The 19th century, like any era, is fraught with contradiction. While no one seems to adore a romance quite like the Victorians; reality cast a long shadow on the subject of matrimony. Courtship as we Moderns know it, was an upper middle class and aristocratic institution. It predominately concerned women who did not toil for financial gain. That is not to say, families with lower incomes did not attempt to marry their daughters off “well.” In this instance, “well” meaning better than the woman’s current low social standing.
Courtship served one purpose; marriage. It was not about “having fun” with another individual. More importantly, it was not about love. This cannot be stressed enough. Marriage was not about love. Marriage was another term for a business merger between two families to maintain the status quo. Do not misunderstand me, the families wanted the couple to be tolerant with one another. But love? Well, that may succeed marriage, if ever. It was generally understood across all class lines, marriage was business. Love was for secret lovers and mistresses.
To arrive at the pinnacle of every 19th century girl’s dream and duty, she first had to come out to society as an eligible young maiden. After her debut, she would court interested suitors. The parents of these people on the “marriage market” would also be making casual inquirers. Courtship did not last years. It often lasted a few weeks or months. The young couple did not really know one another prior to their trip down the aisle; that is what the honeymoon was for. During the Season, ladies looked for men who could afford their lifestyle and whose family were not riddled with scandal. Gentleman looked for beauties with an even temper who could hold their emotions in check and were likely to produce many children. All outings; dates, if you will, were chaperoned. If the gentleman believed this lady to be a suitable life companion, he would confess his love to the lady. Around this time, the gentleman would mention to own family his desire to marry the girl. Customarily, he would then ask the lady’s father for her hand. The father would give an immediate answer one way or another. If the father agreed, the gentleman would make a formal proposal to his lady. If she accepted his offer, the engagement was on! Then the parents would convene . . .
If one believes this notion of a merger is a thing of the past, one would be sorely mistaken. It is not often mentioned in today’s society in part because it chaffs against American notions of independence and adulthood. It also reeks of anti-feminism and backward ideology. It comes too close to “arranged marriages.” Yet, I assure you such things take place routinely behind closed doors. It is not just in ethnic households or those with immigrant backgrounds. In modern day, “asking for the hand” is considered more of a blessing of the parent(s) but can very well be overruled by the couple to go along with their plans, if parentally denied.
Presently, the criterion for marriages has changed and love plays a much greater role. It is mere practicality to assure the best in the best of all possible worlds. Does the couple share similar education? Similar income? Similar goals? Expectations? Religion? Are their personalities compatible? If the answer to any of the questions is no, is the couple realistic in their solutions to face the challenges? Moderns term this “pre-marriage counseling” sometimes lead by a religious order. In the 19th century it was parental domain. Families are being merged together, lives and fortunes are at stake . . . and you thought it was just because two people fell in love?
Which has me wondering, how do you feel about “asking for her hand”/blessing? Is it a tradition that needs to be banished with the plague? Or is it a sweet thoughtful gesture to the potential in-laws? And how many of you, Dear Readers, know of any couple who took a rather pragmatic view in their decision to wed?