Thursday, February 11, 2016

Get Me to the Church on Time: Changing Attitudes toward Marriage

by Maria Grace
The Book of Common Prayer (1643) makes clear why (and why not) a couple should marry: 
     (Marriage) is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
     First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
     Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.
     Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
   However, nothing so intimately connected with the human heart could ever be so simple.

Decline of Arranged Marriage

Throughout history, parents used their children, both daughters and sons, as assets in their efforts to gain and maintain wealth, connections, and power. The Age of Enlightenment (18th century) brought a radical shift in attitudes toward marriage. The idea that a daughter would marry according to her father’s choice fell out of fashion, and a man who would force a young woman into a disagreeable partnership was deemed contemptible. The new way of the world was for young people to make their own marriage choices with parents left with (hopefully) the right to veto socially or economically unsuitable candidates.

Arranged marriage lingered longest among the upper classes where it was assumed a young woman would learn to love, or at least tolerate, the husband chosen by her father. Even so, few high society parents contrived mercenary alliances for their children. Conversely, not all gentry families permitted their offspring to marry as they chose. Eldest sons, who were set to inherit family lands and fortunes, found themselves  subject to more parental sanctions than younger siblings.

In the midst of all these changes, a new certainty emerged: marriages based on compatibility, affection, and even love, were more likely to stand the test of time than marriages arranged purely for material gain. 

This new attitude complicated matters for parents who now had to engineer circumstances for their daughters to meet the right sort of eligible men. The perceived rarity of such men encouraged something of a husband-hunting hysteria among parents eager to see their daughters well-settled. 

These perceptions were not entirely unfounded. The ravages of war and higher male infant mortality rates during the latter part of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth resulted in an imbalance in the numbers of males and females. Moreover, the high cost of maintaining a household and the antics of avid man-hunters also put young men off the notion of marriage, further reducing the pool of available bachelors.  

The Duty of Virgins

 Despite the new attitudes of the Enlightenment, one societal truth remained unchanged. It was the duty of a young woman to marry. The Whole Duty of a Woman suggested that there were three acceptable ‘States and Conditions’ of womanhood: the virgin, the married and the widowed. “An old Maid is now thought such a Curse as no Poetic Fury can exceed, look'd on as the most calamitous Creature in Nature.”

To avoid that dreaded state of spinsterhood, a girl needed to make a sensible match. What constituted a sensible match? In short, one which provided three key qualities:connections, cash and compatibility. 


During the late Georgian and Regency eras, everyone knew their rank in society and where they stood in relation to everyone else in their social circles. Unions between equals were expected, and in many families required. Allowing an individual of inferior social standing into the family circle, and thus the social circle, was considered a betrayal of those within their strata.  

Particularly among the upper classes, these attitudes meant people often married partners with whom their family enjoyed alliances, or to whom they were related. Marriage between first cousins, neither forbidden by the church nor law, were common.


The lure of pedigree lost some of its luster when tarnished by debt. Many titled and influential families were plagued by declining fortune and debt. Young women, though, were warned to be wary of men hunting for an heiress to shore up failing family finances as much as young men were cautioned against female fortune-hunters. 

A wealthy man might be excused for marrying a poorer woman, particularly if she were pretty and had good manners. A wealthy woman of any age would be thought to have thrown herself away to marry a man of lesser means.


 Why might a woman ‘throw herself away?’ Often, because she fancied herself in love. 

Corbould (1834) wrote:
Most women are inclined to romance. This tendency is not confined to the young or to the beautiful; to the intellectual, or to the refined.— Every woman capable of strong feeling is susceptible of romance; and though its degree may depend on external circumstances, or education, or station, or excitement, it generally exists, and requires only a stimulus for its development.
Romance is, indeed, the charm of female character. …(but)  It is associated in the minds of many with folly alone.  

The idea of marrying for love had gained ground by this era, possibly fueled by the increase in novel reading. However, showing too much passion for one’s spouse was considered in poor taste. A marriage decision based on passion alone was not expected to be a correct one. Young people were advised to pursue friendship and domestic compatibility instead. 

 Choosing Wisely 

“How wretched must be a woman, united to a man whom she does not prefer to every other in the world. What secret preferences must steal into her heart! What unquiet thoughts take possession of her fancy! And what can men of principle call such an act, but legal prostitution.” Bennett (1811) 

“Marriage enlarges the scene of our happiness and miseries. A marriage of love is pleasant; a marriage of interest easy; and a marriage where both meet, happy. A happy marriage has in it all the pleasures of friendship, all the enjoyments of sense and reason; and, indeed, all the sweets of life.” The Young Husband's Book (1839)

Since divorce was virtually unavailable, marrying the wrong person could lead to a life of misery for both partners. Advice for choosing well abounded. 

The Young Husband's Book (1839) cautioned young men to avoid women of bad reputation, low status, those who loved money, or were stupid.

John Bennett (1811) in his  Letters to a Young Lady offered more detailed advice:
(T)here are a few general principles of most essential consequence to regulate your choice…Fortune surely should be considered. It were absurd to think of love, where there is not some prospect of a decent provision for your probable descendants. That decency depends on birth, habit and education. But if you can compass the other requisites, be as moderate as possible, in your demands of fortune…
Never suffer yourself to think of a person, who has not religious principle. A good man alone is capable of true attachment, fidelity and affection. …
The next thing you should look for is a person of a domestic cast. This will, most frequently, be found in men of the most virtuous hearts and improved understandings. …

The last thing, though I do not mention it, as absolutely necessary, yet highly desirable in a person, with whom you must spend all your days, is sentiment and taste. …
Though a woman, before this union, may be admired for her accomplishments … yet after it, we expect her character to display something more substantial. To a man, who must spend his days in her company, all these little superficial decorations will speedily become insipid and unimportant. Love must be preserved by the qualities of the heart, and esteem secured by the domestic virtues… He wants a person who will kindly divide and alleviate his cares, and prudently arrange his household concerns. He seeks not a coquette, a fashionist, a flirt, but a comfortable assistant, companion and friend.

But how did one meet and win such a partner? The next installment of this series will explore social meetings and the very serious business of courtship.


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at LongbournRemember the Past, and Mistaking Her CharacterClick 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.


  1. Another fascinating glimpse into a past that I knew very little about. Looking forward to the second installment.

  2. A very informative article. Thank you for sharing.

  3. A very informative article. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I would love to write the happy ending.. with HMRegina returning home..


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