marriage partner.
For the more traditionally minded, once a suitable introduction was made, a courtship might begin. The next installment of this series will examine the extensive rules governing courtships in the Regency era.
ReferencesA Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory by a Younger Brother, published in 1742.
Gener, S., and John Muckersy. M. Gener, Or, A Selection of Letters on Life and Manners. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: Printed for Peter Hill ..., A. Constable & and A. MacKay ;, 1812.
Gregory, John. A Father's Legacy to His Daughters By the Late Dr. Gregory, of Edinburgh. The 2nd ed. London: Printed for W. Strahan ;, 1774.
M. Y. Some Remarks on Matrimonial Advertisements Being an Inquiry into their Use and Abuse. London: Sedding and Turtle, 1832.
Morning Post, November 27, 1811.
Morning Post, December 19, 1822.
Darcy's Decision, The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn, Remember the Past, and Mistaking Her Character. Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.