Select the perfect partner
For Victorians, finding someone of the right status and temperament was crucial. Love often came afterwards
Choosing a suitable spouse was essential at a time when it was difficult to get out of a marriage. Before 1858, divorce was only available by private Act of Parliament; even after that date, adultery was the only basis for divorce, and wives had to prove additional aggravating factors, such as desertion or cruelty.
Lonely hearts ads (typically put out by men) were increasingly likely to emphasise the desire for an attractive mate who would be a good homemaker. It was recognised that love, while important, might well develop after marriage. In Harriet Martineau’s 1839 novel Deerbrook, Dr Hope marries out of a sense of obligation but grows to love his wife, while Charlotte Brontë urged a friend to consider a proposal of marriage – even if she felt disgust for the man – if he had “common sense, a good disposition [and] a manageable temper”.
While husbands and wives were expected to play different roles within marriage, society frowned on unions in which the differences between them were too great: marriages across classes were rare.
When it came to age, most brides and grooms would have been in their mid-20s. Of those marrying for the first time between 1850 and 1899, the average age was a little under 26 for men and a little over 24 for women. By those ages, most working-class couples would have been in employment long enough to have built up some savings. Nevertheless, some married first and set up home later. The rector of Wortham in Suffolk described how one couple married and then lived separately while they saved up for a bed.
Larger age gaps – and longer engagements – were more common among the middle and upper classes, where couples would defer marriage until the man had established himself in his profession and could furnish a suitable home. At 21, the writer Molly Hughes became engaged to 30-year-old Arthur, an aspiring barrister, but their marriage did not take place for another 10 years.
Charlotte Brontë urged a friend to consider a proposal – even if she felt disgust for the man – if he had “common sense”
A bride and groom pose in a garden in the 1890s. Most first-time couples would have been in their mid-20s, but some did not wed until they were more financially secure