Throughout her works, Austen presents us with characters who marry for a wide variety or reasons. Those who marry for love, like Elizabeth and Darcy or Jane and Bingley, are arguably the ones who most appeal to modern readers. But characters who marry (or attempt to marry) for less noble reasons abound: Wickham’s marriage to Lydia, Lucy Steele’s marriage to Robert Ferrars, Mariah Bertram to Mr. Rushworth.
The Book of Common Prayer (1643) offers clears reasons why (and why not) couples 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.
Decline of Arranged Marriage
Arranged marriage and forced marriage scenarios flourish in the historical romance genre. However, the Age of Enlightenment (18th century) brought a radical shift in attitudes toward marriage. The notion that a daughter would marry according to her father’s choice fell out of fashion. Moreover, a man who would force a daughter into a disagreeable partnership was deemed contemptible. The new way of the world was for young people to make their own marriage choices. Parents were left with (hopefully) the right to veto socially or economically unsuitable candidates. Eldest sons, who were set to inherit family lands and fortunes, often found themselves subject to more parental sanctions than younger siblings.
Parents now had to engineer circumstances for their progeny to meet the right sort of eligible young people. To complicate matters further, a new understanding emerged: marriages based on compatibility, affection, and even love, were more likely to endure than marriages arranged purely for material gain.
The Duty of Virgins
Despite the new attitudes of the Enlightenment, one societal truth remained. It was the duty of a young woman to marry. The Whole Duty of a Woman went so far as to suggest 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.” Harsh words indeed.
To avoid the deplorable state of spinsterhood, a girl was best served by making a sensible match. What constituted a sensible match? In short, one providing three key qualities: connections, cash and compatibility.
During the Regency era, everyone knew their rank in society. Unions between equals were expected, and in many families required. Marrying an individual of inferior social standing brought them into the family circle and thus the social circle. To do so was considered a betrayal of those within their strata. Consequently, especially among the upper classes, people often married partners with whom their family enjoyed alliances, or to whom they were related. Marriage between first cousins, acceptable both to the church and law, were common.
The lure of a gentleman’s pedigree lost some of its luster when it was tarnished by debt. Many titled and influential families were plagued by declining fortune and debt. Young women were warned to away from men hunting for an heiress to shore up failing 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 marrying a man of lesser means would always been deemed to have thrown herself away.
Why might a woman ‘throw herself away?’ Most commonly 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 rise of novel reading during the Regency was blamed for fueling the notion of marrying for love. However, 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.
“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! … And what can men of principle call such an act, but legal prostitution.” Bennett (1811)
“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, advice for choosing a marriage partner 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. …
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.