In the Victorian era, marriage was not as romanticized or fairytale-like as depicted in many novels of the time. On the contrary, love actually played a very minor role in the majority of matrimonies that took place. An engagement was entered into as one would approach a business deal, and there were some generally accepted rules and guidelines to follow.
- It was illegal to marry your deceased wife’s sister. You could marry first cousins, but attitudes changed towards the end of the 19th century, and this became frowned upon.
- Victorians were encouraged to marry within the same class (remember the views on social mobility!). They could marry up, but to marry down meant marrying beneath yourself (Soames).
- A woman entering into the institute of marriage had to be equipped with a dowry. The husband-to-be had to prove that he could support his new bride in the lifestyle she was accustomed to.
- An unmarried woman could inherit money and property after she reached the age of 21, but once married, all control would revert to her husband. A woman could not have a will for her own personal possessions; since thecontrol was in her husband’s power, he could distribute her property in any way he likes, even to his illegitimate children (if he has any).
- Women married because they had a lack of options; they were not formerly educated, and were only instructed in domestic duties. They needed someone to support them, and were encouraged to marry and have children ("The Rules of Marriage").
- Marriage was a carefully contemplated subject for a woman; since she would lose control over any possessions once married, it was not something entered into lightly, and a woman was not required to accept her first proposal.
- The financial aspects of both families were discussed openly. They can be compared to today’s prenuptial agreements. A woman’s father was responsible for retaining a “jointure” for his daughter; this was a provision in the event that she might outlive her husband,so that she was taken care of monetarily.
- After the business aspects were secured, the engagement followed. The husband presented his fiancée with a ring; the woman could give her fiancé a ring as well, but it was not required. The woman’s mother was responsible for throwing an engagement dinner for the couple.
- Engagements lasted anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. After it was “official,” the couple was permitted to be more intimate: they could hold hands in public, take walks together, take private carriage rides (but the carriage had to be open), and even spend time alone behind closed doors, as long as they were properly separated by nightfall.
- Any failure to follow these rules of conduct meant a ruined reputation for the woman; the engagement would most likely be called off and she would spend the rest of her life as a spinster. An honorable man would typically marry her anyway, but then again, an honorable man would not become engaged to a woman who would disobey societal rules. An example of a Victorian Wedding Certificate.
Wedding Etiquette*After the wedding, it was customary to send cards indicating when the couple was to be “called upon” by their friends and family. When calling on a couple, it was important to be punctual; never
- arrive before or after your appointed hour. Wedding cake and winewas served and the guests
- could bestow wishes of health and happiness on the couple.
- When receiving guests, the bride was never to be alone. Even if her husband was present, it was expected that her mother, sister, or close friend was with her to receive visitors. “To do otherwise is to disregard the usages of society” (Wells).
Views on Divorce
- Divorce was difficult to obtain; the only acceptable reason for divorce was adultery, and even then it was only a valid reason for a man. Women could use adultery as an excuse to divorce her husband, but she also had to supplement it with a reason proving her husband “engaged in incest, bigamy, or excessive cruelty” (Marriage and Divorce).
- Though this was a double standard, the reason for it was this: men were viewed to “take care” of their wives, and thought that their fidelity should not matter; women on the other hand, if caught cheating, were seen as disrespecting the “care” of their husbands.
- Laws were modified in the mid-19th century to make divorce more accessible to both men and women, but it was still scarce. Women saw marriage as a way to gain independence from their families and to start a new life, even though their husbands were granted all of the power.
- Divorce was extremely expensive; it entailed the loss of wealth and property. Since it accumulated from generation to generation and helped to strengthen the family line, divorce was neither economically or socially practical. It would guarantee the family losing some of its strength and influence by giving up property and wealth.
“Marriage and Divorce in Victorian England.” Charlotte's Web: A Hypertext on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. <>.
"The Rules of Marriage in the Victorian Era.” <http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/femhist/marriage.shtml>.
Soames, Enoch. “Marriage in the Victorian Era.” The Charlock’s Shade. 18 February 2004. <>
Wells, Richard A. “Manners Culture and Dress of the Best American Society.” King, Richardson, & Co. Publishers. Springfield, MA. 1893. <>.