Realities of Marriage in the Regency Era

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In chapter six of volume one of Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet provide us several tidbits regarding the success of a marriage during the Georgian era. 

~  “If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely — a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels.”

~ “But if a woman is partial to a man, and does not endeavour to conceal it, he must find it out.”

~ “When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chuses.”

~ “As yet, she cannot even be certain of the degree of her own regard, nor of its reasonableness. She has known him only a fortnight. She danced four dances with him at Meryton; she saw him one morning at his own house, and has since dined in company with him four times. This is not quite enough to make her understand his character.”

~ “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”

In my latest Austen vagary, Pride and Prejudice and a Shakespearean Scholar, the marriage between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet begins as a rushed affair, and our dear couple travel a rocky road before claiming some of the happiness we wish them. So what were some of the realities of marriage in the Georgian era, specifically the Regency?

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First off, remaining unmarried did not equal freedom for a woman of the Georgian era, rather she customarily experienced a life of penury, always at the mercy of benevolent relatives. Even Austen suffered after her father’s passing, which makes Charlotte Lucas’s speech regarding Mr. Collins evoke more sympathy: “You must be surprised, very much surprised—so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’ character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” However, when a woman married the important decisions of her life passed from her father’s control to that of a husband. Marriage was a lifelong contract between a man and a woman. It was a crap shoot, so to speak. Divorce was expensive and VERY public. Most couples avoided even the thought of such an act.

The Bastardy Act of 1733 created something called Knobstick Weddings. A knobstick wedding is the forced marriage of a pregnant single woman with the man known or believed to be the father. It derives its name from the staves of office carried by the church wardens whose presence was intended to ensure that the ceremony took place.The practice and the term were most prevalent in the United Kingdom in the 18th century. Motivation for these arrangements was primarily financial–local parishes were obliged to provide relief for single mothers under the laws regarding relief for the poor. After the passing of the Bastardy Act in 1733, it became the responsibility of the father to pay for the maintenance of the child. Local authorities therefore encouraged the woman to enter into a marriage with the person presumed to be the father in an attempt to reduce their spending and shift the responsibility to the identified man. On some occasions the parish would pay the man to marry the girl, while there are also accounts of more aggressive tactics. In one case, recorded in the 6 October 1829 edition of The Times, a man was coerced into marrying the woman he was accused of making pregnant. The authorities, referred to as the parish overseers, threatened to hang him if he did not go through with the arrangement. Feeling that he had no option, he agreed to the marriage and the pair were wed. However, those responsible for forcing the partnership were later called to face charges of fraudulently procuring the marriage.” [Knobstick Wedding]

Fildes_Sir_Luke_The_Wedding.jpgMarriage, whether it was rushed or planned for months on end, was a very public affair, one designed not only to announce the ceremony, but to assure the public that the man meant to support his new wife. If a widow remarried, some would do so in what was known as a smock wedding. The custom saw the man marrying a woman who was naked or dressed only in a smock. In the 1700s in America, quite of few of these weddings occurred, a left-over custom by those escaping England. The idea was if the woman appeared naked or in her underclothes that it absolved her from anyone collecting upon the woman’s debts or in case of a widow, from collecting upon her late husband’s debts. The idea was that a groom who possessed anything bought by a bride or her deceased husband would possess their indebtedness as well. The smock wedding prevented this situation. When marrying bricklayer Richard Elcock at Bishop’s Waltham in September 1775, it was observed that widow Judith Redding “went into one of the pews in the church, stript herself of all her cloaths except her shift, in which only she went to the altar, and was married, much to the astonishment of the parson, clerk, &c.” [A Survivor’s Guide to a Georgian Wedding]

A Survivor’s Guide to a Georgian Wedding also speaks of the devastating effect on women of being widowed, but also of being deserted by their husbands. If a widow, it was often imperative that the woman wed again. She not only depended upon the good graces of her new husband for her support, but the woman would need his support of any of her children still at home. Having her husband desert her for whatever reason left the woman in limbo (death on the battlefield, a criminal offense, abandonment, etc.).  She could not remarry or have legitimate children. If the man chose not to take care of her and provide for her, she could easily fall into poverty and be driven into the workhouse.

PP+SS CoverIntroducing Pride and Prejudice and a Shakespearean Scholar

Unless one knows the value of loyalty, he cannot appreciate the cost of betrayal.

What if Darcy and Elizabeth met weeks before the Meryton assembly? What if there is no barely “tolerable” remark to have Elizabeth rejecting Mr. Darcy’s affections, but rather a dip in a cold creek that sets her against him? What if Mr. Bennet is a renown Shakespearean scholar who encourages Darcy to act the role of Petruchio from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” to bring Elizabeth’s Katherina persona to the line?

ELIZABETH BENNET’s pride has her learning a difficult lesson: Loyalty is hard to find, and trust is easy to lose. Even after they share a passionate kiss outside the Meryton assembly hall and are forced to marry, Elizabeth cannot forget the indignity she experienced at the hands of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Although she despises his high-handedness, Elizabeth appreciates the protection he provides her in their marriage. But can she set her prejudice aside long enough to know a great love?

FITZWILLIAM DARCY places only two demands on his new wife: her loyalty and her trust, but when she invites his worst enemy to Darcy House, he has no choice but to turn her out. Trusting her had been his decision, but proving his choice the right one before she destroys two hearts meant to be together must be hers, and Darcy is not certain Elizabeth is up to the task.

Excerpt from Chapter 20…

Five days. Five days of bliss had filled her world until it came tumbling down about her. And the devastation was all her fault. Despite her best efforts, Elizabeth had failed her husband, driving him from her life forever.

On Friday, Darcy and Georgiana had set out early to make a last-minute call upon the Matlocks to firm up plans for a traditional Twelfth Night celebration and then to the music store for more sheet music for Miss Darcy. Mrs. Annesley was to sit with Elizabeth in the case of callers in the absence of the Darcys, but the lady had turned her ankle on a worn strip of carpeting, and Elizabeth had insisted that Georgiana’s companion rest with her leg elevated, rather than greet the few visitors who had yet come for a look at the new mistress of Darcy House.

She was not expecting anyone else to entertain, but that had been her mistake. Mrs. Hyten and her daughter were just preparing to leave Elizabeth’s sitting room when Mr. Thacker announced, “Lieutenant Wickersham to speak to the lady of the house, ma’am.”

Elizabeth’s heart sank. She knew no one named Wickersham, but she did know a Lieutenant Wickham. Had Mr. Wickham taken her “I must consider your request before I approach my husband” to mean that the lieutenant was to call upon her personally? Or that her consideration was a guarantee that she would act as Mr. Wickham had asked? And what would her husband do if he discovered that she had admitted the lieutenant; yet, how could she deny him with Mrs. Hyten closely observing Elizabeth’s every action. The woman was known as one of London’s busiest gossips. “Show the lieutenant up, Mr. Thacker,” Elizabeth responded in the calm tone that Darcy often employed. To Mrs. Hyten she said, “The lieutenant is a relative of a relative in the Darcy family.” Which was not a lie exactly, for Mr. Wickham was the late Mr. Darcy’s godson. “Mr. Darcy has agreed to assist him in securing a commission in the Regulars. I am certain my husband simply overlooked his meeting with the gentleman.” Which were two untruths. Had her expression told Mrs. Hyten of her anxiety, or had Elizabeth appeared casual? She doubted so.

“Do you wish us to stay?” Mrs. Hyten asked with a lift of her brows. “We would be pleased to take the acquaintance of any of Mr. Darcy’s relatives.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Elizabeth assured. “But as this is a very private matter, and Mr. Darcy is a very private man, I think it best if I meet with the gentleman alone. However, I understand your caution, and so I will ask Mrs. Annesley, Miss Darcy’s companion, who rests in the room beyond,” Elizabeth gestured in the direction of her chambers, for Mrs. Annesley was further along the hall, a fact which would not create another lie, “or Sally to sit with me.” She stood to end the conversation just as Mr. Thacker directed Lieutenant Wickham into the room. “Thank you, Mr. Thacker. Please show the Hytens out and ask either Sally or Mrs. Guthrie to join me.” To Mrs. Hyten, she said, “I hope you will call again when the Darcys return to London in the spring. It has been a great honor to have your acquaintance, ma’am.”

With a departing curtsey, the Hytens left the room. The lieutenant waited only long enough for Mr. Thacker’s footsteps to recede before saying, “Very nice.” He glanced about the sitting room. “It is as I imagined.”

“You have never been to Darcy House?” she asked with a bit of curiosity. She would have thought Wickham privy to all the Darcy properties.

“My father was the steward at Pemberley. There was no reason for us to travel with the Darcy family to London. Obviously, I have often viewed the outside of Darcy’s domain, but I was never received within until this day.”

Elizabeth shook her head as if to clear it. Whether Wickham had ever been to Darcy House was not the issue. She needed to be rid of him before Darcy returned. “Thank you for the courtesy of a response, but I must insist on knowing why you are here, Mr. Wickham?” she demanded.

The lieutenant’s eyes narrowed. “You promised to speak to Darcy about a reconciliation. I pray you have not changed your mind.”

Guarded, Elizabeth had yet to sit or to invite him to do so. It was important to move this conversation along and to have the lieutenant showed out. “You err, sir. I promised to consider your request. I have not broached the subject to my husband, and until I do and he agrees, I must ask you to leave.”

She noted that Lieutenant Wickham stiffened. “It grieves me to hear so.” He broke off with a frown. “I thought I had found a champion in you, Mrs. Darcy.” His voice lowered, “I thought that you and I shared a hatred for all things Darcy.”

Resources:

Knobstick Wedding – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knobstick_wedding

Naked and Smock Weddings of Early New England http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/naked-and-smock-weddings-of-early-new-england/

A Survivor’s Guide to a Georgian Wedding http://www.historyextra.com/article/premium/survivors-guide-georgian-marriage

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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