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I always find it interesting to read about different women’s experiences throughout history. During each stage of history, there is always a backdrop by which to understand the people of a particular time. This backdrop includes social, economical, political, and cultural factors that all roll together to influence what people believe and how people behave. And the key to understanding people properly is to understand their “backdrop”.

The Weaker Vessel: Women's Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)

The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)

I have recently finished reading The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser, about women and their role in seventeenth century England. It is a fascinating account of real women and what they did during this period.

During the seventeenth century, it was often proclaimed that women were the weaker sex. This term was preached from the pulpit, professed in poetic verse, and generally acknowledged by everyone. However, it was unclear exactly how far to extend that precept. Women were certainly weaker than men physically, but there was more uncertainty as to whether women were weaker spiritually or intellectually.

In any case, women often viewed themselves (that is, their own sex) as weak, so much so that they often apologised when a show of strength was required in order to endure whatever circumstances confronted them.

Marriage and Love

No passion could be long lived, and such as were most in love forgot that ever they had been so within a twelvemonth after they were married.

Henry  Osborne

Fraser examines women in the context of marriage in the seventeenth century, where marriage, at least in the upper classes, was often a financial transaction settled between parents. Whilst there was consideration for the suitability of the prospective spouses for each other, this manner of arranged marriage did result in some unhappy marriages but it also resulted in some happy ones too. What we would call love was not actively sought when marriage was contemplated, and was even thought to somehow damage the offspring of such a match. However, Fraser gives several examples of couples who had somehow developed this mutual love in their relationship (or beforehand) and there is little doubt that they certainly enjoyed their life together more.

“Dost thou love me?”, Elizabeth Walker would ask of her husband, smiling. To which he would reply, “Most dearly.” “I know it abundantly,” she would answer, “to my comfort; but I love to hear thee tell me so.”

Often, after the death of a spouse, the obituaries or memoirs conveyed hauntingly how treasured this love had been that had developed during a marriage. Ann Fanshawe had endured much with her husband, Richard, during his life, including an escape from a plague-ridden town after first fleeing Cromwell’s troops. They also had an eventful – and frightening – voyage to Spain which included an imminent capture by a Turkish ship and a violent storm which almost resulted in shipwreck. However, their lives together were peppered with that very mutual respect and even, on occasion, passion [God forbid!] that good marriages are built on. Ann, when writing to her son after her husband’s death, said:

Now you will expect I should say something that may remain of us jointly, which I will do, though it makes my eyes gush out with tears, and cuts me to the soul, to remember and in part express the joys I was blessed with in him. Glory to God we never had but one mind throughout our lives, our souls were wrapped up in each other, our aims and designs one, our loves one, and our resentments one. We so studied one the other that we knew each other’s mind by our looks; whatever was real happiness, God gave it me in him…”

Ann Lady Fanshawe

Motherhood

There are many accounts of women greatly fearing the pain accompanying child-bearing. And it was not only the pain, but the reasonable expectation of death – either during or afterwards.

These are doubtless the greatest of all pains the Women naturally undergo upon Earth.

Jane Sharp (midwife)

And labour was not the only peril of motherhood. The high infant and child mortality rate meant that many women buried many more of their children than they reared. The grief of losing children, and sometimes losing many children, was often enormous and was not lessened by the fact that death could be reasonably expected. Fraser cites many first-hand accounts of parents whose “great affliction” was all-encompassing.

We are so comfortably sure that the poor innocent babies are taken out of a naughty world to be very happy, that I have often wondered at the excessive sorrow I have sometimes seen on these occasions.

Anne Digby, Countess of Sunderland

Education

One of the things that most intrigues me about history is the up-and-down nature of progress. Often we think of the rise of women’s rights, for instance, as progressing in a rather linear manner; that is, each generation builds on the advances of the previous one. However, quite often generations “lose” the advantages, progresses or knowledge of previous generations. This is particularly so in the case of women’s education in the seventeenth century.

The sixteenth century had been presided over by a particularly strong woman, that of Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign it became acceptable, even a mark of elegance, for a woman to learn the classics, including Latin, Greek, arithmetic, writing, and music. Indeed, even the Queen could translate Latin to Greek! However, the next monarch, James I, did not share the same opinions as his predecessors and so education declined to a more basic sort for young women (music, dancing and French), which inevitably lead to a decline in female literacy.

This verse written by Anne Bradstreet summed up the change well;

Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,
Know ’tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the sisters Queen Mary II and Queen Anne had lamentable education for their eventual roles as monarchs. Mary, luckily able to leave state matters to her husband, William III, confined herself to refined accomplishments such as needlework, while Anne was known to have an appalling knowledge of history and geography with dreadful spelling and grammar. They are in stark contrast to the Queen of the previous century.

The most advantageous daughters, in terms of education, were those who had a learned father who believed in the importance of education, and Fraser cites several examples where a significant parent radically altered the educational experience of their daughter.

In Wartime

During the middle of the seventeenth century a civil war raged in England. Charles I had taken great liberties with his powers of kingship and had eventually been overthrown, put on trial and executed. Oliver Cromwell took the reigns of government and what ensued was a nine year war between the exiled heir to the throne, Charles II, and Cromwell’s troops. Naturally the nation divided. On one side stood the Parliamentarians and on the other the Royalists.

There are many examples of women taking extraordinary roles during this period of wartime, generally involving feats of strategy, strength, determination and cunning that was deemed beyond the bounds of female ability but was applauded nonetheless.

My dear wife endured much hardship, and yet with little show of trouble; and though by nature, according to her sex, timorous, yet in greatest danger would not be daunted, but shewed a courage even above her sex.”

Sir Hugh Cholmley

There were great ladies who defended their great homes when under siege. The Countess of Derby successfully defended Lathom House against attack for over three months until reinforcements could arrive. The Marchioness of Winchester was valiant in the siege of Basing House, with her and her ladies casting bullets out of the lead stripped from the castle, and held out for over two years before falling to their attackers. Lady Bankes of Corfe Castle only had her daughters, her waiting women and a garrison of 5 soldiers to defend her home, and managed to hold out successfully against a troop of 500 men. Eventually this castle fell in a subsequent siege when one of her soldiers smuggled enemy troops into the castle under the guise of reinforcements. Brilliana Lady Harley successfully defended Brampton Bryan Castle from attack for 10 months. After only one month of relief the siege began again but this time she became sick with an illness and died, leaving her great house to fall to its attackers within three months of her death.

Then there were other women who defended their towns from attack by helping to construct fortifications. They fought fires, threw stones and suffered injuries.

Still other women dressed like men and went to war so that they could follow their husbands. In these cases it was often expedient to adopt soldier’s dress, but there is evidence that some women actually fought (with weapons) as – what came to be known as – “she-soldiers”.

Her Husband was a Souldier, and to the wars did go,
And she would be his Comrade, the truth of all is so.
She put on Man’s Apparel, and bore him company,
As many in the Army for truth can testify.

The Gallant She-Souldier (1655)

In Business

Women of the lower and middle classes needed an income like anyone else, and could often be found working as ale-house keepers, linen drapers, tobacco sellers, booksellers, merchants, and shop-keepers. The type of occupation a woman had was usually a result of some sort of family connection to a particular industry. Mrs Constance Pley assisted her husband with his business in the manufacture of sailcloth, which was supplied to Cromwell’s Navy. However, when the business became a partnership and was expanded to include manufacture of hemp and cordage and the importation of canvas, Mrs Pley became a key part in keeping the business productive. One of her roles was to correspond with many navy officials, often demanding outstanding payments for wares already delivered. Her business partner, Mr Bullen Reymes, even said that the business “would have been aground long since but for his woman partner.”

Pray be punctual with her [Mrs Pley], she being as famous a she merchant as you have met with in England, one who turns and winds thirty thousand pounds a year…

Colonel Reymes

Sometimes a widow, able to control her assets after the death of her husband, was able to use her capital to start her own business. Joan Dant, a widow, became a pedlar and imported and sold wares in and around London. By her death, she was able to bequeath 9000 pounds to be distributed by her executors.

The upper classes of women would normally rely on income from the family estates, but women here could also conducted business. Anne Russell, the Countess of Bristol, had a licence to import and sell wine, and did so until she was 80.

There are many more illustrations of actual women and the lives that they led within this book – religious women, women teachers, actresses, prostitutes, and midwives – more than I could include here. Each one serves to illustrate the breadth of experience of life that women had in the seventeenth century. Far from being the mere seventeenth century ideal in virtuosity and obedience, in reality there were many women who led much more active lives within their social circles. It makes for interesting reading.

To conclude, I found one particularly poignant sentiment communicated between a mother and her daughter; one which probably still applies today.

Believe me, child, life is a continual labour, checkered with care and pleasure, therefore rejoice in your position, take the world as you find it, and you will I trust find heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Rachel Lady Russell (1695)

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What would You want in a Wife?

Sarah Hurst’s Diaries: From 1759 to 1762

Sources and Relevant Links

All quotes from The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser – buy on Amazon

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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.

The opening paragraph of Miss Sophia Stickelfort's letter

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?

Husbands might benefit from their own advice!

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.

A new principle for happiness in marriage...

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!

Related Posts

Advice to Avoid Matrimonial Misery

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

Matthew Prior’s poems

Letters of Jane Austen to her niece, Fanny Knight

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The benefits of marriage have been long understood, and were even pronounced solemnly during the wedding service!

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

The Solemnisation of Matrimony, from The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

However, despite such a long and glorious tradition, one continues to wonder at the key to a happy marriage! Unfortunately, it is not just in the modern era that we wonder such things. They also did in 1818, with one reader of Ackermann’s Repository (1818) composing a rather extensive set of directives “for producing connubial felicity” for the betterment of his fellow man.

The Editor, in accepting this letter for publication, acknowledged that the author of it had also related his tales of woe concerning his own marriage and the misery that it had caused him. Undoubtedly, you will not find it hard to imagine him in misery upon reading his advice to husbands and wives.

Rules and Maxims for Matrimonial Happiness

  1. When courting your mistress [future wife], never miscall her by the name of angel or goddess, lest she mistake it for truth, and forget that she is mortal and a woman.
  2. When putting the question (as it is termed), be careful not to allow her to suppose that your happiness, or even comfort, depends on her assent: recollect that you are making a proposal, not begging a boon.
  3. Teach her beforehand, that the marriage ceremony is not a mere matter of form, and explain fully the meaning of the word obey.
  4. Be careful. at church, that she repeats every word distinctly after the clergyman, that she may afterwards have no excuse for acting in opposition.
  5. When you take her home, tell her that she is to command your servants, but that you are to command her. On placing in her hands the household sceptre, make her understand, that she is only a tributary sovereign, and that you are her liege lord.
  6. Be not imperious, but decided, and always speak as if it were a matter of course to be obeyed.
  7. Be not backward to blame, lest she attribute it to fear: if once she knows that you are afraid of her, your authority is at an end, and you become a poor, degraded, dependant, miserable creature.
  8. If pleasure or business take you from home, expect cheerful looks on your return; the surest way to secure them is to give them: a wife, like the moon, should shine by reflection, and her brightness should arise from the glory of her husband. Be sure, however, to guard against the variableness of your moon, and allow no one to eclipse her in your eyes.
  9. If she be of an obstinate or sulky temper, do not proceed to extremities, lest you fail, but shew he that you do not mind it: treat her as if you did not perceive it, and her own mortification will be her cure.
  10. If she be passionate and violent, be you cool and collected in proportion: if she irritates you, she has mounted one step of her throne and you descended one step of yours.
  11. Treat her as the mistress of your family before the servants, owning you only as her superior and lord paramount.
  12. If she be fond of reading (which itself is a misfortune, and to be discouraged), let her have no novels: if she must read, give her the memoirs of Roman wives and matrons: if she prefer light reading, put before her the words of the fathers of the church.
  13. Be careful that she do not think too well of herself in point of learning, lest she soon fancy herself superior.
  14. If she be witty, teach her that the best mode of shewing it is to conceal it.
  15. If you take her to places of public amusement, make her know that it is the reward of, and not a bribe to, good conduct.
  16. Let her be as little as possible along: if a man, according to the philosopher, is not to be trusted by himself, ought we to have more confidence in a woman?
  17. Finally, love her, but do not shew it too much, lest she take advantage of it: as all wives desire power, it should be the business of all husbands to prevent their obtaining it.

But wait! There’s more! This gentleman also furnished the Editor with a second set of maxims to which wives should adhere to.

Rules to be Observed by Wives

  1. When a young gentleman makes you an offer, hold yourself flattered by his preference, and be proportionately grateful.
  2. If you accept him (which we will suppose of course), study his temper and inclinations, that you may better accommodate your own to them.
  3. After marriage obey him cheerfully, even though you think him in error: it is better that he should do wrong in what he commands, than that you should do wrong in objecting to it.
  4. If he flatters you, do not forget that it is but flattery: think lowly of yourself and highly of him, or at least make him believe so.
  5. If you see any imperfections in your husband (which there may be), do not pride yourself of your penetration in discovering them, but on your forbearance in not pointing them out: strive shew no superiority, but in good temper.
  6. Bear in mind continually, that you are weak and dependant; and even if you are beautiful, that it adds to your weakness and dependance.
  7. If you displease him, be the first to conciliate and to mend: there is no degradation in seeking peace, or in shewing that you love your husband better than your triumph.
  8. If misfortunes assail you, remember that you ought to sustain you share of the burden: imitate your husband’s fortitude, or shew your own for his imitation.
  9. When you rise in the morning, resolve to be cheerful for the day: let your smiles dispel his frowns.
  10. Take pride in concealing your husband’s infirmities from others, rather than in proclaiming them: you will only be laughed at by all your acquaintances if you tell his faults to one.
  11. Endeavour rather to save than to spend your husband’s money: if his fortune be large, strive to preserve it; if small, to increase it.
  12. Be not importunate or obtrusive in your fondness, and choose proper occasions for your caresses, lest they prove wearisome.
  13. Finally, recollect always that God has made yon subject to him, and that he is your natural guardian and protector; that you owe your husband not less honour than love, and not less love than obedience.

Now, it needs to be said that this view of matrimony, even in 1818, was a little conservative. Even James Forsythe, an Anglican clergyman, was not so conservative when he wrote his Sermons to Young Women (1766) and his Addresses to Young Men (1777).

Jane Austen (1775-1817), whose father was a devout clergyman (as was two of her brothers) and was herself also considered to be very religious, would hardly have condoned this view of matrimony. The Austen family (both women and men) certainly ALL read novels!

This article was also written considerably before the stricter Victorian ideals about female behaviour had entered English society. This leads me to consider that this gentleman occupies the conservative side of the debate in his day. It also makes me wonder what sort of woman he married!

I have written a subsequent post about the response the Editor received in the next issue of Ackermann’s Repository, after the publication of this advice.

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A Reply to Rules and Maxims for Matrimonial Happiness

Sources and Relevant Links

Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (1818) – this letter was printed on page 29-32.

The (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer

The Solemnisation of Matrimony, The Book of Common Prayer

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What would you do if you found out your beloved was dead? Here’s another funny chronicle in my readings of Joe Miller’s Jests (1740)!

A wild young Gentleman having married a very discreet, virtuous young Lady; the better to reclaim him, she caused it to be given out at his Return, that she was dead, and had been buried: In the mean Time, she had so plac’d herself in Disguise, as to be able to observe how he took the News; and finding him still the same gay inconstant Man he always had been, she appear’d to him as the Ghost of herself, at which he seemed not at all dismay’d: At length disclosing herself to him, he then appear’d pretty much surpriz’d; A Person by said, ‘Why, Sir you seem more afraid now than before.’ ‘Ay, replied he, most Men are more afraid of a living Wife than a dead one.’

Hmm… I wonder how many Men would agree with that!

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Joe Miller had a Sense of Humour

Sources

Joe Miller’s Jests (1740)

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