Se­lect the per­fect part­ner

For Vic­to­ri­ans, find­ing some­one of the right sta­tus and tem­per­a­ment was cru­cial. Love of­ten came af­ter­wards

BBC History Magazine - - Victorian Weddings -

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

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