Marriage was a significant part of life for the majority in 18th century England as it still is today. Not everyone married, of course, but most did. It was seen as a natural stage in life, important for the stability and prosperity of society. But what was an 18th-century marriage like? Was it different for the middling sort, compared with the upper classes?
You may think this too obvious a matter to be worth writing about. It isn’t. The continual focus today on the upper classes in 18th century England skews the picture. Amongst landowning people, securing the inheritance and preservation of family estates via proper heirs were pre-eminent needs. Marriage became as much a legal and economic transaction as an emotional one—perhaps more.
For the poor, economics also played a powerful role. Not because they had land or money to transfer to the next generation. The poor needed extra family members to help in scratching a living. Subsistence farmers relied on the extra income from the family hiring themselves out at harvest, or via the meagre sales of eggs, vegetables or chickens looked after by their wives. Wives might also take in washing, do some simple sewing or even act as wet-nurses to the better-off. Even artisans relied on wives and children to provide ‘free’ labour in their business.
The Marriage Needs of the Middling Sort
What of the middling sort? The people who were masters, not employees? They had better incomes and maybe some savings, yet still lacked the status of owning ancestral land. They were certainly concerned to provide for their children, but this would not be by leaving them income based on land-holdings. Their children would need to work for a living, as their fathers did, in better-paid, more prestigious jobs than were available to the poor. They would serve apprenticeships, or maybe take over their father’s business in time.
The best way to provide for the next generation would be by having the income to provide apprenticeships for the sons and at least some cash for daughters to help them set up their own homes. Parents needed savings too, for there were no old-age pensions or other state help for those no longer able to work. If you wanted a comfortable old age, you had to provide it for yourself.
How would marriage help? By providing someone to bear children, manage the household frugally and see you were [properly fed and clothed. Maybe even someone with a modest dowry. A trusted second-in-command who would look after your interests while you were absent on business. Affection might be expected; love was only hoped for. Passion, I suspect, didn’t enter much into anyone’s reckoning. Remember that all this takes place before the rise of Romanticism as a fashionable way to look on life.
Matthew Flinders, Surgeon-Apothecary and Man-Midwife
I have been delving into the surviving diaries of Matthew Flinders, just such a member of the modestly affluent middling sort. A family man, much concerned to give his children a sound education and a good start in life, as well as provide for his old age. Sadly, he never reached it, dying in his early fifties. What did marriage mean to him?
We can get a fascinating insight into this through the entries in his diaries from the sad death of his first wife through to his second marriage a year later.
His Marriage Plans and Courtship
Flinders’ first marriage seems to have been a happy one. His wife’s death in March, 1783, dealt him a heavy blow and he mourned her sincerely. However, after a time, he felt the burden of his practice, coupled with bring up his surviving children, was too much to bear alone. He needed help in the household, plus some companionship. He needed a good friend he could rely on. He also thinks he has grieved enough and further sadness may affect his health.
I have now to Note a circumstance will perhaps appear somewhat odd in my records, after the real and extraordinary Grief which I have manifested for my late valuable partner & whom I shall regret to my latest hour. As a continual grieving can be of no avail, but injurious to me, I begin to be not without thoughts of a 2d Marriage. Accordingly I have pitched on the amiable Mrs E. – late Miss E.W. [Elizabeth Ellis née Weeks] of this place – but since her Widowhood at her Sisters at S[pilsb]y. Accordingly I made a Journey there on Sunday July 20 (having previously exchanged a few Letters with her by which I was rather assured of an agreeable reception). July 1783
Did his brother-in-law suggest this match, or had Flinders known Mrs Weeks when she lived nearer to him? Maybe even before she was widowed?Unfortunately, there is no firm evidence on how the two came to have exchanged letters before this visit.
In August, he returned to take a second look at the ‘vehicle’ and reports that “things go on in that quarter as well as I can wish.” The family are out on a visit when he gets there (presumably he hadn’t warned them he was coming), but Mrs. Ellis goes back to her house with him and they spend the evening together. Whether her family go as well isn’t clear. However, Flinders has some opportunity at least to ‘kick the tyres’, if not take a test drive. Finding all to his satisfaction, he makes a firm agreement to ‘purchase’ in due time.
She [Elizabeth Ellis] in the most obliging manner returned with me to S. and we had as usual a most agreable [sic] Evening. We did not go to rest untill 4 o clock: had a very agreable walk on the Monday Morning. I believe almost every thing with regard to our Nuptials are settled, and I hope with the Divine Permission we shall compleat a happy union in the Month of December, the exact day I cannot yet note. October 1783
The Transaction Concluded
Finally, the ‘vehicle’ is bought and driven home (marriage takes place) on December 1st.
On Monday December 1 I went to Spilsby in order to be united to my amiable Friend, having previously procured a Licence of Mr Powell. I got to S. about 3½in the afternoon, having a thick misty day; we were stirring pretty early in the Morning on account of the ceremony being to be performed before Breakfast. Mr Franklin & myself waited on Mr Vessey (the Clergyman) that Evening to inform him and request his Company to Breakfast. I should have premised that Miss Shepherd had been at S. almost a week to attend my wife thro’ this important affair & to attend her home & has thro’ the whole behaved with the greatest Friendship; we got thro’ the ceremony very well, & set off about 10 for Boston, my Wife, Mrs Franklin and Miss S. in the Chaise, Mr Franklin & Myself on Horseback. We got to Boston about 2, and dined at the White Hart (having previously bespoke a dinner the day before, and invited Dr Knolton who kindly attended). We got off from Boston about 3½ and got home at 5½, the moon favouring us.
At the start of the next year, he sums up his experience of this second marriage in his diary. From his words, you can see it was not a totally economic transaction, but not a wholly emotional one either. More, I suspect, in the nature of a solid arrangement between two widowed people desirous of being married again and finding each other easy to get along with. Flinders’ new wife is ‘amiable’ and ‘kind’, a ‘Bosam’ friend, but he writes not a word about any passion between them, nor even describes her appearance.
At the termination of the last year I was in the utmost and most poignant distress, and soon after lost one of the best of Women. I now remark with all gratitude to Divine Mercy that I am in a much better situation, having again the comfort of a kind and Bosam [sic] friend. I can with truth assert, that every reasonable prospect of Happiness in a 2d Marriage I do experience as far as a Month can make me a judge—and have not the least doubt of its continuance, from the amiable disposition and goodness of my dearest friend and Wife. January 1784
Sadly for writers of historical romances, I suspect most middle-class marriages were like this: based more on friendship and mutual support than the kind of bodice-ripping passion such books deal in. Maybe it has ever been thus.
Source: Flinders, M. Gratefull to providence: The diary and accounts of Matthew Flinders, surgeon, apothecary and man-midwife, 1775–1802: Vol. 1: 1775–1784. Ed. Martyn Beardsley and Nicholas Bennett. Lincoln Record Society, United Kingdom, 2008.