Choice of Partners
Historians have normally addressed the subject of choice of marriage partners with two questions in mind: the degree to which parents and friends influenced or controlled their children's choice, and the degree to which love or affection or some other, usually materialistic, influence affected the choice made by children. Such questions obviously cannot be resolved statistically in the way that age at marriage can and no more than probabilities can be suggested here.
It now seems to be generally agreed that, by the late seventeenth century at least, the ultimate choice was made by the young people but that this choice was normally very much affected by parents and friends, who suggested and actively promoted possible partners and who would go to considerable lengths to try to break off a match which they thought unsuitable. Most contemporary writers thought that children should follow their parents' advice if they possibly could, though they would normally accept an ultimate right of veto by the children. John Dunton, for instance in the Athenian Mercury, an early example of an 'agony column', thought that children 'ought to endeavour as much as possible to submit to their parents' choice; unless where 'tis a plain case that t'would make 'em miserable'.
Many factors must have affected the actual significance of parental consent, one of which was the sex of the child. Hardly any men in the middle class married under the age of twenty-one when consent was necessary and those over age seem to have had very considerable freedom to marry whom they wished, subject of course to advice. Middle-class parents had a
much greater proprietory interest in daughters, over 40 per cent of whom married under the age of twenty-one and so would require consent unless they married clandestinely. Licence applications suggest that this parental authority often continued long after the age of majority, since consent was often recorded for daughters well over twenty-one and even for some over thirty. Over age widows also often recorded their parents' consent to their second or subsequent marriages. However, no consent is mentioned for the majority of over age brides, who were normally described as 'at their own disposal'. This was often explained by a note that their parents were dead, an important consideration, since in these days of low expectation of life the chances of even one parent being alive at their children's marriages was not all that high.
Another important factor would be the whereabouts of parents if they did happen to be alive when their children were courting. Only a minority of middle-class brides and grooms would have had parents living in the metropolis, since so many were immigrants, and this would surely affect the impact of parental consent. Some of the London middle class married girls from their region of origin and such marriages were probably not only consented to but largely arranged by their parents. The majority, however, married girls resident in the metropolis about whom their parents would have little but hearsay knowledge. This would not necessarily stop them taking a great interest but it would certainly affect the possibilities of strong parental control over the courtship process. Indeed, it is more likely that 'friends' rather than parents would be the main advisers in such cases.
There were, then, a number of factors tending to minimize the significance of parental consent to marriages, especially for young men. For girls, consent was more important, since they were younger when they got married. Girls were also thought to be wilful creatures, ignorant in the ways of the world, who, if left to make their own choice, were likely to pick badly. Parental objection to a girl's choice of marriage partner might be based on virtually any grounds but the two commonest were recorded by the merchant George B.oddington in his autobiography. His daughter, Sarah, was at boarding school in Hackney where she fell in love with one Ebenezer Collier, 'whose circumstances
being not correspondent with what I had to give her and an inquiry having had a miserable bad carracter of him I would not consent he should address her'. Things looked bad for Sarah, for she would not marry Ebenezer without her father's consent nor would Ebenezer marry her without such consent 'lest I should give him nothing'.
This was, of course, the ultimate sanction of the authority of a middle-class father and a powerful sanction it was, for the attitude of Ebenezer was typical of young middling men, who would be extremely reluctant to marry a girl with no portion. Nor was it realistic to defy the father in the expectation that, when he died, the girl would receive her portion by the custom of London, which provided for the equal division of one third of a deceased citizen's estate between his children. The custom was firm on this point: 'If the daughter of a citizen of London marries in his life-time, against his consent, unless the father be reconciled to her before his death, she shall not have her orphanage share of his personal estate.'
The wrath of the father could therefore extend beyond the grave. Nevertheless, one's impression is that the sanction of disinheritance, although often threatened, was rarely carried out. The mere suggestion that there might be no portion or that a portion might be reduced to a beggarly size was enough to drive away a faint-hearted suitor and bring most recalcitrant girls to heel. Persistence could, however, pay off, as it did in the case of George Boddington, who finally agreed to his daughter's marriage 'with great regret . . . and since to my great trouble' after being besieged by the friends and relations of both parties as well as flooded with the tears of his daughter herself. Some fathers may have been adamant to the end, but not a single example has been found of such adamancy affecting the division of estates by the Common Serjeant, the city official whose task it was to implement the custom of London in this respect.
Further evidence that fathers were not as harsh in fact as they might be in fiction can be found in wills. The normal, indeed almost universal, provision in middle-class wills was for legacies and orphanage portions to be paid to daughters at marriage or at the age of twenty-one, whichever was earliest. In 181 wills made by the sample, only 14 have any comment at all to make about their daughters' marriages. Three fathers merely
put in writing what most fathers probably felt. The banker Thomas Williams, for instance, wrote that 'my will and desire is that my children do cohabit with my wife and give due obedience to her and to be advised by her in all matters, more particularly in their respective marriages', but there were no penalties for disobedience. Another eight fathers willed that either a separate legacy or an orphanage portion or both would be void if their daughters married under the age of twenty-one without the consent of their mother or guardian, but there were no sanctions against daughters who married over twenty-one without consent. One man made a legacy, but not the orphanage portion, void for ever if the girl married at any time without her mother's consent. Finally, the brazier Robert Sellers left £600 to his only daughter Mary on condition that, if she married without her mother's consent, she was not to be paid till she was twentyfour and, tougher still, the merchant John Cary willed that 'if any of my [three] daughters marry without consent of my wife and my son Thomas Cary before the age of 30', they were to lose a legacy of £500, which would be shared amongst his other children. However, Cary, who left nearly £30,000, also bequeathed an unconditional £1000 to all his children on top of the £500 legacy. To summarize, the vast majority of fathers provided no sanctions at all against daughters who married without consent, even though they were under age, and hardly any provided sanctions against those who were over age.
It seems reasonable to conclude that, where parents were present, they felt it their duty to advise, warn and cajole their children, particularly their daughters, but only very rarely to the extent of punishing them financially for disobedience. Children certainly seem to have accepted the role of parents and friends as advisers and were unhappy to marry without consent. The need for consent could also be used as a valuable delaying weapon in the process of courtship, giving daughters time to think, providing a handy excuse to get rid of or put off a suitor for whom they had little taste. Sons used the same excuse to avoid or postpone marriage to girls whom they had got pregnant. It is often convenient to have some shadowy and older outsider who can be blamed for your not doing something that you in fact have no wish to do.
Who did the sons and daughters of the middle class marry
and how did they make their choice? Moralists emphasized that marriage should be based on love, or at least on affection, and warned young people against tying themselves for life to someone in whom they only had a material interest. The ideal of love and the 'home' was a strong one and is attractively recorded in the diary kept by the law student Dudley Ryder, who wrote that he had a strong inclination towards marriage, 'not from any principle of lust or desire to enjoy a woman in bed but from a natural tendency, a prepossession in favour of the married state. It is charming and moving, it ravishes me to think of a pretty creature concerned in me, being my most intimate friend, constant companion and always ready to soothe me, take care of me and caress me.'
It can be seen that Ryder's emphasis was not so much on passion, which most contemporaries regarded as 'the rash intemperance of youth', a dangerous state likely to blind people to reality, as on friendship and companionship. When describing a happy engaged couple, contemporaries sometimes said that they were 'in love', but words like 'kindness' and 'affection' were much commoner. 'They were kind and familiar together', 'he had a great kindness to her' or, alternately, 'she had no kindness for him' are the sort of expressions that appear again and again. One should also note that Ryder has a rather selfish view of marriage in that he assumed that it was to be his future wife who soothed, took care of and was concerned in him rather than that such matters should be truly mutual. This was certainly a common attitude in an unequal society. Men were expected to be kind, but they in turn expected to receive rather more than they gave in emotional terms.
Although contemporaries emphasized the necessity of affection, very few would have thought that this was sufficient grounds for the choice of partner in the middle station of life. Material interest, character, social position and often religion had to be taken into consideration as well and the real problem was to balance such factors against affection. The ideal was equality of fortune, rank and religion, together with mutual affection, but in a society not blinded by passion, most were realistic enough to assume that such an ideal was not easily reached and that marriage in reality involved a trade-off between affection, material interests and social ambition.
Most young men of the middle station desperately needed the money which would come as their wife's portion. For some, a dowry was the only way in which they could set up independently in business; for others, it was a very valuable second injection of capital, which would enable them to develop the business already started with capital provided by their parents. In such circumstances, another £100 of capital was a very important consideration and one that had to be carefully weighed against an attractive, affectionate but poorer girl. The same Dudley Ryder, who has just been quoted on the delights of the companionate marriage, was quite clear in his mind on this subject: 'Cousin Billio said for a young man not in business that had 2 or £3000 to marry a woman of perhaps 1 or £2000 it would keep him low all his life. This I must confess gave a great turn to my thoughts with respect to Mrs Marshall. Why should I think of having her when it would expose us both to want?' Why indeed, and of course Cousin Billio's advice was in fact just as applicable to young men who were 'in business'.
The same considerations applied to girls, most of whom were brought up with a realistic idea of marriage and were discouraged, not always successfully, from filling their heads with romantic ideas derived from playbooks or novels. They knew that their choice of marriage partner would govern not only their future happiness but also their future position in the social and economic hierarchy and, since middle-class girls were bred to believe that to improve oneself was a good idea, they were usually happy enough for parents and friends experienced in the world to vet their suitors. Nonetheless, girls wanted affection too and felt that they themselves were most likely to be the best judges of the possibilities of this, though not all parents agreed with them.
If affection was too much to ask for, then they would at least want to like their husband, as the eldest daughter in Defoe's Religious Courtship said when asked what would be the basis of her choice. 'O! I'll explain it in a few words; a good estate, and a man you like.' Her younger sister had a rather more cynical view. 'Nay; you might have stopt at the first; it's no matter what the man is, if the estate be but good.' Few girls were quite so worldly and the courtship process was one in which conflicts of interest, emotion and duty to parents often gave rise to stress
but, in the end, girls had to make the same trade-offs as men, though, as we have seen, the market was against women and so they more often got the worst of the bargain.
One is in no position to analyse this internal bargaining process, to weigh the money against the emotion, nor indeed to see how it worked out in practice. One simply has to assume that some people were happy and some were not, that some were satisfied with their bargain and some regretted the calculus of courtship and would rather have had more money or more affection. Contemporaries tended to be cynical about marriage and to assume that most marriages were or would be unhappy; 'the greatest plague of human life', according to Thomas Tryon. The Rev. Richard Baxter was very pessimistic: 'There are scarce any two persons in the world, but there is some unsuitableness between them. . . . Some crossness there will be of opinion, or disposition, or interest, or will, by nature or by custom and education, which will stir up frequent discontents.' People are still cynical about marriage today, with some justification, but they still get married. Perhaps Dudley Ryder best explains why: 'At length we came to talk of matrimony, and I said though I had often upon consideration thought that the miseries and inconveniences that attended that state were much greater than the advantages of it and a man runs a vast hazard in entering upon it, yet at the same time I could not suppose myself capable of being completely happy here without it.'
One can never really tell just why a particular man married a particular woman in the past. Nevertheless, patterns can be seen and they are those one would expect. Roger Pocock was the son of a yeoman who became a wealthy Hamburg merchant and married the daughter of a knight. When his only child Elizabeth was eighteen, she too was married to a knight. One has no idea whether Elizabeth was or believed that she was in love with Sir Thomas Travel; but it seems a reasonable assumption that the marriage choices were governed by the fact that the Pococks were moving up in the world, translating money into status, a common enough process which aroused the interest, envy or admiration of contemporaries, depending on their view of the world or their place in it.
William Melmoth was the son of another yeoman. In 1655,
he was apprenticed to George Johnson, an apothecary and, in 1662, he paid £4 to be released from his indentures four months early 'because he hopes to be partner to his master'. It is not totally surprising to discover that, shortly afterwards, he married Anne Johnson, his master's daughter, for this too was a common scenario, though not quite as common as the story books would tell us. Again, we do not know if Anne and William loved each other, but they would certainly have known each other very well since they had been living together in the same house for over seven years.
William presumably had a business as well as an emotional interest in marrying Anne and such interests are obvious in most of the marriages on which there is any information. A merchant marries the daughter of another merchant; a bookseller the daughter of another bookseller; a mason marries the daughter of a plumber. There is not space here to unravel the details of these relationships, though it would be interesting to do so. Nevertheless, enough hints are given to be sure that the London business world was meshed together by a honeycomb of kinship and particularly marriage relationships, just like the world of the gentry with which it was so closely connected.
Even when a business interest was not in the forefront of the relationship, sons and daughters were likely to marry the sons and daughters of business friends and acquaintances or at least of people of the same economic status. For these were the people whom they would meet or their parents would arrange that they would meet. London was a big place and one where women were not 'mewed up as in Italy or Spain', so it was easier for young people to play the field than it was in most countries. Nevertheless, like tended to marry like and the ideal of equality of fortune and status was the one which most often governed the actual choice of partner. Disparities in status make for good stories and good drama, but good drama does not necessarily mirror social reality.