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The Historical Context and Marriage Traditions

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First published in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice aptly describes the nature of courtship and marriage in 19th century England. In this novel, Elizabeth Bennett eventually marries Fitzwilliam Darcy, a man who has a considerable estate. This is, presumably, a romantic love, and romantic love was only available to those who could afford it (MacFarlane 205). For the most part, “whom one marries will be heavily circumscribed by which rank one is born into” (MacFarlane 252). According to Park Honan, “romantic love among the gentry was more preached than practiced…a desirable match was engineered by person’s unswayed in feeling” (Honan 193).

Courtship came before marriage, and was seen as the chance to determine compatibility. Prospective partners met at church or at dances (where Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy) and continued to meet for some time after (Honan 312). One interesting tidbit of information is that some people considered sex acceptable after the betrothal (MacFarlane 306). In fact, “1/3 of women were pregnant when they married” (MacFarlane 306).

People in 19th-century England placed far more importance on courtship than today’s young couples: “Once you propose, your course is to acquaint the parents or guardians of the lady of your intentions, at the same time stating your circumstances, and what settlement you must make upon your future wife, and on their side, they must state what will be her fortune as near as they can estimate…” (Pool 191). Marriage seemed more of a business arrangement than a matter of desire. For example, a husband often had to take a rich wife to further improve the ancestral family name (Pool 181). There were also certain social regulations regarding whom one could marry. A man, for instance, could not, marry his deceased wife’s sister, but two first cousins could marry. This occurred frequently, as evidenced by Mr. Collins’ proposal in Pride and Prejudice (Pool 180). People mainly married within their station, although this was not a formal rule.

Because women depended on their parents to provide their dowry, many chose to wait and let the money accumulate to make a better match. “If a girl wished to marry well, she would be advised to bide her time. Often her economic attractiveness increased at the very point when her physical charms were diminishing” (MarFarlane 277). This typically occurred during a woman’s mid-twenties. (MacFarlane 277). Men typically waited for marriage until they could make an independent living (MacFarlane 278). “The longer he delayed his marriage, the greater his chance of a comfortable middle and old age” (MacFarlane 278).

Before the wedding could take place, parental permission might be needed. “Until 1823, a man or woman under the age of 21 could not marry without parental permission” (Pool 180). Lydia Bennett and Wickham take care of this problem in a fashion typical to the early century. “In the early years of the century, people who wanted to evade the requirements skipped across the border into Scotland to a little town called Gretna Green” (Pool 183).

There were also legal matters to be taken care of before the wedding. The lawyers would figure out the dowry: the wealth required by the bride and her family for the marriage. “The going rate for a woman of rank among aristocracy marrying a person of same level in 1870’s was between 10 and 30 thousand pounds” (Pool 301). The jointure (a legal term designating a portion of the husband’s estate for the widow after his death) was also formed in these marriage settlements (Pool 327). This would include the portion, which could be used for their own children’s dowries. “The bride’s family had to worry about making sure she and her children would have something to live on if her husband died or was a wastrel” (Pool 181). For this reason, pin money, an allowance given to a woman upon her marriage, was “frequently bargained for explicitly as part of the marriage settlement between the families of a prospective husband and wife” to be spent on household items or for personal adornment (Pool 353). Funnily enough, bride-wealth, or bride-price (the amount the husband and his family paid the bride’s family for the bride) was not seen in England after the 15th century. It was relevant in other countries, and still is in some (MacFarlane 277-278).

As one can imagine, having more than one daughter was a strain on the family finances. “Bennett’s ill-luck was to have five daughters, and his dilemma is exaggerated in wartime when men are scarce and daughters burdensome…” (Honan 310). But in reality, only the eldest son seemed to have the upper hand in 19th-century life. “Only the eldest son, except in areas of partial inheritance, would receive the major estate” (MacFarlane 280). They could, of course, use their money to help their younger brothers and sisters, but they did not have to. “It would appear that younger sons and daughters were treated as equal” (MacFarlane 280).

With the business taken care of, the wedding could finally be announced. Banns were the cheapest and most public way to get permission to marry (Pool 264). This required the parish rector or vicar to announce an impending wedding during the service on three consecutive Sunday mornings. “If no one arose to forbid the banns in the course of the reading, the couple could marry in the following three months” (Pool 264). One could also obtain a license to marry, if one did not want to marry by the banns. There were three different kinds: the archbishop of Canterbury could provide a “special license” to get married anytime, anywhere; a local minister could grant a much cheaper license that permitted marriage in the parish (Pool 332); or “one could also get a license to have a simple civic ceremony at the local registrar’s office or a ceremony in a nonconformist place of worship” (Pool 332). Elizabeth Bennett’s mother in Pride and Prejudice pushes her to get a special license to marry, since Darcy is wealthy enough to afford it.

One needed four types of asset to marry: a home, furnishings for both the house and body, an assured income, and ready cash (MacFarlane 263). The actual wedding was required by law to be a morning affair (typically nine o’clock) until the late 1880s, but it could go on until three in the afternoon (Pool 183). This is why most 19th century novels featuring weddings describe the traditional wedding breakfast. The bride and groom were not required to invite their immediate family, although it was generally the social custom to do so (Pool 183). It was also the custom to throw shoes after the couple after the ceremony (Pool 183). In another interesting fact of the time during which Pride and Prejudice was written that the bride could ask a female companion to accompany her on the honeymoon.

Upon marriage, a woman lost all control over her fortune, except for her land. Her husband could neither sell nor rent it, but he owned any income that came from it (Pool 184). Men were able to control their wives however they wanted, but were also legally liable for their spouses’ debts and civil wrongs (Pool 185). “When the husband and wife exchanged vows, they became one person, and, in the words of the jurist William Blackstone, ‘the husband is that person'” (Pool 184).

During this era, divorces were extremely difficult and expensive to obtain. Up until 1857, there were three types. A vinculo matrimonii took place when a marriage was declared a nullity from the beginning because of too close a blood relationship, insanity, or impotence, among other reasons (Pool 185). A mensa et a thora forbid a person to remarry, but allowed a couple to separate because of adultery, sodomy, or cruelty – although it made the children spawned from the union illegitimate (Pool 185). Finally, a parliamentary divorce gave the petitioner (normally the husband) a divorce a mensa et a thora, then sued the spouse because of adultery. This way, the children were not declared illegitimate (Pool 185).

During the later part of the century, three different acts were put into law that make England more recognizable to people of the 21st century. The Divorce Act of 1857 made it possible for men to divorce because of adultery, and for women to divorce because of incest, rape, sodomy, bestiality, bigamy, physical cruelty, or two years’ desertion (Pool 186). The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 stated that money willed from others to the woman was her own, and not her husband’s (Pool 186). This was expanded in the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which made all the property of a woman her own (Pool 186). These three acts marked a transition from one century to the next, and led England to where it is today.

Works Cited

Honan, Park. Jane Austen-Her Life. London, U.K: Phoenix, a division of Orion Books LTD, 1997.

MacFarlane, Allen. Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction, 1300-1840. Oxford, U.K: Blackwell Publishers, 1986.

Pool, Daniel. “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist.” The Facts of Life in 19th Century England. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1993.

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