Age at marriageVery wealthy men who did not need to establish themselves in the world might marry much younger women , but in general, (middle class) people married later than we might expect. Men usually delayed marriage until they were in a position to fully support a family. Sources put the average age of marriage between 23 and 27 for women and between 25 and 29 for men.
Postponing marriage had two unintended consequences. First, it reduced the overall birthrate and typical family size. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps as a result of this, “the early 19th century also saw a rising proportion of marriages between London businessmen and the daughters of the gentry... as many ancient families died out in the male lineage, an increasingly large number of heiresses appeared on the marriage market.”(Rendell, 2002)
Further, high mortality rates led to “a marital breakdown rate of a similar magnitude to that created by the large number of divorces today.”(Shoemaker, 1998) From the very poor to the very well off, death of a spouse was a common experience.
The Institution of marriage
In general, beyond the ideal of a good dowry, men were looking for wives to bear them heirs, manage their households and be good companions. Marriage, though, was also viewed as a potential trap for the man. He would allow the woman share in his money and social position and had no guarantee of receiving comparable benefits in return. (Shapard, 2003)
Conduct writers clearly expressed this sentiment. “Her Marriage is an Adoption into his Family, and therefore she is, to every Branch of it, to pay what their Stations there do respectively require.” (The Whole Duty of a Woman,1737) Given a woman’s legal coverture meant that she gave up her legal personhood in marriage, the attitude seems a bit ironic since she became the veritable possession of her husband.
In spite of limiting her legal rights, marriage immediately raised a woman’s social status, no matter what her class. A married woman always took precedence over unmarried women.
Companionate marriages were desirable, but practical considerations were probably the backbone of most matches. Loving relationships were more likely to form after marriage than before, if they formed at all. Whatever amiable feelings might develop did so in the context of a clear hierarchy. In regency society, no one doubted that the husband was the head of the relationship, in charge of essentially everything.
There cannot, indeed, be a sight more uncouth, than that of a man and his wife struggling for power: for where it ought to be vested, nature, reason, and Scripture, concur to declare;… How preposterous is it to hear a woman say, ' It shall be done!' —' I will have it so!' and often extending her authority not only beyond her jurisdiction, but in matters where he alone is competent to act, or even to judge. (Taylor, 1822)Under legal coverture, women had no legal existence; the husband existed for them both in public life. He owned all property, had custody of the children, conducted all business transactions on the family’s behalf, even owned the wife’s earnings should she have income of her own. He even had the right to physically chastise his wife, divide her from friends and family and severely curtail her movements, if he so wished. (Jones,2009)
Though this might sound like a recipe for creating petty tyrants, Rev. Thomas Gisborne (1797), a major moralist of the era, argued that true marital harmony came from the husband taking pre-eminence over his wife. She need not fear though, if he were a religious man, he would follow God’s will and be a kind protector for whom she would, in gratitude, be endlessly good tempered and pleasing.
While some may have strictly adhered to this view of marriage, most probably took a slightly softer stance in keeping with the views of the Enlightenment. A growing respect for individuals meant that husbands were encouraged to see their wives as worthy human beings and respect their opinions. Marriages were probably not ones of equal give and take, but some degree of mutuality likely typified most relationships.
Catherine Macaulay, a staunch promoter of female education held that husbands had the right to expect obedience from their wives, but that they should in their turn treat wives as their best friends. (Jones, 2009) Ann Taylor (1822) advocated, “A man of common understanding, though he may derive benefit from his wife's advice, certainly ought not to be governed by her.”
On your part, you promised to love as well as to honour and obey; and probably from the all-perfect being to whom you then surrendered yourself, you expected to derive such uninterrupted felicity as would render the fulfilment of this promise constantly easy and delightful. But, however discreet your choice … by degrees the discovery … that you have married a mortal, and that the object of your affection is not entirely free from the infirmities of human nature. Then … your disappointment may be moderated; and your love, so far from declining, may acquire additional tenderness, from the consciousness that there is room for mutual forbearance. (Taylor, 1822)A proper wife had limited power for direct control or anything in her life, especially her husband. According to Gisborne (1797) her indirect influence should be channeled affection, example and charms rather than through boldness or strength, all while being submitted to her husband’s wishes in all things.
If all this seems a bit unfair, take heart, even conduct writers realized it:The World in this is somewhat unequal, and the masculine Sex seems to play the Tyrant… (The Whole Duty of a Woman,1737)
But fear not, there is compensation for the woman in that: But if in this it lies under any Disadvantage, it is more than recompens'd, by having the Honour of Families in their Keeping. (The Whole Duty of a Woman,1737)
That certainly rectified all the disadvantages, right?
Examining diaries and other personal documents of the period suggests that middle and upper class marriages were also often warm and affectionate also, even on occasion blossoming into love. Shared values and goals between the partners could and did facilitate the development of warm friendships between spouses. Ann Taylor’s(1822) advice might also help:” A wife is tenderly alive to the kind attentions of her husband, whether at home or abroad: and neither can more gracefully fulfil the marriage vow, than by thus giving honour, open and cheerful honour, to whom honour is due.”
If diaries and letters are to be believed though, passion played little role in these relationships. Though that may feel sad and hollow to the contemporary reader, it is important to realize that individuals did not have the expectation of romance and passion in their marriages either. So, not having that was not necessarily the disappointing blow that it would seem to the modern marriage seeker.
Find previous installments of this series here:Get Me to the Church on Time: Changing Attitudes toward Marriage
To Have a Courtship, One Needs a Suitor
Nothing is ever that simple: Rules of Courtship
Show me the Money: the Business of Courtship
The Price of a Broken Heart
Making an Offer of Marriage
Games of Courtship
The Hows and Why of Eloping
Licenses, Laws and Legalities of Marriage
Short, Simple and to the Point: Regency Weddings
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Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: Cadell and Davies, 1797.
Harvey, A. D. - Sex in Georgian England, Phoenix Press (1994)
Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and Marriage. London: Continuum, 2009
Lewis, Judith Schneid - In the Family Way, Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860 .Rutgers University Press (1986)
Rendell, Jane - The Pursuit of Pleasure: Gender, Space and Architecture in Regency London. Rutgers University Press (2002)
Savage, William, Marriage amongst the Middling Sort June 22, 2016
Shoemaker, Robert B. Gender in English Society 1650-1850. Pearson Education Limited (1998)
Taylor, Ann. Practical Hints to Young Females: On the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress of a Family. 10th ed. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1822.
Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.
The Whole Duty of a Woman, Or, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex. Containing, Rules, Directions, and Observations, for Their Conduct and Behaviour through All Ages and Circumstances of Life, as Virgins, Wives, or Widows. With Directions, How to Obtain All Use. The 2nd ed. London: Printed for T. Read, in Dogwell-Court, White-Fryers, Fleet-Street, 1737.
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