I must say, I am rather surprised how mature I now feel being a titled and salaried librarian. I feel as if I now have a toehold in the adult world; chronological age, aside. It has me pondering the milestones associated with this neighborhood; this Adulthood. In current society the criterion is thus: leaving home, completing one’s education, being financially solvent, marrying and having a child; more or less in that sequence. If this holds true, then I am woefully ineligible to move into the neighborhood!
In comparison, adulthood during the 19th century varied widely depending on the sex and class of the individual in question. In the 19th century only males were socially accepted to be formally educated. Females were taught just enough to have some understanding to what the men were discussing, but never more in fear of making the men seem unintelligent. Finishing school was not an education and still, only the wealthy could afford such luxuries. The purpose of Finishing Schools was to land a husband. It did not even prepare the affluent daughters how they were to keep a home, manage servants, finances, or raise a child. The last two items on the list fluctuated wildly depending on the personality of the woman and her desire to defy the status quo. So education, was a poor indicator of adulthood for ladies. If the woman was middle class or a pauper there was no hope for any form of formal education. The mandated schooling legislation was not inforced for years since poor parents needed their children to toil for the family income.
Financial independence was a virtual impossibility for ladies of the upper class. First, they lived by their father’s means and then by their husband’s income. Any money of her own was wrapped in a dowry and dissolved into her husband’s care taking. Law allowed females rights to their own money and there were women who took full advantage of these legal documents making a generous income in various means as single and married woman. However, such actions were frowned on by Society. Society, in a sense, shamed them for not following the accepted way of the man taking full financial responsibility for his family. For men, however, this was a true mark of independence, though not necessarily of adulthood. If they man came from a prosperous family he would be given an allowance, but as heir he could not touch a pence until his father’s demise. It was said Queen Victoria refused to give her son Prince Albert Edward any responsibility in fear he would muck it up, consequently he never knew a value of a pound. Having spoken thus, some would say the same for Queen Victoria! However, given her seemingly royal budget, Queen Victoria was rather conservative.
Leaving home takes on a different sort of pallor in the 19th century. The more profitable families are not how we know families to be in modern times. Children were sent to the nursery only to see their parents only one or two hours a day at prescribed times. So the children have “been away” more or less since birth. For a man leaving home is still associated with leaving for boarding academies, where he would interact even less with his parents. However, vacating the communal dormitories might have come as a rude awakening. Either he moved back in with his parents whom he hardly knows and is treated more or less like a roommate in the home, or either he purchases a residence; or if he is fortunate, his parents purchase one for him in the same neighborhood.
The clearest indicator of the move into adulthood is marriage. While a young lady could come out as early as ten and four, it is not looked highly upon. Around the age of ten and eight was more acceptable. She may get married then or wait until she is twenty, but she certainly better be married by five and twenty or statistically she is doomed to a life of spinsterhood or delegated to be her mother’s companion, which was often a worse fate. Marriage is what made girls women. Even after all these years, it still is. Although it is not uncommon in modern society to be single for a longer duration; there is a certain amount of respect that comes with being married because marriage is difficult. I cannot speak on the subject with any authority, but perhaps you, My Dear Readers, are able to. . .
Lastly, the child criterion. A lady may not rest until she produces an heir and a spare, daughters be damned. *sigh!* The irony is Victorians are never associated with admirable parenting habits; see above about leaving home. Ironically, the Cult of the Child took root during the middle of the 19th century, but it was mostly an ideal but not followed through in how Moderns would assume. That is for another post.
So, I am curious . . . when did you first begin to feel like you were an adult . . . or do you still feel as if you have yet to arrive?