Ackermann’s Repository was a publication dedicated to, according to its title, the Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics. In 1818 there appeared in its pages a letter from a reader concerning the path to a happy marriage (entitled, Rules and Maxims for Matrimonial Happiness).
Its contents could initially be supposed, by a person – like myself – distant to the time period, to be an adequate reflection of the ideals of marriage in the early nineteenth century, however a reply in the next issue of the journal leads me to suppose that this man’s conservative opinion was truly conservative.
This reply, written by a lady called Sophia Stickelfort, contains much admonishment to the Editor for his insertion of such a letter. She goes on to exclaim that “no woman possessing an atom of feeling or spirit, could ever live happily with a man who would observe the rules laid down by him.” (Which I can readily believe!)
She criticises the creator of ‘Rules and Maxims’, wondering how his married life could have been so miserable when he has been in possession of such rules that he claims could have improved the happiness of any who would follow them. She does acknowledge that women do promise “to love, cherish and to obey” when they repeat after the clergyman their Anglican marriage vows, but she points out that the writer seems to have forgotten his own part in the ceremony, that is, his pledge to “love and to cherish”.
I found it rather funny to hear her relate the manner in which women found their own type of “power” in this type of marriage.
You know, Mr Editor, or at least if you are a married man you ought to know, that in most families the nominal supremacy is vested in the husband, but the real power is in the hands of the wife; that is to say, she is contented to let her husband appear to rule, provided she rules him.
It was also interesting to hear her admit that it is not an ideal way for women to have power, but that a husband’s authority should hold sway. However, she does follow with an important point about the rights of women to self-govern their behaviour.
Now I am willing to admit, that this is wrong on the part of the wife, for in certain points I think the husband’s authority ought to be undisputed; but I should like to know, has the wife no rights of her own to defend? Are her time, her occupations, even her amusements, to be at the mercy of an arbitrary master – who will undervalue her talents, be a spy upon her conduct, and refuse her even the liberty of reading such authors as she may prefer; for what else can be meant by the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth articles?
She goes on to express her desire that men should also read the sermons of “the fathers of the church” in order to provide themselves with instruction, which is not all that unreasonable. It is unfortunate that, while men have told women for centuries that they should obey their husbands (which it never actually says in the Bible, though it does say “submit”), the sentence where St Paul declares that husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her, is less often quoted (Ephesians 5:25). I am sure that if all women were loved like this, they would have had a lot less trouble obeying!
I find that more light is shed on the actual state of marriage in the Regency period when this lady states, “I have no objection to make to those [rules] which he has added for the use of wives: on the contrary, I think that the observance of them would essentially promote matrimonial happiness.” These rules, which are reprinted in full in my former post, cluster around issues of respect for the husband and, whilst they are still quite conservative, they may merely be the way in which Regency wives demonstrated their love and respect for their husbands.
Sophia Sticklefort’s main contention seems to be with this man’s view of the manner in which a husband should deal with his wife. The author of ‘Rules and Maxims’ seems to represent the view that no reciprocal love or respect from the husband to the wife is necessary in a marriage, which is clearly (in my mind, and even in a Regency woman’s mind) not conducive to marital happiness!
In her conclusion, she quotes a poem by Matthew Prior (1664-1721) and suggests that any such rules for connubial felicity need to be set on “a different principle”; in short, a principle of love, forgiveness, and gentleness. What good advice!
Whilst the beginning of the nineteenth century was a time where women did not have most (or any) of the same rights as men, there was still the prevailing opinion – according to contemporary sources – that men and women were equal (if not in the sight of the law, in the sight of God at least!).
In addition, the prevailing opinion was changing as to the acceptable reasons for marrying. The decision of whom to marry, whilst still a financial decision, was changing so that love and affection could also form part of the choice.
Jane Austen, in her letters to her niece (1814), encouraged her to choose a husband for whom she felt affection.
Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love.
Jane still maintained the importance of marrying someone who had the means to live, but equal to that was her conviction that love was something to be desired in a marriage.
There are such beings in the world, perhaps one in a thousand, as the creature you and I should think perfection, where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding, but such a person may not come in your way, or, is he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend and belonging to your own country. […] Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection…
I find it reassuring that, regardless of the state of women’s rights in the nineteenth century, it did seem to be recognised that in order to have a happy marriage both parties needed to love and respect each other! Good advice in any century!
Sources and Relevant Links
Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (1818) – This letter was printed on page 86-87.
The Solemnisation of Matrimony, The Book of Common Prayer (for the Anglican Church)
Ephesians, Chapter 5, King James Version