Marriage in the Victorian Era
by Jen Ziegenfuss
In the Victorian era, marriage
was not as romanticized or fairytale-like as depicted in many novels of the
time. On the contrary, love actually played a very minor role in the majority
of matrimonies that took place. An engagement was entered into as one would
approach a business deal, and there were some generally accepted rules and guidelines
- It was illegal to marry
your deceased wifes sister. You could marry first cousins, but attitudes
changed towards the end of the 19th century, and this became frowned upon.
- Victorians were encouraged
to marry within the same class (remember the views on social mobility!). They
could marry up, but to marry down meant marrying beneath yourself (Soames).
- A woman entering into
the institute of marriage had to be equipped with a dowry. The husband-to-be
had to prove that he could support his new bride in the lifestyle she was
- An unmarried woman could
inherit money and property after she reached the age of 21, but once married,
all control would revert to her husband. A woman could not have a will for
her own personal possessions; since the control was in her husbands
power, he could distribute her property in any way he likes, even to his illegitimate
children (if he has any).
- Women married because
they had a lack of options; they were not formerly educated, and were only
instructed in domestic duties. They needed someone to support them, and were
encouraged to marry and have children ("The Rules of Marriage").
- Marriage was a carefully
contemplated subject for a woman; since she would lose control over any possessions
once married, it was not something entered into lightly, and a woman was not
required to accept her first proposal.
- The financial aspects
of both families were discussed openly. They can be compared to todays
prenuptial agreements. A womans father was responsible for retaining
a jointure for his daughter; this was a provision in the event
that she might outlive her husband, so that she was taken care of monetarily.
- After the business aspects
were secured, the engagement followed. The husband presented his fiancée
with a ring; the woman could give her fiancé a ring as well, but it
was not required. The womans mother was responsible for throwing an
engagement dinner for the couple.
- Engagements lasted anywhere
from 6 months to 2 years. After it was official, the couple was
permitted to be more intimate: they could hold hands in public, take walks
together, take private carriage rides (but the carriage had to be open), and
even spend time alone behind closed doors, as long as they were properly separated
- Any failure to follow
these rules of conduct meant a ruined reputation for the woman; the engagement
would most likely be called off and she would spend the rest of her life as
a spinster. An honorable man would typically marry her anyway, but then again,
an honorable man would not become engaged to a woman who would disobey societal
rules. An example of a Victorian
- After the wedding, it
was customary to send cards indicating when the couple was to be called
upon by their friends and family. When calling on a couple, it was important
to be punctual; never arrive before or after your appointed hour. Wedding
cake and wine was served and the guests could bestow wishes of health and
happiness on the couple.
- When receiving guests,
the bride was never to be alone. Even if her husband was present, it was expected
that her mother, sister, or close friend was with her to receive visitors.
To do otherwise is to disregard the usages of society (Wells).
Views on Divorce
- Divorce was difficult
to obtain; the only acceptable reason for divorce was adultery, and even then
it was only a valid reason for a man. Women could use adultery as an excuse
to divorce her husband, but she also had to supplement it with a reason proving
her husband engaged in incest, bigamy, or excessive cruelty (Marriage
- Though this was a double
standard, the reason for it was this: men were viewed to take care
of their wives, and thought that their fidelity should not matter; women on
the other hand, if caught cheating, were seen as disrespecting the care
of their husbands.
- Laws were modified in
the mid-19th century to make divorce more accessible to both men and women,
but it was still scarce. Women saw marriage as a way to gain independence
from their families and to start a new life, even though their husbands were
granted all of the power.
- Divorce was extremely
expensive; it entailed the loss of wealth and property. Since it accumulated
from generation to generation and helped to strengthen the family line, divorce
was neither economically or socially practical. It would guarantee the family
losing some of its strength and influence by giving up property and wealth.
Marriage and Divorce
in Victorian England. Charlotte's Web: A Hypertext on Charlotte Bronte's
Jane Eyre. <http://www.umd.umich.edu/casl/hum/eng/classes/434/charweb/MARR_485.htm>.
Rules of Marriage in the Victorian Era. <http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/femhist/marriage.shtml>.
Soames, Enoch. Marriage
in the Victorian Era. The Charlocks Shade. 18 February 2004.
Wells, Richard A. Manners
Culture and Dress of the Best American Society. King, Richardson, &
Co. Publishers. Springfield, MA. 1893. <http://www.burrows.com/booknotes/wedding.html>.