Monday, July 11, 2016

Making an Offer of Marriage

by Maria Grace

Ideally, the rigors of a 19th century courtship culminated in a proposal, called in the era ‘making a woman an offer of marriage.’ Sounds a bit like a business proposal, doesn’t it? Not surprisingly, there were a lot of similarities between the two, including prescribed expectations for exactly how the transaction between the couple would be conducted. (Nothing is ever that simple, Show me the Money).

It’s hard to believe that Jane Austen’s iconic proposal scene between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Collins fit those expectations more or less exactly. But, seriously, it did.  Take a look.

Parental approval

In earlier centuries, a suitor applied first to the family before speaking with the woman herself. If her father or guardian did not approve, then the suitor dared not approach the woman herself. But in the Enlightened Regency era, such a course was outmoded. Modern society believed that young people had a right to choose their mates themselves—as long as their parents didn’t veto their choices afterwards, of course.

Until the age of twenty-one, both parties to a marriage required parental consent to marry. After that, parental approval was highly desirable, but not essential. Since a couple’s parents often contributed financially to their upkeep, keeping mom and dad happy was pretty important.

“But even where little or no property was at stake, parents of daughters (much more than sons) wanted to be consulted, especially when the daughter was still living at home, in part because they thought young women were ignorant and willful and could not be trusted to find a man with a good character and sufficient economic prospects.” (Shoemaker, 1998). For a child, son or daughter, to ignore the opportunity of making a grand alliance would have seemed foolhardy, not just to their family, but to their peers as well (Lewis, 1986).


A gentleman who wished to propose—and it was only the gentleman who could extend an offer of marriage—had dubious advantage of having very clear procedures to follow. He did have some choices, though. He could offer a proposal in person or in the very formal form of a letter.

In either case, it was nearly impossible to conceal his intentions from his intended. An unengaged couple was never left alone, unless an offer of marriage was being made. Similarly, a man did not write to a woman he was not related to unless it was to make an offer. So either way, the lady could be fairly certain of what was coming.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collin’s proposal, though it makes the modern reader cringe and squirm a bit, contains all the hallmarks of a proper Regency era proposal.

“… but allow me to assure you that I have your respected mother's permission for this address…”

He secured parental approval.

“You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural delicacy may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life.”

He, as convention required, recognized her maidenly modesty—a proper woman would never be direct about her expectations or feelings—and treated it as a feminine virtue.

“Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. … I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer…” 

He established his credentials, including the means he could offer to support her and her future children.

“…it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

And he did not take her seriously when she refused him.

Rejected offers and jilts 

“According to the conventions of proposing, a man should express great doubt about the woman's answer, regardless of what he really felt about his probable reception. This would be a sign of respect, since it suggested that her charms were such that she could expect many worthy offers of marriage.” (Shapard, 2011).

While a young woman could refuse an offer of marriage—not really considered a good idea, mind you, but it was possible—she could easily acquire a reputation for being a jilt for doing so. In fact, both parties could be damaged by a refused offer of marriage, so matters were to be handled with the utmost delicacy and consideration for the feelings of the young man. Not only was it more ladylike to do so, it might mollify his dignity and prevent him from gossip that could taint her reputation. Thus, a rejection should begin as Elizabeth Bennet’s did, with reference to her consciousness of the honor being bestowed upon her by the gentleman in question.

“You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without farther loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me, I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them.”

This gentle approach to rejection also had the dubious advantage of making it easier for a suitor to propose a second time, as noted by Mr. Collins.

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on this subject I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

While being very civil, it did make it difficult to make one's true feelings clearly known. That was though in keeping with the general approach to courtship which largely kept feelings out of the conversation entirely.

Behavior during engagements

Once a couple became engaged, society expected them to act engaged. The couple might begin using each other’s Christian names. Letters and small gifts might be exchanged. A couple could express some degree of affection in public, dancing more than two dances together, for example.

Though her property would not yet be her husband’s, if a young woman did have property she should not dispose of it during her betrothal without her fiancé’s approval. Her transition to the legal state of coverture had begun (Show me the Money).

In general, engagements did not last very long, often only the three weeks required to call the banns or as long as it took to draw up marriage articles. Considering that according to church records (comparing marriage dates and dates of a couple’s first child’s birth) about one third of all Regency era couples went to the altar pregnant, short engagements were probably a good thing (Heydt-Stevenson, 2005).


Austen, Jane (1813). Pride and Prejudice.
Heydt-Stevenson, Jill (2005). Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lewis, Judith Schneid (1986). In the Family Way, Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860: Rutgers University Press.
Shapard, David M., ed. (2011).  The Annotated Sense and Sensibility: Anchor Books.
Shoemaker, Robert B. (1998).  Gender in English Society 1650-1850: Pearson Education Limited.

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


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

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 


  1. I loved this article – thank you very much. The only question I have: if it’s true that an unengaged couple was never left alone, how did it come to be that, after an engagement of, typically, only three weeks, one third of all couples went to the altar pregnant?

  2. I love this! How very different marriage proposals were and it definitely was like a business. I'm so fascinated by the Regency period! I just got a copy of The Regency Companion and am loving it!

  3. Great post! Short engagement, 1/3 pregers... yikes! Thanks Maria!


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