In modern times, choosing a partner is seen as primarily a matter for the two persons concerned; a decision based on individual feelings of desire, affection and love. Not so in the eighteenth century. That’s not to say that none of these carried any weight in the choice of a wife or husband. They were not, however, the main criteria to be taken into account. Indeed, young men were warned against being tempted into an unfortunate match by such dangerous traits in a woman as beauty or winning ways. Other characteristics were far more important.
In choosing a wife, young men were counselled to look rather for virtue, a sober disposition and prudence, especially given the prevailing notion of ’separate spheres’ — men engaged in the public sphere of business, financial and estate management and politics; women took charge of the private sphere of household management, the raising of children and family relations. In 1708, Katherine Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk counselled her son, Ashe, that:
“… there is no knowing a woman at first, don’t be to[o] confident but take a care. She has everybody’s good word as too her selfe. & hope you will alwaies find it so.”
While a few years earlier, in 1688, Brabazon Aylmer, in his book The Advice of a Father, Or, Counsel to a Child, warned that choice of wife should be made “rather by the ear, than by the eye.” One lady, Eleanor Ernle, in a letter to friend in 1739, records a ‘near miss’ in this way:
“… my young Gentleman had pickt a match at Bath … had not one of those Gentlemen got him out of town, almost by fors [force]: I fear he’ll not Shew himself prudent in his Choyce of wife tho’ he don’t want for a Sheve of good sense.”
The same Eleanor Ernle also noted what she saw as the requirements a woman should look for in a husband, itemising wealth, good manners, fine dress and appearance, refinement, liberality and compassion. How would they decide whether a prospective husband possessed these in sufficient quantity? By using the period of courtship.
Marriage as a Wider Family Contract
It’s important always to bear in mind that marriage, in Georgian times, was more a matter of ensuring provision for the future of an extended family than something of interest only to the two people involved. Given that there was no other basis for producing legitimate heirs, and through them the transmission of family lands and wealth to the next generation, it was inevitable that marital problems were seen as of direct interest to all family members. A good marriage could bring enhanced wealth and status, which would reflect on them as well. A bad or failed marriage might lead to the opposite outcome. Nor could it be undone, save by death of one of the parties, since divorce at the time was both difficult to obtain and terrifyingly expensive as well.
When thinking about the stage of courtship. It is modern thinking that focusses most attention on the growing love and affection between the two people involved. That might instigate the process, but no more than that. Georgian courtship was a process of each party winning the good will and acquiescence, if not always the active support, of a whole group of family members, friends and even neighbours. Outright opposition was always to be avoided, if at all possible.
What was this wider circle of ‘interested parties’ looking for? At bottom, they needed the assurance that the parties involved could — and would — fulfil the duties a marriage would bring. This began with financial security and the ability to produce the required heirs. The wife would be expected to bring some additional sources of wealth, influence or status to enhance what the husband might have already. She would also be expected to be a good manager of his household, including servants and the household budget. He, in turn, must be seen as a good provider, constant in his affections and steady in his financial dealings. Mutual liking and emotional support were highly desirable, of course, but it was often believed that these would grow over the years, rather than being present in full measure at the start of the marriage.
Courtship as a ‘Proving Ground’
It was during courtship that the potential suitability of a marriage was tried and tested — and maybe vetoed — by this wider group of family and friends. To marry without their support was hazardous, to say the least. Not only might it lead to the loss of an expected inheritance, it might well produce family and social ostracism, leaving the newly-married couple without any of the contacts and sources of support and ‘connection’ so necessary at the time. Since these disadvantages would also be visited on the children of such a marriage, it’s little wonder that an elopement or a marriage without family approval would be seen as a disaster on a major scale. Far from being the romantics’ notion of an openly disapproved but secretly envied figure, the Black Sheep of a family would most likely have been entirely cut off from any form of contact.
Katherine Windham had a long-down-out battle with her son Ashe over his marriage choice, reminding him that she had proposed several excellent matches, all of which he had ignored. When he did marry in the end, she clearly disapproved of his choice, complaining that he thought he:
“… had a Catch when everybody thinks you very much lessen yourself … why should you give so much when she does not deserve half so good.”
Sadly, in this case she was proved right. Before long she is complaining that:
“… her behaviour is now known in all the neighbourhood and every body pities you.”
That marriage quickly foundered, with Ashe Windham forbidding his wife to enter his house and them living apart for the rest of their lives.
Romantic notions of courtship and marriage in Georgian times may be all very well in modern novels and films, but they stray a long way from the truth. Courtship and marriage, as we have seen, were as much the business of a wider circle of families and friends — even family lawyers — as they were of the two people involved. The man had to woo them as well as his potential bride, proving his ability to provide the kind of future life they thought necessary before giving their blessing. The woman had to convince her future husband’s wider circle that she would bring much more to a marriage than a pretty face, a fine complexion and a good figure. Her ‘dowry’ went some way beyond the money involved to include her social standing, her family’s wider connections and her likely accomplishments as a mother and governor of her husband’s household.
No wonder some courtships could last months, even years!