Until 1823, a single person under the age of one and twenty could not marry without his/her parent’s permission. (Lydia’s elopement and Georgiana’s aborted elopement were instances of this rule.) After 1823, the minimum age to marry without a parent’s consent drop to 14 for a boy and 12 for a girl. Other rules of marriage were also in effect, such as one was discouraged from marrying one’s deceased wife’s sister; yet, it was acceptable to marry one’s first cousin (Lady Catherine hopes Darcy will marry his cousin Anne, and Mr. Collins wishes to marry several of his Bennet cousins before settling on Charlotte Lucas.) The Marriage Act of 1835 eliminated the possibility of marrying one’s deceased wife’s sister. Such marriages were considered “void”able (if one wished an annulment). However, please recall that Jane Austen’s younger brother Charles married his wife’s (Francis Palmer) sister, Harriet. Francis had died in childbirth, and Charles had left his surviving daughters in Harriet’s care while he returned to sea. In 1820, he returned to England for several years, and after three years of “courtship,” he married Harriet. They remained married for 32 years (until his death in 1852). They had four children (3 sons and a daughter).
The law transferred all of a woman’s property transferred to her husband upon their marriage. Marriages were a BUSINESS CONTRACT, not a romantic attachment. When a wife from the wealthier classes entered a marriage, she, generally, brought a generous dowry to the settlement. The financial arrangements for a marriage were rarely a matter of concealment. According to What Jane Austen Are and Charles Dickens Knew (Daniel Pool, Touchstone Books), “a contemporary courtship etiquette manual says very straightforwardly that once you propose ‘your course is to acquaint the parents or guardians of the lady with your intentions, at the same time stating your circumstances and what settlement you would make upon your future wife; and, on their side, they must state what will be her fortune as near as they can estimate to the best of their knowledge at the time you make the enquiry.’”
Men often used their wives’ dowries to shore up their estates and investments. “Keeping up with the Jones” during the Regency was an expensive endeavor. The bride’s family negotiated her financial future as part of the settlements. What happened to her and her children depended upon making a good settlement. At the man’s death, the wife would receive approximately one-third of her husband’s land, but the Dower Act of 1833 abolished this practice. The woman was often given “pin money,” an annual allowance for her personal needs while her husband remained alive. After his death, a “jointure” could provide the widow money and land for her future, while leaving “portions” for her minor children.
Weddings occurred only during canonical hours, between 8 A.M. and noon. Normally, only close family and friends would attend the wedding. After the ceremony, the couple and their guests attended a wedding breakfast.
If an engaged person terminated the agreement before the marriage, he/she could face legal action in a “breach of promise” suit. However, assuming the couple meant to meet their obligations, there were four routes to “placing one’s neck in the parson’s ropes.”
(1) Calling of the Banns – If marrying in the Church of England, the couple would “publish the banns.” From his pulpit, the local clergy would announce the upcoming wedding for three consecutive Sundays. If the bride and groom lived in different parishes, the banns were read in both. If there were no objections to their joining, the couple could marry within 90 days of the final call. This was the method that the poorer families used for it cost nothing to have the banns called. Of course, one ran the possibility that an objection would be lodged in a very public manner. If the persons marrying came from separate parishes, the curate of one parish could not solemnize the wedding without a certificate of the other stating the banns had been “thrice called” and no objections had been lodged.
(2) Common/Ordinary License – For approximately 10 shillings, a couple could purchase a license from a clergyman. Then the couple could marry in either the parish of the bride or the groom. The common/ordinary license was good for 15 days. (This is how Lydia and Wickham were married in Pride and Prejudice. If one recalls, Wickham’s lodgings were in St. Clement’s parish, and St. Clement’s was the site of the marriage. One had to be a resident in the parish for 15 days prior to the ceremony.)
The common license could be obtained from any bishop or archbishop. A sworn statement was given that there were no impediments to the marriage. The marriage was to take place within 3 months of the license’s issuance.
(3) Special License – This was the most expensive way to marry. The Archbishop of Canterbury granted a special license. They cost between 4-5 pounds and were at the archbishop’s discretion. With a special license, a couple could marry in any parish and at any time.
(4) Civil License – After 1836, a fourth option appeared: the civil license. This license could be obtained from the superintendent-registrar. Couples who were Catholic, Jewish, or Dissenters obtained this license. The couple could be married at a church or at the registrar’s office.
Of course, the couple could foil all plans for marriage by eloping to Gretna Green, a Scottish town on the border with England. Gretna Green is in Dumfries and Galloway, near the mouth of the River Esk and was historically the first village in Scotland, following the old coaching route from London to Edinburgh. The marriage rules were not as strict as those in England. The Scottish Presbyterian Church was more lax in its requirements than the Church of England. Elopement was frowned upon as a “bad” way to begin a marriage. An elopement brought a family a certain amount of shame as it was a very anti-social act. A couple simply had to pledge yourself to your chosen partner and in the presence of another. The act was often referred to marrying “over the anvil” because Scottish law allowed for “irregular marriages,” and anyone could conduct the marriage ceremony. The blacksmiths in Gretna became known as “anvil priests.”