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As we investigate the private lives of Regency Women, it’s important to consider money and a woman’s private expenses. If a genteel woman was expected to dress a certain way, do her hair in the latest styles, wear the right shoes and accessories to accentuate her beauty, and care for her own private needs and beauty regimes, how did she pay for everything she needed?

If one of Jane Austen’s heroines (or Jane herself) wanted to purchase something like a bonnet or a ribbon or a new gown, where did she get the money? Who supplied her with money, what was the amount she might have to spend, and how often was it replenished? Let’s find out!

You are very right in supposing how my money would be spent—some of it, at least—my loose cash would certainly be employed in improving my collection of music and books.

Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
Magazine of Female Fashions of London and Paris, No.21. London Dresses, 1799, Wikipedia Commons.

Pin Money

Pin money, also sometimes referred to as an allowance, was the money that genteel Regency women used for personal expenses, such as dresses, hats, shoes, and other things of that sort. She kept an accounting of it herself and must balance her own budget.

The history of the term “pin money” dates back to the 1500s: “At that time, pin money was a substantial sum that was used for important purchases. The expression is linked to the price of straight pins, once items that were very rare and expensive, and part of the necessary purchases to run a household” (Grammarist). Over time, the term became synonymous with a woman’s personal money.

For the most part, genteel Regency women were entirely reliant on their male relatives for any “loose cash” for their own personal expenses. As an unmarried woman, she would only have what money her father or a close male relative gave to her (or left to her). Once married, she only had what her husband gave to her or what she was entitled to as part of her marriage settlement.

British Sixpence, 1816, Wikipedia Commons.

Jane Austen’s Allowance

We know that Jane Austen herself had a small allowance from her father. In Oliver MacDonough’s Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds, we read this: “Jane had nothing of her own beyond the pin-money allowed her by her father, which was probably only £20 a year.” Cassandra’s annual allowance, as noted in a letter from 28 December 1798 was twenty pounds: “If you will send my father an account of your Washing & Letter expenses, & c, he will send you a draft for the amount of it, as well as for your next quarter [£5, to be paid on 1 January].”

Mrs. Darcy’s Pin Money

Finally, Pride and Prejudice shows us how a generous allowance allowed married women to live in comfort, having enough for their own needs and for the needs of others, either for charitable giving or to help support family members.

We can now read Mrs. Bennet’s famous reaction to Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy with even more interest:

Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane’s is nothing to it – nothing at all.

Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, Pride and Prejudice, 1995

And it seems that Mrs. Bennet was correct indeed. We see this play out when Lydia writes to Elizabeth at the end of Pride and Prejudice, hoping to get a regular allowance from Elizabeth and Darcy: “As it happened that Elizabeth had much rather not, she endeavoured in her answer to put an end to every intreaty and expectation of the kind.”

However, while the Darcys do not provide the Wickhams with a regular allowance, Elizabeth still kindly send gifts of money on a frequent basis to help Lydia. She gives this money out of her own private funds, which as the text implies, was substantial:

Such relief, however, as it was in her power to afford, by the practice of what might be called economy in her own private expenses, she frequently sent them. . . and whenever [the Wickhams] changed their quarters, either Jane or herself were sure of being applied to for some little assistance towards discharging their bills.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

The Love of Money

Money mattered greatly in the lives of Jane Austen’s Regency women. Having “loose cash” didn’t just provide for bonnets and gowns; it also provided for the safety and protection of several of Austen’s female characters. Money could be used as a means of control or generosity. It could limit a woman or give her greater freedom.

Join me again next month as we delve further into Regency Women: Money Matters and look closely at several instances where Austen uses a lady’s personal money (or lack thereof) as a clever plot device.


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases December 2021. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.


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By Brenda S. Cox

“ . . . it was settled that they should be married as soon as the Writings could be completed. Mary was very eager for a Special Licence and Mr. Watts talked of Banns. A common Licence was at last agreed on.”—Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, “The Three Sisters”

In Jane Austen’s early story, “The Three Sisters,” Mary is marrying a man she hates, in order to marry before her sisters. She and Mr. Watts argue about everything, with Mary on the side of extravagance and her fiancé on the side of economy. She wants an expensive, exclusive special license (which he would not actually qualify for), while he wants banns, which are free. They agree on a compromise, a common license. What were these three options for getting married?

For most weddings, the parish clergyman announced the banns for three Sundays prior to the wedding. If no one objected, the wedding could take place.
Dr. Syntax Preaching, from The Tour of Doctor Syntax, 1812. Image Public Domain, from the British Library via Flickr Commons and Wikimedia Commons.

Banns

“The idea of Edward’s being a clergyman, and living in a small parsonage-house, diverted him beyond measure;—and when to that was added the fanciful imagery of Edward reading prayers in a white surplice, and publishing the banns of marriage between John Smith and Mary Brown, he could conceive nothing more ridiculous.” –Robert Ferrars thinking of his brother Edward as a clergyman in Sense and Sensibility

Most people got married with banns; the free option. The couple had to notify the parish clergyman a week in advance of the first announcement. They told him their full names, places of residence, and intention to marry. Then the parson announced the banns three Sundays in a row.

If the couple lived in different parishes, the banns had to be announced in both their parish churches (or chapels, if they attended a chapel-of-ease for a parish church).

Each Sunday, the minister would announce, for example, “I publish the banns of marriage between Charles Bingley of Meryton and Jane Bennet of Meryton. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first (or second, or third) time of asking.” (I am assuming that the parish was named after its principal town, Meryton, as parishes often were, and that they lived in the same parish.)

If either of them was under twenty-one, a parent could stand up and say he did not agree to the marriage, and prevent the wedding. If anyone else knew of another objection, such as one of the people being already married, or the couple being too closely related to each other, they could also block the marriage.

Once the banns had been announced three times, with no objections, the parson could perform the marriage. It had to be in the parish church or chapel, between 8 AM and noon.

Everyone except for Quakers and Jews had to be married in the parish church, unless they had a special license. Roman Catholics had to be married by an Anglican clergyman (even with a special license), but could also have their own Catholic ceremony. All marriages had to be registered in the parish church’s registry, wherever they took place.

Those who did not want the publicity of banns, or who were in a hurry to get married (perhaps the bride was pregnant), or who simply wanted the prestige of paying for a license, had two other options.

Image of Mr and Mrs Elton taking tea
Mr and Mrs Elton, in the 2020 film version of Emma.
A clergyman like Mr. Elton could marry a couple by banns, common license, or special license.

Common Licenses

“Upon my word, it is really a pity that it should not take place directly, if we had but a proper licence, for here we are altogether, and nothing in the world could be more snug and pleasant.”—Julia Bertram in Mansfield Park, when they are in the Sotherton chapel, speaking of Mr. Rushworth’s wedding to Maria

Mary and Mr. Watts agree on a common license, which was also called a standard license or a bishop’s license. Julia Betram may also be thinking of a common license, though it would have to have been written specifically for the Sotherton chapel. (That chapel would not necessarily be a place where marriages could take place. If it isn’t, they would need a special license to marry there.)

A bishop or his representative could issue this license, which was much more popular than a special license. It cost two or three pounds. It was valid for three months, and the couple had to wait seven days before getting married. (In many parts of the country, it would take longer than that to go to London, get a special license, and return.)

The common license named the church or chapel for the marriage: normally the parish church of one of them, in a parish where he or she had lived for at least four weeks. They could marry any morning, in that church.

If the bride or groom was under 21, the groom or other witnesses had to swear that they had their parents’ consent and there was no bar to their marriage, or they might need a written statement of approval from the parents. (If they married without their parents’ consent and it was discovered later, the marriage was invalid.)

A rich couple, particularly from the nobility, might have one more option: a special license.

 

Elizabeth and Darcy, just married, from the 1995 BBC film version of Pride and Prejudice.
Did they get married by special license, as Mrs. Bennet hoped?

Special Licenses

“My dearest child,” she cried, “I can think of nothing else! Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! ‘Tis as good as a Lord! And a special licence. You must and shall be married by a special licence.” –Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth tells her she is marrying Darcy

Authors of Regency fiction love to have their characters marry by “special license.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, highest church official, could issue special licenses which allowed a couple to get married anywhere at any time. Application had to be made to the ecclesiastical court at Doctors Commons in London.

Such licenses were limited to members of the nobility and their children, baronets (like Sir Walter Elliot) and knights (like Sir William Lucas; these were titled people but not nobility), certain high government officials, and Members of Parliament. Others could get a license if they could convince the Archbishop that they really needed it because of their particular circumstances. Darcy doesn’t exactly fit in these categories, although he is the grandson of an earl so probably has good enough connections to get one if he wants it. He could certainly have paid the five pound fee. (It became five pounds around 1811.)

Special licenses were rare. In 1730, six were issued; in 1830, twenty-two were issued. In contrast, around 2,700 common licenses were issued per year.

Elopements

One more option, of course, was that an underage couple without their parents’ consent could run all the way north to Scotland. There, just across the border at Gretna Green (or anywhere, really), they could be married by anyone–a blacksmith did many such weddings. Scotland had few restrictions on marriage at that time. It wasn’t totally clear how legal such marriages were in England, but they were usually accepted.

 

Jane Austen makes no other mention of banns or licenses in her novels, so we’re free to imagine how each of her couples got married. Wickham and Lydia probably had a common license, to speed up their marriage. It’s possible, though, that Darcy requested a special license for them because of their circumstances, having lived together already. I imagine Emma and Mr. Knightley upholding English tradition and having banns called in both their parish churches. Although that might have been too much of a trial for Mr. Woodhouse’s nerves (and maybe he would even have objected!), so perhaps they got a common license. For the rest; what do you think?

Did Emma and Mr. Knightley marry with banns?
Scene from the film version of Emma, 1996.

Note: The British write licence for the noun, while Americans write license. I’ve used licence in the quotes and license elsewhere.

 

Sources, which also give more details

Nancy Mayer, Regency Researcher, personal correspondence and her excellent website 

Many thanks to Nancy for all her help!

Marriage Allegations, Bonds and Licences in England and Wales

Pride and Prejudice, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, edited by Pat Rogers, Cambridge University Press, 2006, notes 538-539.

Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, full text

Ecclesiastical Law by Richard Burn, LLD. London: Strahan, 1797. Sixth edition. Volume 3, pages 460-465. 

 

Brenda S. Cox writes on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen, and is working on a book to be called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England. She will be speaking at the JASNA 2021 AGM on “Satirical Cartoons and Jane Austen’s Church of England.”

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By Brenda S. Cox

“Give us a thankful sense of the Blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our Lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by Discontent or Indifference.” — Jane Austen’s Prayers I

Jane Austen talks a lot about thankfulness. In all three of her prayers, she gives thanks to God and also prays to be made more grateful for all our blessings. In her novels and other writings, she uses some form of the words thanks or gratitude 722 times! That means each novel probably includes at least a hundred references to thankfulness.

Austen uses thanks in many ways. Surprisingly, she often uses gratitude in talking about marriage proposals and the development of love that leads to marriage.

Thanks for Asking!

An offer of marriage was expected to provoke gratitude, whether the woman said yes or no.

When Emma advises Harriet on how to refuse Robert Martin, she says that Harriet will know how to write “such expressions of gratitude and concern for the pain you are inflicting as propriety requires.” (Italics are added, throughout these quotes.) Obviously, propriety required that if a man asked a woman to marry him, she should thank him.

Even if the proposal was unwanted, the woman had to say thank you. Elizabeth Bennet tries to avoid Mr. Collins’s proposal, but still, when he asks, she has to say:

Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me.”

When he insists, she says, “I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible.” Even though she doesn’t want his proposal, she is obligated to thank him for it.

Even for a proposal from Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet had to express gratitude.

There is one exception, though, which might have shocked the original readers.

When Darcy proposes the first time, Elizabeth says to him,

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly.”

Gratitude was an obligation; the woman was obliged to feel grateful that a man liked her enough to ask her to marry him. But she is so angry at his words, and so prejudiced against his character, that she just can’t thank him for his proposal.

Of course, she soon changes her mind. After she reads his letter, we find that,  “his attachment excited gratitude, his general character respect.” What a switch!

Once Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter, her attitude changes from ingratitude to gratitude.

And it continues. When at Pemberley, after talking to Mrs. Reynolds, Elizabeth “thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before.”

First Comes Gratitude, Then Love and Marriage

Elizabeth’s gratitude, of course, led eventually to love.

Charlotte Lucas had told Elizabeth earlier on in Pride and Prejudice, “There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement.”

In other words, the boy likes the girl. She starts to like him back, and shows that she prefers him to other boys. He is “grateful” for that, so he likes her even more. Then she likes him more because he shows he likes her. And so on. This, my friends, is Jane Austen’s theory of how love develops. We see it again and again in her novels.

First, think about this question: For which of Jane Austen’s characters was gratitude the beginning of falling in love?

The obvious ones are Elizabeth Bennet and Henry Tilney. We’ll come back to them later.

Fanny Price

But how about Fanny Price?

Early in Mansfield Park, Edmund shows kindness to little Fanny. Then, “her countenance and a few artless words fully conveyed all their gratitude and delight, and her cousin began to find her an interesting object.”

Fanny and Edmund’s relationship starts growing with gratitude—her gratitude to him awakens his interest in her. Further kindnesses lead to more gratitude—Fanny is by nature a very grateful person. Edmund’s love for her, brotherly at first, grows. It takes a long time, but Edmund finally realizes that the perfect woman for him is right in front of him!

Earlier, though, because gratitude leads to love, both Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram were convinced that Fanny would accept Henry Crawford out of gratitude. Mary tells Henry, “The gentleness and gratitude of her disposition would secure her . . . ask her to love you, and she will never have the heart to refuse.” Edmund tells Fanny, “I cannot suppose that you have not the wish to love him—the natural wish of gratitude.” However, Fanny’s gratitude toward Edmund is much greater than her gratitude toward Henry, and it is Edmund she loves.

Gratitude is not enough to cause Fanny Price to accept Henry Crawford.

Harriet Smith

In Emma, “Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition.” All Harriet’s loves are all based on gratitude. First, she is grateful to Robert Martin, who got her walnuts and brought in the shepherd’s son to sing for her. Then she is attracted to Mr. Elton, because Emma says he is attracted to her. Her next love is Mr. Knightley, who rescues her at the dance. She thinks of him with “gratitude, wonder, and veneration.” Of course, Emma thinks Harriet has fallen in love with Frank Churchill, out of gratitude to him for rescuing her from the gypsies. Then when Robert Martin proposes again, Harriet is so grateful that she immediately says yes, not waiting for anyone to dissuade her this time!

NOT Captain Benwick, though

In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is surprised that Benwick has fallen in love with Louisa Musgrove. Wentworth says, “Had it been the effect of gratitude, had he learnt to love her, because he believed her to be preferring him, it would have been another thing. But I have no reason to suppose it so. It seems, on the contrary, to have been a perfectly spontaneous, untaught feeling on his side, and this surprises me.” He is assuming that gratitude is the normal, most obvious reason for love. If it’s not there, that is unusual.

Also in Persuasion, William Elliot is excused for marrying a rich woman because she was “excessively in love with him . . . She sought him.” Gratitude was an obvious and acceptable reason for marriage.

Elizabeth and Darcy

For Elizabeth Bennet also, love begins with gratitude.

After she sees Darcy at Lambton, she lies awake trying to figure out how she feels about him: “But above all, above respect and esteem, there was a motive within her of goodwill which could not be overlooked. It was gratitude.–Gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her manner in rejecting him . . . Such a change in a man of so much pride, excited not only astonishment but gratitude—for to love, ardent love, it must be attributed . . . She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him. . .”

Austen later explains, “If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty.” But, she says, if it is “unreasonable or unnatural” that love should come from gratitude and respect, rather than coming from simply seeing the other person, then “nothing can be said in her defence,” except that she had tried love at first sight with Wickham, and it had not gone well.

When Darcy proposes the second time (if you can call it a proposal), Elizabeth tells him her feelings are so different that she can “receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.” What a change from the first time!

Henry and Catherine

In Northanger Abbey, we find the same justification for love. When Henry Tilney proposes to Catherine Morland, they both know she already loves him. He is now “sincerely attached to her,” but “his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude.” Knowing that she was partial to him “had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” Austen adds, “It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”

Henry Tilney’s love for Catherine begins with gratitude, because she thinks highly of him.

Apparently for Jane Austen, gratitude at being loved by someone else was the best first step toward falling in love yourself.

Gratitude to God for the Engagement

Both Anne Elliot and Emma Woodhouse also express gratitude after they are engaged. But now they are expressing it to God, though we might not recognize what they are doing.

The word serious in Austen’s time often signalled something religious. According to Stuart Tave’s A Few Words of Jane Austen, serious reflection or meditation actually meant prayer.

After Anne Elliot accepts Wentworth’s proposal in Persuasion, she needs “An interval of meditation, serious and grateful.” So, “she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.” This serious, grateful meditation means that Anne is thanking God for finally bringing her and Captain Wentworth back together.

Emma Woodhouse gets engaged, but she’s still worried about Harriet. However, once she heard that Harriet was also engaged, “She was in dancing, singing, exclaiming spirits; and till she had moved about, and talked to herself, and laughed and reflected, she could be fit for nothing rational. . . . The joy, the gratitude, the exquisite delight of her sensations may be imagined. . . . Serious she was, very serious in her thankfulness, and in her resolutions; and yet there was no preventing a laugh, sometimes in the very midst of them.” Have you wondered how she could be both serious and laughing? Serious tells us that her focus is on God. She is rejoicing and thanking God for bringing both herself and Harriet together with the men they loved.

So, the next time you receive a marriage proposal, be sure to tell the person “Thank you” before you answer. And if you decide to say “Yes,” you may want to thank God as well!

Thankfulness

If you want to think more about thankfulness, and its place in some of our favorite classics, I recommend both of Rachel Dodge’s lovely devotional books:

Praying With Jane, and

The Anne of Green Gables Devotional, which is brand-new.

Each includes gratitude as well as other valuable themes we can apply to our lives. And both would make great Christmas presents! Rachel Dodge, of course, writes regularly for Jane Austen’s World.

If you want more ideas for Austen-themed Christmas gifts, you might want to check out my post on Jane Austen Christmas Presents.

Austen’s novels are full of examples of gratitude and ingratitude. These were important issues for her. Who do you think gives the best example of gratitude, or ingratitude, in Austen’s novels?

 

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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Wedding dress, 1742, Image @Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Anyone who had the opportunity to see “At Home With the Georgians” with Amanda Vickery was in for a treat. The BBC series, based upon her fabulous book, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, covered courtship and marriages in the 18th century in great detail. The perspectives of bachelors, spinsters, and married couples were taken into account.

One of the most intriguing portions of the series occurred when Amanda Vickery introduced A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory by a Younger Brother, published in 1742.

The witty saying on the frontispiece describes perfectly why this book of lists was compiled:

“He took his Stand

Upon a Widow’s Jointure Land.”

The author, a younger brother who had to make his way in the world by working or marrying rich, writes these shameless words to the woman of fortune he is courting:

“Begin then Madam, hasten to begin — Bless the thrice happy Compiler, make the Happiness of a Younger Brother equal to that of his Elder, — Let the Honourable Mrs. M——n in the Connubial State shine with Splendour equal to Miss F———n in the Maiden, and tell a mistaken World that the Appellation Wife bears with it every Sound of Dignity and demands an universal Reverence;…”

This book was compiled for those  men who were unlucky to follow in their elder brothers’ shadows, for the laws of primogeniture dictated that the eldest son would inherit everything. The ladies are described in its pages with their names, where they live, the largeness of their reputed fortunes and of the stocks held in their names.

Marriage was the only option for ladies during the Georgian era, since they could not control their own fortunes or possess lands. All they “owned” was held in trust for them. Many a rich spinster or widow preferred choosing marriage over living a life alone.

One can almost hear this shameless Younger Brother courting his future bride (and plying her with gifts and poesies) as he charms her into marriage and publicly worships her with these words:

I could for ever dwell on the Repetion of your Charms, if I were not in immediate Expectation of the Possession of them: Whatever Pleasures, whatever Joys we earnestly covet, we surely anticipate of; when alone I am for ever repeating one Line of Dryden’s,

Happy, Happy Pair!”

Today many a suitor would be laughed off his knees if he said such a thing, but back then marriage was a serious business. An engagement represented the best financial arrangement that the pair could finagle. A gentleman had only a few means of making a fortune, one of which was by marrying rich, and a lady had only one means of supervising her own household, and that was in attaining the status of a wife. The Marriage Mart, as the pages in A Master Key imply, was strictly business. Oh, it helped if the people involved had pleasing countenances, good manners, and gentle hearts, but none of these attributes are discussed in this short list of women on the marriage mart in 1742.

I can imagine that many younger sons found comfort in these lists and made elaborate plans to be introduced to the women described so coolly inside of them. To these gentlemen the Younger Brother writes:

Whoever has read the Advertisements in the public Papers of Mr. C—-x, and the unknown Lady who accepted of his Proposals, will instantly acknowledge the Usefulness of the following Directory: The Dilemma that Gentleman was reduced for a Partner, determined the Compiler to set about it: He resolved to spare no Pains: He carefully examined every List of the Proprietors of the public Funds; and made afterwards the best Enquiry he was capable of, into their Fortunes exclusive: As it was impossible to give the exact Fortune of every lady in so large a List as the following, he thought proper to make in his Kalender, one Column under the Title of Reputed Fortunes.”

The Younger Brother’s advice is quite straightforward and required little embellishing:

Thus Gentlemen, have I in the following Sheets I think, opened a fair Field for Action for you; a fine Choice and a fine Collection of Ladies; — Open the Campaign directly then yourselves, that my next may be a new Sett. I have one favour to beg of you, and then I take my Leave; that no one of you, of what Degree soever, presume to attempt the Lovely Charmer I dedicate to; as to the Rest, I heartily wish you all Success …”

The Marriage Mart, I imagine, was a dance of the sexes, with the younger sons finding the best situation their charms were capable of, and the women choosing among the pool of men, hoping that their choice of mate will remain charming, moral, and kind  and not turn into a selfish, wife-beating monster.

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Caroline Norton 1833

Until the mid 1800s, married women in England had no legal rights. By law a husband could prevent his wife from seeing their children. He also had control over all her income, including any earnings she might make. Caroline Norton (1808-1877), who was married to an abusive man and who had been barred from seeing her three sons after they divorced, successfully challenged these laws.

Caroline was the granddaughter of a playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the daughter of novelist Caroline Henrietta Sheridan. Caroline’s father died when she was eight years old, which left the family in financial straits. When Caroline had turned 16, George Norton, a Tory member of parliament for Guildford,  spotted her and asked for her hand in marriage. But she was too young to marry. Though a renowned beauty, Caroline had no dowry. Still, she hesitated to marry George Norton, but her mother eventually supported the match and thus she wed him at 19.

George Norton turned out to be a violent and unfaithful husband. He beat Caroline repeatedly, even in her third trimester of pregnancy. The marriage, though a failure, lasted long enough for Caroline to bear three sons. There were repeated estrangements and reunions, but the marriage finally ended in 1836. Caroline’s travails had just begun. Her reputation was in tatters as a divorced woman, and she was not allowed to see her sons. She was to write:

What I suffered on my children’s account, none will ever know or measure. “The heart knoweth its own bitterness,” and God knew mine! The days and nights of tears and anguish, that grew into the struggle of yearsit is even now a pain to me to look back upon; even now, the hot agony of resentment and grief rises in my mind, when I think of the needless tyranny I endured in this respect. Mr Norton held my children as hostages; he felt that while he had them, he still had a power over me that nothing could control. Baffled in the matter of the trial and damages, he still had the power to do more than punishto torturethe wife who had been so anxious to part from him – Caroline Norton, English Laws for Women in the 19th Century

Caroline’s story is more convoluted and complicated than presented here, and well worth reading. Suffice it to say that Caroline challenged the law that favored men over women, and her writing was instrumental in having The Child Custody Act of 1839 passed. Sadly for Caroline, her husband still denied her access to her children. Her youngest boy fell from a horse and died, and only after this tragedy were her two other boys allowed to live with her.

His cruel carelessness was afterwards proved, on a most miserable occasion. My youngest child, then a boy of eight years old, left without care or overlooking, rode out with a brother but little older than himself, was thrown, carried to the house of a country neighbor, and died there of lock jaw, consequent on the accident. Mr Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week,–indeed to be at death’s door,–before he sent to inform me. Sir Fitzroy and Lady Kelly were staying with Mr Norton in the country. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said–”I am here,–is my boy better?” “No,” she said–”he is not better,–he is dead.” And I found, instead of my child, a corpse already coffined.
Mr Norton asked my forgiveness then, as he had asked it often before; he sent his elder child to plead for him,–for well he knew what my children were to me; he humbled himself, and grieved for an hour, till he changed into pity the horror and repugnance I had expressed at the idea of seeing him;–and then he buried our child, and forgot both his sorrow and his penitence.

Caroline Norton

When George Norton caught wind that Caroline had been left a small legacy by her friend, Lord Melbourne and a small sum that her mother had left her, he stopped support payments for her and the children. Caroline fought him in court but lost. She campaigned to have the laws changed, and her victory resulted in the Matrimonial Act of 1857. Caroline remarried just months before her death in 1877, but not before two more crucial laws were passed that protected the rights of women and children, the Infant Custody Acts of 1873 (and 1886) and The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 (and 1882).

More on the topic:

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