How would you pick between a score of damsels, that one who make a Good Wife? What qualities would you find important? What faults of character would make the choice unwise?
The Gentleman’s Magazine (August, 1750), published a letter that was sent from an uncle to his nephew, a young tradesman, advising him on how to choose a wife.
The suggestions are as follows:
- Fortune: “Let not your principal concern be the lady’s portion, but her family and alliances; I do not mean with respect to magnificence and splendor, but an extensive trade and correspondence, from which greater advantages may be derived to a man of business, than from a very considerable fortune, which, if put into trade without such advantages, will gradually diminish…”
- Beliefs: “Let your wife be religious, but not a bigot; otherwise her time and her thoughts will be wholly employ’d in devotional exercises, and her family affairs totally neglected: besides, if her opinion be different from yours, she will accuse you of superstition or infidelity, and harrass you with controversy, ‘till you will fly from home, as an office of inquisition, in which your wife is not only judge, but executioner.”
- Interests: “Avoid her, in whom the love of pleasure appears to be a predominant passion, however enticing her wit, or however alluring her beauty. Domestick affairs will be deem’d unworthy of her notice, and the expences which attend the indulgence of such a disposition will never affect her, ‘till the fund be exhausted; nor will she be convinced that her desires are unreasonable, ‘till the gratification of them is become impossible; for the love of pleasure acquired in youth, is so deeply rooted, and the opportunities of gratifying it so many, that a reformation cannot be hoped…”
- Intellect: “Plain natural good-sense is an essential qualification, … This, join’d with that economy which it naturally produces, is the very basis of matrimonial felicity…”
- Disposition: “But there is no single quality of so much importance as sweetness of temper, to be easy and cheerful, to meet you with smiles, when the business of the day is over, to sooth the anguish and anxiety that are produced by hurry and disappointments; to be so perfectly yours as to enter into your different passion and affections so deeply, as to feel them with you and for you, is to alleviate every sorrow, and double all the felicities of life.”
- Beauty: “With regard to person, rather chuse one in whom there is nothing that disgusts you, than a celebrated beauty; for Time and Fruition will certainly make you indifferent.”
Some further advice on the sustenance of marriage:
I cannot quit this subject without adding one maxim, which, tho’ generally neglected, is of very great service: be constantly diligent to keep alive desire, and preserve that delicacy of affection which is so justly celebrated, and so seldom felt. … It should be remembered that the same means which were used to gain affection, are absolutely necessary to preserve it…
And some interesting advice on the marriage settlement:
Neither grant a settlement large enough to make her independent, lest you put into her hand a rod, which it will be well for you, if you are not frequently obliged to kiss.
And, in a lovely sentimental conclusion:
In one word, endeavour to make her happy, and you will find you own happiness will follow, as a necessary consequence.
My point in sharing excerpts of this letter is not to exclaim how awful the lot of women in this era was (as true as that may be), but rather to appreciate the manner in which life was conducted in the mid-eighteenth century.
This letter reveals some of those practicalities facing a young man in making that difficult decision of choosing a wife, when divorce – especially between couples of lower classes – was virtually impossible.
The issue of fortune was important because it enabled a couple to begin with a sum which could be invested and then provide for the wife and any children in the event of the husband’s death. In the emerging middle class, and in the case of The Nephew, good business connections are seen as more valuable because these can assist him in building his wealth through trade.
Religion was relatively important in the eighteenth century, but even though everyone was required to observe Sunday, there were different degrees of belief between people. Some merely attended church and religion had little other impact on their lives, whereas some (like John and Charles Wesley) preached on the street or devoted time to the poor. However, in any marriage, even today, it does seem to make sense to have a similar belief system in order to reduce conflict.
From the literature of this period, it appears that idleness and the love of pleasure was a common pursuit in those individuals that could afford to do so. As The Uncle remarks, there were many opportunities to indulge this fancy; gambling, balls, theatres, masquerades, and shopping. Unfortunately, this popular pastime had the power to cripple even the richest of persons. In addition, the love of pleasure is almost surely synonymous with irresponsibility, which must be a negative quality in any spouse!
Overlooking beauty as an important quality in a wife is a significant element of a good marriage. I am not suggesting that beauty in any way harms a marriage, but beauty does seem to blind the beholder to the presence of other admirable (or un-admirable) traits in a person. Of course, no one is suggesting wives should be ugly, but beauty is different to attraction, and a man can be attracted to a woman regardless of her measure of “celebrated beauty”.
Throughout the letter, The Uncle makes frequent reference to The Nephew’s own behaviour within a marriage, stating that his own behaviour will determine the course of the relationship. He urges his nephew to keep desire and affection alive, which leads directly to his conclusion, where by making his wife happy he will invariably increase his own happiness. What a fantastic precept to begin any relationship!
Overwhelmingly, I found the letter made exceptional sense, even from today’s standards. Do you agree? What would You want in a Wife?
Sources and Relevant Links
The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 20, 1750.
Article: How to choose a wife (See how things have changed!)
More useful “tips” for choosing a wife in the modern age