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Archive for the ‘Marriage’ Category

Wedding dress, 1742, Image @Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Anyone who had the opportunity to see “At Home With the Georgians” with Amanda Vickery was in for a treat. The BBC series, based upon her fabulous book, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, covered courtship and marriages in the 18th century in great detail. The perspectives of bachelors, spinsters, and married couples were taken into account.

One of the most intriguing portions of the series occurred when Amanda Vickery introduced A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory by a Younger Brother, published in 1742.

The witty saying on the frontispiece describes perfectly why this book of lists was compiled:

“He took his Stand

Upon a Widow’s Jointure Land.”

The author, a younger brother who had to make his way in the world by working or marrying rich, writes these shameless words to the woman of fortune he is courting:

“Begin then Madam, hasten to begin — Bless the thrice happy Compiler, make the Happiness of a Younger Brother equal to that of his Elder, — Let the Honourable Mrs. M——n in the Connubial State shine with Splendour equal to Miss F———n in the Maiden, and tell a mistaken World that the Appellation Wife bears with it every Sound of Dignity and demands an universal Reverence;…”

This book was compiled for those  men who were unlucky to follow in their elder brothers’ shadows, for the laws of primogeniture dictated that the eldest son would inherit everything. The ladies are described in its pages with their names, where they live, the largeness of their reputed fortunes and of the stocks held in their names.

Marriage was the only option for ladies during the Georgian era, since they could not control their own fortunes or possess lands. All they “owned” was held in trust for them. Many a rich spinster or widow preferred choosing marriage over living a life alone.

One can almost hear this shameless Younger Brother courting his future bride (and plying her with gifts and poesies) as he charms her into marriage and publicly worships her with these words:

I could for ever dwell on the Repetion of your Charms, if I were not in immediate Expectation of the Possession of them: Whatever Pleasures, whatever Joys we earnestly covet, we surely anticipate of; when alone I am for ever repeating one Line of Dryden’s,

Happy, Happy Pair!”

Today many a suitor would be laughed off his knees if he said such a thing, but back then marriage was a serious business. An engagement represented the best financial arrangement that the pair could finagle. A gentleman had only a few means of making a fortune, one of which was by marrying rich, and a lady had only one means of supervising her own household, and that was in attaining the status of a wife. The Marriage Mart, as the pages in A Master Key imply, was strictly business. Oh, it helped if the people involved had pleasing countenances, good manners, and gentle hearts, but none of these attributes are discussed in this short list of women on the marriage mart in 1742.

I can imagine that many younger sons found comfort in these lists and made elaborate plans to be introduced to the women described so coolly inside of them. To these gentlemen the Younger Brother writes:

Whoever has read the Advertisements in the public Papers of Mr. C—-x, and the unknown Lady who accepted of his Proposals, will instantly acknowledge the Usefulness of the following Directory: The Dilemma that Gentleman was reduced for a Partner, determined the Compiler to set about it: He resolved to spare no Pains: He carefully examined every List of the Proprietors of the public Funds; and made afterwards the best Enquiry he was capable of, into their Fortunes exclusive: As it was impossible to give the exact Fortune of every lady in so large a List as the following, he thought proper to make in his Kalender, one Column under the Title of Reputed Fortunes.”

The Younger Brother’s advice is quite straightforward and required little embellishing:

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 …”

The Marriage Mart, I imagine, was a dance of the sexes, with the younger sons finding the best situation their charms were capable of, and the women choosing among the pool of men, hoping that their choice of mate will remain charming, moral, and kind  and not turn into a selfish, wife-beating monster.

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Caroline Norton 1833

Until the mid 1800s, married women in England had no legal rights. By law a husband could prevent his wife from seeing their children. He also had control over all her income, including any earnings she might make. Caroline Norton (1808-1877), who was married to an abusive man and who had been barred from seeing her three sons after they divorced, successfully challenged these laws.

Caroline was the granddaughter of a playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the daughter of novelist Caroline Henrietta Sheridan. Caroline’s father died when she was eight years old, which left the family in financial straits. When Caroline had turned 16, George Norton, a Tory member of parliament for Guildford,  spotted her and asked for her hand in marriage. But she was too young to marry. Though a renowned beauty, Caroline had no dowry. Still, she hesitated to marry George Norton, but her mother eventually supported the match and thus she wed him at 19.

George Norton turned out to be a violent and unfaithful husband. He beat Caroline repeatedly, even in her third trimester of pregnancy. The marriage, though a failure, lasted long enough for Caroline to bear three sons. There were repeated estrangements and reunions, but the marriage finally ended in 1836. Caroline’s travails had just begun. Her reputation was in tatters as a divorced woman, and she was not allowed to see her sons. She was to write:

What I suffered on my children’s account, none will ever know or measure. “The heart knoweth its own bitterness,” and God knew mine! The days and nights of tears and anguish, that grew into the struggle of yearsit is even now a pain to me to look back upon; even now, the hot agony of resentment and grief rises in my mind, when I think of the needless tyranny I endured in this respect. Mr Norton held my children as hostages; he felt that while he had them, he still had a power over me that nothing could control. Baffled in the matter of the trial and damages, he still had the power to do more than punishto torturethe wife who had been so anxious to part from him – Caroline Norton, English Laws for Women in the 19th Century

Caroline’s story is more convoluted and complicated than presented here, and well worth reading. Suffice it to say that Caroline challenged the law that favored men over women, and her writing was instrumental in having The Child Custody Act of 1839 passed. Sadly for Caroline, her husband still denied her access to her children. Her youngest boy fell from a horse and died, and only after this tragedy were her two other boys allowed to live with her.

His cruel carelessness was afterwards proved, on a most miserable occasion. My youngest child, then a boy of eight years old, left without care or overlooking, rode out with a brother but little older than himself, was thrown, carried to the house of a country neighbor, and died there of lock jaw, consequent on the accident. Mr Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week,–indeed to be at death’s door,–before he sent to inform me. Sir Fitzroy and Lady Kelly were staying with Mr Norton in the country. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said–”I am here,–is my boy better?” “No,” she said–”he is not better,–he is dead.” And I found, instead of my child, a corpse already coffined.
Mr Norton asked my forgiveness then, as he had asked it often before; he sent his elder child to plead for him,–for well he knew what my children were to me; he humbled himself, and grieved for an hour, till he changed into pity the horror and repugnance I had expressed at the idea of seeing him;–and then he buried our child, and forgot both his sorrow and his penitence.

Caroline Norton

When George Norton caught wind that Caroline had been left a small legacy by her friend, Lord Melbourne and a small sum that her mother had left her, he stopped support payments for her and the children. Caroline fought him in court but lost. She campaigned to have the laws changed, and her victory resulted in the Matrimonial Act of 1857. Caroline remarried just months before her death in 1877, but not before two more crucial laws were passed that protected the rights of women and children, the Infant Custody Acts of 1873 (and 1886) and The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 (and 1882).

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There was nothing romantic about marriage in England before the 17th Century. The institution was viewed as a means of securing or advancing the family fortune. Alliances through marriage were arranged by parents; offspring were regarded as pawns; and couples were often engaged and wed while they were still children.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the idea of marrying for love was gaining ground, although it was considered déclassé to demonstrate too much passion for one’s spouse. A man proposed to the woman of his choice, but parental approval of the engagement, especially for the woman, still needed to be obtained, for a father could withold a fortune from a daughter, whereas it was out of his power to prevent a son from inheriting his estate. Certain conventions, such as marrying for money, power, or position, did not change. David Shapard writes in The Annotated Pride and Prejudice:

Marriages among the upper classes frequently involved people whose families were related, or allied, in some way, for such marriages could further strengthen the family ties that were so crucial in this society in determining power, wealth, and position, especially among the upper classes. (p 645)

When Lady Catherine de Bourgh confronted Elizabeth Bennet with her suspicions about the younger woman’s relationship with Mr. Darcy, she told her that her daugher Anne had been intended for Mr. Darcy from infancy. By the early 19th century such parental arrangements were no longer common. Lady Catherine refers to this change in the first part of her speech:

The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of her’s. While in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family! Do you pay no regard to the wishes of his friends? To his tacit engagement with Miss De Bourgh?

A little later, Lady Catherine declares:

My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father’s, from respectable, honourable, and ancient – though untitled – families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.”

Lady Catherine was right. Mr. Darcy’s immense fortune would have attracted the most desirable women in all of Britain. The fact that he proposed not once but twice to Elizabeth gave Pride and Prejudice, to my way of thinking, a Regency fairy tale ending.

Once a woman came out in Society she had but one duty to fulfill: to find a suitable match. Jane Austen wrote about Miss Mainwaring in Lady Susan:

Sir James Martin had been drawn in by that young lady to pay her some attention; and as he is a man of fortune, it was easy to see HER views extended to marriage. It is well know that Miss M. is absolutely on the catch for a husband…” (XIV, Mr. De Courcy to Sir Reginald)

While finding a suitable husband was the ultimate object of a young girl who was coming out, her life after the marriage would not be her own. Once the vows were said, the husband took charge of his wife’s possessions and she would have little say in how he chose to spend her income. Woe betide the poor woman who made a miserable match, or who did not bear her husband male children. In Maria, or the Wrongs of a Woman, a novel written in 1798 by Mary Wollstonecraft about a spectacularly bad marriage, the landlady lamented, “Women must be submissive. Indeed what could most women do? Who had they to maintain them, but their husbands?” (Chapter Thirteen).

Not all marriages led to an unhappy ending, however. The first Duke of Richmond was an inveterate gambler. While staying in The Hague (Holland) in 1719, he lost a huge sum to the Irish Earl of Cadogan. At the time, the earl’s daughter, Sarah, was only thirteen years old. The Earl of March, the duke’s son, was eighteen. To pay off the debt, the Duke of Richmond agreed to an engagement between Sarah and the young earl, and a reduction of 5,000 pounds in Sarah’s marriage settlement. The deal sealed, the wedding was hastily arranged between the girl and the young earl, who had plans to embark on a Grand Tour with his tutor.

It seems almost incredible to our nineteenth century civilization that the marriage of this nobleman when Lord March, during his father’s lifetime, and a mere youth at college, should have been a bargain to cancel a gambling debt which his father was unable to meet. “The young Lord March,” writes Sir William Napier, “was brought from college, the lady from the nursery for the ceremony. The bride was amazed and silent, but the bridegroom exclaimed, ‘Surely you are not going to marry me to that dowdy?’ Married he was, however, and his tutor instantly carried him off to the continent. Lady Sarah went back to her mother, a daughter of Wilhelm Munter, States Councillor of Holland.

Three years afterward Lord March returned from his travels, an accomplished gentleman, but having such a disagreeable recollection of his wife that he avoided home, and repaired on the first night of his arrival to the theatre. There he saw a lady of so fine appearance that he asked who she was. ‘The reigning toast, the beautiful Lady March.’ He hastened to claim her, and they lived together so affectionately that, one year after his decease, in 1750, she died of grief.
The Mothers of Great Men and Women, and Some Wives of Great Men By Laura Carter Holloway, Laura C Langford, 1883

In Aristocrats, Stella Tillyard writes about the union:

Thus in an extreme form, [the 2nd Duke of Richmond and his duchess] acted out the powerlessness of aristocratic children, who could become pawns in a parental chess game, who were sacrificed for family alliances or sold for money and prestige.

When he grew up, [the duke] developed a taste for practical jokes, and came to see his marriage as one of them…He was never ashamed to demonstrate, in portraits, letters and drawing-rooms his love for his wife and children.” (p. 10)

Image: William Hogarth, Marriage à La Mode, Tête à Tête, 1745

Update: Marriage a La Mode, Part 3, The Inspection, Georgianna’s Gossip Guide

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True or False? A single woman in possession of a good fortune has some free will in the choice of a husband. False, as far as Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood are concerned. The woman in question is Miss Morton, the late Lord Morton’s only daughter. This young lady not only comes from a good family, she is in possession of £30,000. Such prized attributes make her a hot commodity on the regency marriage mart.

In Sense and Sensibility, the reader is made acutely aware that Mrs. Ferrars has chosen Miss Morton for her eldest son, Edward. The readers never meet this poor girl, although her unseen presence looms large in the novel. Edward’s purse strings are controlled by his mother, and he stands to lose a fortune if he refuses to obey her. As Fanny Dashwood is quick to remind Mr. Dashwood, Edward will do his mother’s bidding. He has no choice.

Unbeknownst to both Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars, however, Edward has been engaged these many years to Lucy Steele, a little miss nobody with nothing but air and dust in her coffers. As soon as Mrs. Ferrars discovers this unpleasant fact, she disinherits Edward, and quickly switches sons on poor Miss Morton. This suggests that Robert and Edward are fairly interchangeable in their mother’s eyes*, and that Miss Morton would hardly notice the difference between them. (Or care if she did.)

As Miss Morton is lobbed from one son to the next, we begin to feel sorry for her. There is no mention of love or affection, merely the assumption that just as the Ferrars are after Miss Morton’s fortune, so Miss Morton must covet the Ferrars’s fortune. A conversation between an incredulous Elinor and her half-brother John Dashwood illustrates the point:

“We think NOW,”–said Mr. Dashwood, after a short pause, “of ROBERT’S marrying Miss Morton.”

Elinor, smiling at the grave and decisive importance of her brother’s tone, calmly replied,

“The lady, I suppose, has no choice in the affair.”

“Choice!–how do you mean?”

“I only mean that I suppose, from your manner of speaking, it must be the same to Miss Morton whether she marry Edward or Robert.”

“Certainly, there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son;–and as to any thing else, they are both very agreeable young men: I do not know that one is superior to the other.”

Poor Miss Morton: first regarded as a piece of goods, and then jilted by two men! What a degrading situation. Wait, perhaps not. She escaped a lifetime of domination by an awful mother-in-law. We might laugh today at this comedic situation, but in a highly stratified society the BUSINESS of marriage was taken seriously. After coming out, young women were expected to display themselves and their talents in the best light possible, or their prospects of marriage might dim. They spent the social whirl meeting the right people and being seen in the right places. I suspect, however, that Miss Morton with her £30,000 pounds would be regarded as a diamond of the first water even if she developed acne, and had cross eyes and a snaggle tooth.

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The Marriage Act of 1753 made it increasingly difficult for upper class men to “marry down,” and for women to marry men outside their rank. To get around this law, a desperate couple could obtain a special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury, or elope to Gretna Green in Scotland, where English law held no sway and marriage at 16 was legal.

Over the years many couples would run away to Gretna Green for their marriages to take place. The ceremonies were usually performed by one of the village blacksmiths who in those days were at the heart of the community and held in suitable regard. Even today, many of the Ministers refer, in their services, to the similarity of a blacksmith joining 2 metals over the anvil to the marriage ceremony joining 2 people as one.

The following is an excerpt from Pride & Prejudice when Lizzie learns of Lydia’s foolish elopement with Wickham. Later, the reader learns that the couple has not married, but were living without benefit of marriage, an even worse situation:

She burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of his concern, and observe her in compassionate silence. At length, she spoke again. “I have just had a letter from Jane, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from any one. My youngest sister has left all her friends — has eloped; — has thrown herself into the power of — of Mr. Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to — she is lost for ever.”

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The London Season began with the sitting of Parliament after Christmas and ended in mid-June, when the Ton deserted London in droves for their country estates in order to escape the summer’s stifling heat and the city’s pungent smells.

During the height of the social whirl, attendance at parties, balls, routs, and the theatre shot up as proud Papas and Mamas strutted their white-gowned, virginal daughters in front of a host of eligible men, some longer in the tooth than others.

“We have already seen that as early as the 1730’s and 40’s many of the residents in the principal streets of the Grosvenor estate, and of course many more in other correspondingly fashionable parts of London, only spent part of each year in town, their seasonal movements being prescribed by those of the Court and by the dates of the parliamentary sessions. In the eighteenth century the number of people participating in this fashionable minuet between town and country cannot be even approximately calculated, but in the nineteenth century detailed information about the London Season was published for many years in The Morning Post, and this has been analysed for the year 1841.”

From: ‘The Social Character of the Estate: The London Season in 1841′, Survey of London: volume 39: The Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History) (1977), pp. 89-93. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=41842. Date accessed: 30 August 2006.

Wikipedia adds more insights about The Season.

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Almack’s Assembly Rooms


The patronesses of Almack’s Assembly Rooms on King Street near St. James’s Park could make or break one socially, although the food they served left something to be desired.

The Great Metropolis was written in 1837 by James Grant, a member of Almack’s. In a chapter in his book, he discusses Almack’s origin and impact on Society.

Find another description of Almack’s here.

And more information on Wikipedia.

Find a detailed, if dry, description of Almack’s on King Street on this British History Online site.

Finally, want to have some fun? Find a detailed, erudite description of the history of Almack’s on Almack’s Online Gaming Club. You can even join the club and play bridge or backgammon! There are privileged rates for hereditary peers. (You must live in an area where gaming is allowed.)

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