With all the changes over the last two centuries, it is easy to forget that during Jane Austen’s day marriage was an essential social structure. Marriage provided the key to a strong, stable society. Society identified individuals by their connections, the ones they were born with and the ones acquired through marriage. Marriage and inheritance laws insured ancestral estates passed intact to the next generation. On a more personal level, unmarried sisters and mothers who might face life as widows, might rely on the marriage of siblings and children as a source of security for their future. Jane Austen clearly demonstrated this reality in the plots of Pride and Prejudice as well as Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park.
For gently bred females, marriage was the only acceptable occupation. All aspects of her life reflected that orientation. Her childhood would be spent quietly at home, keeping her pure and untainted as she acquired the necessary accomplishments. At about the age of sixteen though, everything changed. The schoolroom was set aside, and she would be come-out into the world of society prepared for courtship and marriage.
Preparing for Courtship: Becoming Accomplished
Prior to coming out, a young woman effectively did not exist in society. She dressed demurely, often with a deep-brimmed bonnet that hid her face. Young men in particular were not to pay her any notice. She would not speak to adults unless asked a question.
A young girl focused on learning those skills that would make her a social asset to a man and able to effectively run a household, the two key qualities of a marriageable woman. Her education might include a few years at school, but more typically a governess or the girl’s mother handled her education from home, somthing which Mrs. Bennet sorely neglected.
To run a household, a girl needed to be able to read and write, preferably with elegant penmanship. She would need to sew, with decorative needlework an added benefit. As the keeper of the household accounts, she needed sufficient understanding of mathematics to manage household ledgers. Gardening, food preservation, the work of servants and household remedies could also prove quite useful.
To be a social asset, and considered ‘truly accomplished’ a young lady needed more. Singing and playing an instrument would allow her to entertain her husband’s guests. Her drawings and paintings would decorate her husband’s homes. She could speak French and possibly Italian, and even more significantly, she must be able to converse elegantly with guests on the history, geography, literature and poetry. No wonder, Mr. Darcy knew so few truly accomplished women.
Girls were warned, though, to “be ever cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume superiority over the rest of the company. But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.” (Gregory, 1774)
Debut into Society
Although sometime between sixteen and eighteen was the common time for a girl to make her ‘come out’, the exact timing might vary depending on the status of other siblings, especially sisters. There was no hard and fast rule that a family have only one daughter ‘out’ at a time, however, for practical considerations, it was a common practice.
Being ‘out’ demanded both financial resources and the assistance of friends and connections to extend invitations and make introductions. A family with several daughters might easily be spread too thin if more than one girl were out at once, hence Lady Catherine’s shock at all five Bennet sisters out at once. Younger sisters often waited until the elder was at least engaged, if not married, before coming out. But if an elder daughter had several seasons out without an engagement, parents might allow a younger girl to come out as well. No doubt Charlotte Lucas’s sisters were relieved when she finally married and they would be allowed to come out.
While there was no single established way for a young woman to make her entry into society, girls in the highest levels of society might expect to come out during the London season. She could anticipate a ball in her honor and possibly presentation at court to the sovereign. A whirlwind of society events would follow, all in the hopes of attracting the notice of the right sort of gentleman.
Girls in lower social strata came out with somewhat less pomp and circumstance (and expense). A girl’s parents might plan a ball or party in her honor. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s uncle held a ball in honor of her and her brother which marked her coming out.
A coming out event was not necessary, though. A mother indicate her daughter was out might by simply allowing a girl to pin up her hair (a sign of adulthood) and begin accompany her on morning calls and social events. At these events, parents, friends and acquaintances would essentially show her off to potential suitors, for, once a girl was out, a courtship might begin at any time.
Meeting Potential Suitors
Being ‘out’ allowed a girl to establish formal acquaintances. Without a formal acquaintance a third party acquainted with both, individuals could not interact.
Neighborhood matrons, and parsons’ wives, having a wide range of connections, were in especially good positions to affect introductions between young people at social events. Dinners and parties, feasts, festivals, even wakes, provided introduction opportunities. At a public ball, the Master of Ceremonies could introduce willing parties to enable gentleman and ladies to dance, though he might not be acquainted with either party. Henry Tilney utilized this service to become acquainted with Catherine Morland.
Though it might seem cumbersome to modern sensibilities, introductions provided a means by which young ladies might have some control of social interactions. The men had the power of “chusing whom they may address, and (women) of rejecting whom they may dislike.” (Gener, 1812).
Young ladies needed this option as not all acquaintances might pursue noble designs. Women of fortune were particular objects of pursuit, especially by younger sons not eligible to inherit the family estate. ‘A Younger Brother’, went so far as to publish, A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory in 1742. The book contained a list of London heiresses, their expected fortune and the general location of their residence. He advised:
“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 …”
An Alternative to Traditional Introductions
Not everyone enjoyed success in the efforts to meet prospective suitors. Some lacked the family or social connections . Others simply desired an economical and expedient alternative to the marriage mart. For them, matrimonial advertisements could provide the solution. Though the practice was considered anything from indelicate to dangerous, men and women from every age group and social class placed advisements.
Some advertisements emphasized the seeker: a woman of considerable accomplishments and easy independency, a man of respectable rank. While others requested specific characteristics for the applicant: an income equal to his/her own, age not less than 30, no more than 35, an agreeable partner. Some required a specific fortune, others just wished for companionship. Meetings might be arranged by a third party or by the matrimonial advertiser him or herself. It was not unusual for a single interview to be all that was required to secure a proposal of marriage.
It comes as no surprise that matrimonial advertisements were not always safe. The sensational 1827 case of the Red Barn Murderer, William Corder’s wife, Mary Moore, who met him through an ad in the Morning Herald. After a quick marriage, she discovered he had murdered his previous lover and buried her body in a barn.
Despite the risks, the difficulties of introductions and courtships insured matrimonial advertisements continued as a popular way to find a marriage partner.
For the more traditionally minded, once a suitable introduction was made, a courtship might begin. The next installment of this series will examine the extensive rules governing courtships in the Regency era.
A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory by a Younger Brother, published in 1742.
Gener, S., and John Muckersy. M. Gener, Or, A Selection of Letters on Life and Manners. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: Printed for Peter Hill …, A. Constable & and A. MacKay ;, 1812.
Gregory, John. A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters By the Late Dr. Gregory, of Edinburgh. The 2nd ed. London: Printed for W. Strahan ;, 1774.
- Y. Some Remarks on Matrimonial Advertisements Being an Inquiry into their Use and Abuse.London: Sedding and Turtle, 1832.
Morning Post, November 27, 1811.
Morning Post, December 19, 1822.