Posts Tagged ‘Marriage Mart’

Inquiring readers: In early October, Prof Elaine Chalus, Historian of 18-19C British gender, politics & society, sent a link to eight sessions of the Bath 250, A Virtual Conference, The 250th Anniversary of the New Assembly Rooms of Bath, given on 29th & 30th September 2021. My first recap was of Professor Steve Poole’s presentation about Bath’s sedan chairmen.  

This second summation is of Rachel Bynoth’s discussion, entitled “The Marriage Market Reassessed: Female Emotional Experiences of Eighteenth-Century Bath Through Letters,” and focuses on the relationship between Bess Canning and her mother Mehitable (Hitty) Canning, the wife of Stratford Canning. (See a short synopsis of the family tree and their history at the end of the recap). Bynoth’s discussion also touched on another mother and daughter, whose letter exchanges are not discussed in this post.

About the Marriage Mart

Most of us who know about the 18th-19th century habits and rituals of courtship in Bath have acquired our awareness from reading  history books, articles, and blogs, as well as contemporary works of fiction. Unlike academics, however, most of us haven’t spent years seeking original sources and hunting dusty books in far corners of libraries and second-hand bookstores.  Conferences, such as ‘Bath 250’, present research from those sources. Bynoth’s primary approach to her topic are two key words in her title – emotional experiences. Through their letters, Bynoth follows both Bess’s experience as she attends the parties and balls and avails herself of Bath’s social life, and her mother’s increasing anxiety about her eventual success at attracting a husband during a time of England’s involvement in the Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars, when men were in short supply.


Mrs Stratford Canning with her daughter Elizabeth, by George Romney, National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle

In Bynoth’s workshop discussion, she first mentions 16-year-old Bess Canning’s letter to her mother in her first social season in 1792. (Jane Austen was 17 at this time. She wrote Susan/Northanger Abbey at 23-24 years of age, after her first visit to Bath in 1797.)

Hitty replies to Bess:

“I am much pleased with your daily occupations + am glad you are improving your knowledge of housekeeping – it is a very necessary Qualification, for all young Women, but especially such as have small Fortunes – I trust in God my dear Bess with a little care and management; we shall all do very well – but we must act with great Circumspection, for many eyes are upon us + all our actions will be well scrutinized.” – quote from a slide by Rachel Bynoth in her presentation. – Rachel Bynoth

One senses the mother’s love in this missive. Nevertheless, Bynoth points out an underlying anxious tone in their future correspondence, for Hitty, a widow, and separated from her daughter in Bath, must rely on the Leighs, Bess’s chaperones, to supervise her according to her standards. The Leighs understood their responsibilities perfectly. In comparison to the Allens (Northanger Abbey), Bess’s real life chaperones “procured a partner for Bess for almost every ball, thus allowing her to dance.” – Smith, Rachel, “Proceedings of the History of Bath Research Group”, No. 5, 2016-17, pp.27-28.

It was important to Hitty that Bess was perceived as fashionable and erudite, ie. grammatically correct in letters. Her husband, Stratford Canning had died in 1787, five years before her daughter’s debut into society.  One can only imagine a widow’s anxiety for her daughter, especially one with five children to raise. Her letter to Bess commented 

“upon her grammar and spelling frequently. Hitty also criticised her daughter’s attention to her letter-writing, stating that she needed to pay more attention to her form and language in order to improve and insisted that their frequent correspondence would aid her development. This repetition of writing … [came] out of Hitty’s desire for her daughter to avoid the stereotype: that women could not spell or correctly apply the rules of grammar. This was especially important as Hitty moved in upper class circles: her intimate friend was Mrs Sheridan who was close friends with the Devonshire House set. Bess’s actions as a connected young woman would be commented upon and Bess’s trips to Bath in 1792/3 and 1798 highlighted this.” – Rachel Smith, Proceedings 

Mother and daughter corresponded regularly when apart, often every two days, and thus Hitty’s influence on her daughter kept Bess mindful and respectful of her mama’s wishes.

“Hitty’s letters to Bess in Bath show the importance of communication in order to fit in with fashionable society. Hitty’s letter, which asks Bess to report whether she had combed the powder out of her hair, tells one in real terms, how the powder tax affected people as well as demonstrates Hitty’s continuing societal education. This comment, and Bess’s subsequent reply detailing that she now had ‘red’ locks, also proves the significance of the ‘see and been seen’ aspect of society, where Bess would be judged as unfashionable with powdered hair.” – Rachel Smith, Proceedings

One can imagine the pressure Bess must have felt from her mother. At this time in 1792/93, Bess was a young lady new to the conventions of the marriage mart. According to Bynoth, her initial letters to her mother were optimistic and enthusiastic, and not without a little chagrin at Hitty’s attempt to micromanage her from afar. When she wrote about her concern about her progress, Bess, now 17, replied referring to a Bath newspaper account, 

“You may … fully satisfy your curiosity and [it] will convince you that my beauty, elegance, grace and uncommon wit is not to be surpassed.” – Bynoth

This answer should remind today’s readers of the cheeky and testy retorts any teenage girl would send her parents when enjoying the sights and sounds of a resort town. While her parent was becoming increasingly anxious, Bess still held hope in finding a beau.

By 1798, when Bess was 22 years of age and still seeking a husband in Bath, she no longer had all the time in the world by Georgian standards to attract a husband. Recall that Jane Austen visited Bath for the first time in 1797, when she was of a similar age. The author’s descriptions of Bath in NA, written shortly after her experiences, help us to understand the social whirl that both Bess and Jane experienced and the anxiety they must have felt in not satisfying family expectations. 

During this time, suitable men had come in even shorter supply due to the wars and so the ladies and their mammas were bound to be even more disappointed at the lack of suitors. 

“During these wars the shortage of men of marriageable age became particularly acute by the 19th century. Those that were eligible were often overseas, continuing the fights. This made finding a marriage partner even more anxiety inducing and harder.” – Bynoth

One can imagine the pressure on both the mother and the daughter. As her mother hyperventilated in print, Bess attempted to assuage her worries in another letter:

“… pray feel no anxieties about me. Mrs Leigh considers of everything for me & takes as much care & looks after me just as if I were her own. I make no doubt all will go on exactly as you could wish … Do not suffer the least apprehension about my dress & so forth … I must make Hay while the Sun shines if possible & I would have you to know I never looked half so well.“ – Bynoth 

The squeeze was on. While Hitty became increasingly anxious, Bess remained optimistic, but as time passed she too began to notice the lack of suitors. 

Scarcity of Suitors

As Bess’s stay lengthened, she wrote in a more somber tone:

“the girls ought to all pray for peace there. T’ill that much desired blessing arrives, it is in vain for them to crop and dress and go to public places … on hearing of the terrible scarcity of Beaus at Bath.”

Bess then wrote to her mother that the social gatherings consisted of more women and no men, and expressed her boredom and anxiety. For want of something better to do she was forced to “flirt a little with Lady Marianne’s son.”

While Hitty still seemed to feel more anxiety than Bess about her prospects for the future, her daughter expressed an interesting phrase: “Not that I wish to be melancholic, just now.”

Bynoth’s summarizing statement about Bess Canning’s situation sums it up perfectly: 

“Concerning finding a suitable husband or just securing a match, it seems to be less actually trying to find a suitable husband than trying to find a husband at all.”


After seven more years, Bess did indeed find a beau suited to her station and, we hope, her mother’s wishes for a happy future. She married George Henry Barnett of Glympton Park  on 14th December 1805. This short biographical sketch places her squarely in an advantageous economical position as a wife:

“Despite occasional difficulties caused by wars and the business cycle, two generations of banking, together with other business directorships and socially advantageous marriages (his wife was a first cousin of George Canning, briefly the Prime Minister in 1827), made George Henry Barnett a wealthy man, worth £120,000 at his death in 1871. Both his surviving sons, Henry Barnett (1815-96) and Charles George Barnett (1816-96) followed him into the bank, and remained partners until its final absorption into Lloyds in 1884.” – Landed Families of Britain and Ireland

One assumes Bess achieved her destiny as a wife and mother in Hitty’s eyes. May we all hope she found peace and happiness in the marriage and as a mother as well. Bess died in 1838 at 61, while George Henry died to a ripe and elderly age in 1871. 

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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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At Home With the Georgians: A Man’s Place, the BBC2 special, is hosted by Professor Amanda Vickery, who shares her expertise and unique knowledge gleaned from diaries written during that fascinating era. In the series about Georgian houses, shown in three installments in Great Britain, Dr. Vickery provides a fascinating insider’s view of what home and hearth meant to the individuals she showcases.

Host and scholar, Dr. Amanda Vickery in carriage

An 18th century gentleman, it seemed, yearned as much for domesticity as the Georgian woman. During this period the middle class began to earn enough money to purchase houses and furnish them in a style that reflected the owner’s tastes, character and moral values. Until a man could afford to head a household, his place in society as a full citizen was not fulfilled.

Dr. George Gibbs's letters to Miss Vickery

Take George Gibbs, a West Country doctor, for instance, who worked hard to woo his sweetheart, Miss Vickery. His future domicile and its furnishings were topics of much conversation in his letters to her. He looked for a house all over Exeter that would satisfy her as much as himself – “one with a good parlor with sashed windows and painted blue and with two chambers, tolerably good, and one hung with paper.”

Dudley Ryder fantasizes about a home and family in his humble one-room bachelor pad

Twenty-three year old Dudley Ryder, law student and son of a tradesman, yearned in his diaries for a wife to soothe his lonely nights and take care of him. He lived in squalid lodgings while studying law, eating his meals in chop houses and living a lonely bachelor existence.

In a contemporary cartoon, a bachelor cadges a meal from an irritated married friend

His dreams would not be realized for another twenty years when he married the daughter of a rich West Indian merchant.

Dudley Ryder as a respectable married man

Dudley not only came into his own later in life, but managed to acquire a quite handsome estate.

The Master Key to the Rich Ladies Treasures listed eligible ladies according to region and type

For these men, eligible brides were at a premium. A book, “Master Key to the Rich Ladies Treasures”, listed all the eligible women (and their incomes) in the land.

A lady's fortune and other assets could be consulted

Today, we think of the marriage mart in that long ago age as a “meat market” in which the bride went to the best prospect. Yet Georgian women longed as much for domesticity as the man yearned for a wife to complete his ambitions in becoming head of a household with a family.

John Courtney's house had curb appeal, unlike its master

Some men had more difficulty than others in acquiring a proper mate. John Courtney, who lived in a handsome house in the market town of Beverley in Yorkshire with his mama, was rejected eight times during his search for a wife. In this instance, Dr. Vickery makes the point that there was more to wooing a future wife than the prospect of living in a fine house – the man himself needed to have some finesse in the ritual of courtship and show some self-awareness.

The cost and maintenance of a carriage and horses was the equivalent of a helicopter today

Once the couple was married, the man could spend the family money as he wished. Much of a man’s financial outlay was on himself and his interests, such as horses, carriages, and leather (symbols of speed and virility) and on the sort of equipment that would be the equivalent of today’s laptops and flat screen tvs.

18th c. male items for sale today

Not surprisingly, the personalities of Georgian women varied. Not all were meek and mild. Miss Mary Martin from Essex was a rather complicated (and very bossy) individual. She was capable and demanding, yet womanly.

Miss Mary Martin oversees renovations

Engaged for seven years to her cousin, Colonel Isaac Rebow, she took care of his interests when he was away on garrison duty, jokingly writing to him, “I will only add that my breeches hang extremely well.” She was a powerful fiancee, able to oversee the hiring and firing of servants, look after storing Isaac’s wigs, and see after his provisioning. After they were married, she made sure that her husband was as happy in bed as out of it.

Charlotte Lucas was quietly content with her decision

At this juncture, Dr. Vickery points out that Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, chose the security and status of a married woman, knowing she would be married to a buffoon. Through marriage she gained status and respectability. But what happened to a woman who never married? Unfortunately, as Jane Austen sagely wrote, “ There are not so many men of fortune in the world as there are pretty girls who deserve them.” In the 18th century, Dr. Vickery states, one out of three artistocratic girls were never married, for there were not enough estates to go around.

Even a buffoon of a husband did not detract from Charlotte's pride of home

And, indeed, Jane Austen in Mansfield Park wrote vividly about Fanny Price’s mother, who married down the social ladder. She took on her husband’s status, that of a lowly lieutenant, and lived a life of misery, poverty and want. Her tablecloths were surely dirty, whereas in the Georgian age a clean one was considered a sign of virtue.

Gertrude Savile, unhappy spinster

Dr. Vickery talks in detail of a lonely spinster, Gertrude Savile, who lives on sufferance in Rufford Abbey, her brother’s grand house in Nottinghamshire. Timid, shy, and pox marked, she hated her gilded caged life and struggled to find some social and emotional meaning in an existence that forced her to beg for “every pin and needle” and “every pair of gloves”.  Even the servants treated her with contempt and thus she chose to remain within her rooms, with her cat her only comfort. In her diary she poured out her anger and sadness, using words like “miserable”, “unhappy”, “extremely miserable”, and “very unhappy”.

Gertrude Savile's agitated scribbles and crossings

Poor, poor Gertrude would never know the joys of managing her own household and overseeing her own brood. Her scribbled screams of rage and crossings leapt out from the pages of her journals.

George Hilton was full of self-loathing for his inability to control his base habits

Lifelong bachelors also felt the bitter pangs of loneliness. George Hilton, a dissolute 27-year-old squire, never married. He spent his time carousing in taverns, drinking to so much excess that he “fell paralytically drunk 220 times in eight years”. Even the men he drank with had no desire to introduce George to their eligible female relations.  Graceless George had a house filled with pewter and devoid of womanly touches. His only female companions were prostitutes, which in a Christian society meant that he lived in sin. George died alone and was buried in an unmarked grave on the fells.

A serene view of Chawton Cottage

Romance and marriage for the Georgians was as complicated in a different way from courtship today. Women had fewer choices to make their way in the world, as poor Gertrude Savile situation as a spinster without prospects demonstrated, but many Georgian men yearned for domestic bliss as much as their women. Dr. Vickery ended the episode in Chawton Cottage, reminding us that another spinster, Jane Austen, chose to live a creative and productive life. Gertrude, who wallowed in her misery and anger, likely did not have the family support or innate talent that Jane had, and thus she was doomed to sit in her rooms alone.

Jane Austen's writing table, Chawton Cottage

I enjoyed this first installment by Dr. Vickery thoroughly. Her approach to what could have been a very dry topic was refreshingly unscholarly and accessible to even the most historically challenged (yet her script is backed up by impeccable sources.) While actors portrayed the diarists in various settings, we are shown the portraits of the actual individuals (when possible), and are shown their homes or a close facsimile.

Amanda Vickery reads Dudley Ryder's diaries

I did wonder, however, how on earth Dr. Vickery was allowed to handle valuable manuscripts with her bare hands. (Does not the oil on our fingertips eventually eat into the parchment? Are scholars exempt from having to wear gloves as they handle rare diaries that are stored in archival boxes?)

Portrait of Dr. George Gibbs

And I was a bit taken aback at her reaction to Dr. Gibbs’s portrait. Yes, he was a jowly man and did not resemble her fantasized movie star hero, but his lack of handsome looks in no way detracted (in my mind) from his tender feelings and consideration towards his wife and children. See this clip on YouTube. Still, this special made history come alive in a way that made me feel that I had met several people from a former time, and gave me a more complete understanding of their yearning for domestic bliss.

Next episode: A Woman's Touch, 9 Dec

BBC 2 will air the second installment, A Woman’s Touch, on Thursday evening at 9 PM. Viewers in countries round the world can only sit back and patiently wait for this excellent series to head their way.

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The London Season began with the sitting of Parliament after Christmas and ended in mid-June, when the Ton deserted London in droves for their country estates in order to escape the summer’s stifling heat and the city’s pungent smells.

During the height of the social whirl, attendance at parties, balls, routs, and the theatre shot up as proud Papas and Mamas strutted their white-gowned, virginal daughters in front of a host of eligible men, some longer in the tooth than others.

“We have already seen that as early as the 1730’s and 40’s many of the residents in the principal streets of the Grosvenor estate, and of course many more in other correspondingly fashionable parts of London, only spent part of each year in town, their seasonal movements being prescribed by those of the Court and by the dates of the parliamentary sessions. In the eighteenth century the number of people participating in this fashionable minuet between town and country cannot be even approximately calculated, but in the nineteenth century detailed information about the London Season was published for many years in The Morning Post, and this has been analysed for the year 1841.”

From: ‘The Social Character of the Estate: The London Season in 1841’, Survey of London: volume 39: The Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History) (1977), pp. 89-93. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=41842. Date accessed: 30 August 2006.

Wikipedia adds more insights about The Season.

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