By Susan Adriani, author of The Luxury of Silence
‘Reader, I married him’
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
But courtship in Regency England was not quite as straightforward (or romantic) as one might think, nor did love necessarily go hand in hand with matrimony. Today, we tend to think of courtship automatically leading to love, and love leading—inevitably—to that ultimate pinnacle of romantic intent: marriage. But that was not the case regarding many marriages that took place in Jane Austen’s time more than two hundred years ago.
While arranged marriages had mostly become a thing of the past by then (unless you happened to be a member of the monarchy), marriages of convenience between the upper classes were still going strong. Choosing a marriage partner was a serious business—quite literally a business transaction replete with negotiations, settlements, and contracts that endured for life—and required much consideration.
For instance, a prospective bridegroom may have an ancestral home he needs to maintain. Or perhaps he enjoys a certain high style of living to which he has grown accustomed. Both require money and lots of it. If his estate is entailed, he will also require an heir to ensure it remains within his own bloodline. More than likely, that gentleman, regardless of his wealth and consequence, will want a rich wife—one with a large dowry who will add to his own coffers and enable him, and his progeny, to prosper for many generations to come.
This rich wife of his should also be of good breeding and noble lineage and, come to think of it, of his own social class (or perhaps a step above). Keeping up appearances was important, as was status. There was a hierarchy to be maintained after all, and a man who married the right sort of woman—a woman of fashion whose family frequented the same places and knew the same people as he did—would ensure his social standing within that sphere remained undisturbed and intact.
Where does love fit into this matrimonial equation, you ask? It very often did not.
While love between a man and his wife certainly existed during the Regency era, it was not, in general, considered synonymous with courtship or marriage, at least not when an engaged couple first entered the marriage state. Nor was there any guarantee that love would blossom once that couple came to know each other better as husband and wife. Despite their appearing well suited in wealth and consequence, some married couples did not suit beyond those initial requirements of convenience and soon discovered they barely even liked each other. (Remember that courtship was conducted primarily under the watchful eyes and keen ears of chaperones. While such vigilance ensured that courting couples maintained a certain level of propriety, it afforded them little privacy for more in-depth chats. As engagements often lasted no more than a month or two before the wedding, both parties got to know each other far better after they married, not before.) In any case, love had absolutely nothing to do with one’s social standing or increasing one’s fortune or, as incredible as it may seem, siring an heir for one’s estate. Love would certainly make things more agreeable (especially the business of siring an heir), but it was not necessary for a gentleman or a lady to love their prospective spouse.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy’s titled family and wealthy friends expect him to marry a woman of his own station: a well-dowered lady with a noble lineage and excellent connections who would benefit him, his estate, and his future children in some significant way. Darcy, too, likely envisions such an illustrious match for himself; but after he meets Elizabeth Bennet in Hertfordshire, his expectations and requirements regarding his marital felicity start to take a very different turn.
My new novel, The Luxury of Silence, follows this course as well, only much sooner.
Elizabeth, rather than allowing Darcy’s insult at the Meryton Assembly to color her initial impression of him for the worse, decides to take the high road and puts aside her prejudice to become his friend. Darcy, too, had formed his own impression of Elizabeth during their first meeting, but that impression did not take shape in the middle of an overheated, crowded assembly room! He apologizes for his poor behavior and, in chapter seven, realizes the following:
‘Coldness and indifference were not what Darcy wanted from the woman who would be his wife. He wanted warmth. He wanted sincerity. He wanted a companion and a lover. He wanted a woman who would engage his intellect, ease his burdens, welcome his presence in her bed, and meet his passion with a fair measure of her own’.
How very different those sentiments are from the more formal, businesslike sentiments Darcy’s friends and family expect of him—the melding of fortunes and the building and strengthening of connections within his own sphere! After coming to know Elizabeth—after traversing the countryside with her nearly every day for weeks, where they discuss all manner of subjects that reveal her intelligence, her artlessness, and her heart—the prospect of a marriage of convenience to a rich, London debutant chafes.
Marriage in Regency England was forever. Divorce was difficult and exceedingly rare. Is it any wonder that the prospect of marrying his pretty, clever, compassionate friend—a woman Darcy not only admires and esteems above all others but who he knew so well—would appeal to him?
Darcy was his own master. He had money in abundance. He had consequence and connections and property. What he did not have, and what he realized he so desperately wanted and needed, was a wife he would love, and who would love him in turn, despite his faults and failings.
A truly beautiful sentiment no matter the era, don’t you think?
What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool
Courting and Marriage in the Regency by Cheryl Bolen