Forced Marriage vs. The Love Match
Updated: Jan 16
The Marriage of Convenience:
It's been over two centuries and a decade since Pride & Prejudice was published as 'Written by a Lady'. It's no secret that Jane Austen did her best to show the benefits of the love match, over the marriage of convenience. What might be hard to see from this side of 1813, is that marriage for love was once a very new idea.
Austen was, in fact, facing off against almost 1,000 years of marrying for money, position, land, titles, and just about any prudential reason under the sun. Affection in one's marriage wasn't considered important until the standard was set by a royal couple who seemed to embody these values: King George III and Queen Charlotte.
Granted, their marriage was designed for other reasons entirely, but they did seem to love each other. Their fifteen children would seem to bear this out. Most British subjects followed the lead set by their monarchs in the 1800s. King George and his queen were known to be a united couple, devoted to one another - and the idea of The Love Match grew more popular.
Even with a monarchy united in love, marrying for affection wasn't particularly celebrated in the Regency era. It was expected that daughters were exchanged for political and/or financial gain, and that a couple may come to love one another afterward. If they didn't, well, that's what mistresses were for. Even married noblewomen were able to take lovers, if they'd done their duty and produced a few legitimate heirs.
This 'understanding' was mostly for the upper classes of course, where marrying for love was considered frivolous, selfish, and outright dangerous to the financial and political interests of one's family.
A Working Girl's Blessing:
Part of the reason a 'lower' woman like a lady's maid might manage a love match more easily than, say, her mistress, was because the maid could support herself.
Her skills might keep her if she didn't wed, or wed a man who did not earn a great deal, or who left her widowed (no minor consideration when you remember the wars in France, as well as in the Americas - and that's quite apart from expanding the empire all over the place). A working girl's mercantile abilities enabled her freedom.
A noblewoman wasn't brought up to work. She was brought up to breed. Her marriage was all about her family's increase of wealth and consequence, not about her.
The Value of a Woman:
A highborn woman's worth was determined by her family's wealth and connections as much as by her dowry. This is what her prospective suitors vied for, and it had little to do with the girl herself. If her family wished her to wed a certain fellow, there was quite a bit they could do to compel her to the altar, including refusing to support her. With no earning power and any fortune under the control of her guardians (if she were under 21 years), her family could demand she wed their choice, or starve.
From 1140 A.D., it was decreed that a marriage could only be considered legal if both parties gave their consent to be wed - which was a big step forward for mediaeval England at that time. This was supposed to stop forced marriages, but girls were the legal property of their family, with marriage decisions usually controlled by their fathers. Upon marriage, control of the woman (and all her assets) passed to her husband.
Should a girl's father, or guardian, wish her to wed a man she didn't care for, there wasn't any practical way to stop them forcing her acquiescence. An unscrupulous or determined family had all the power they needed to ensure a girl's 'consent'.
An unwelcome suitor might also coerce consent by compromising the girl. Being caught alone with a man was enough to ensure one became unmarriageable to any other man. There's a scene regarding this in one of the final episodes of Bridgerton (Season 2), though it's more to trap the man than the woman in that instance.
The age of consent for a common law marriage at this time was 14 for boys and 12 for girls. If the marrying parties' were older than this, legalising their marriage didn't require the consent of their parents. Many clergymen would happily solemnise private marriages for a fee, making clandestine marriages a real problem - especially for aristocratic papas whose daughters were targeted by fortune hunters. The fear here was not so much for the girl, as it was for the pedigree of the family's future heirs.
The illegal practice of bride kidnapping was not uncommon in Austen's time either. The law took this seriously if the woman was an heiress (the legal crime of 'theft of an heiress' carried a similar penalty to theft of a chicken - both the heiress and the chicken were considered pilfered assets).
However, once a girl had been kidnapped and held for at least one night, she was considered 'ruined', whether consummation had taken place or not. In many cases, her best course was to agree to wed her kidnapper (or remain wedded to him, if a ceremony had already occurred). Her choices were extremely limited.
The Hardwicke Marriage Act:
In 1753 a new marriage act was supposed to prevent such 'private' marriages. It was heralded as An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage, and more commonly known as 'Lord Hardwicke’s Act'. The Hardwicke Act sought to address the issue with new rules against private wedding ceremonies.
The Act stated that for marriages to be legal, they had to take place in a church after the publication of banns (a bann is the notice read out on three successive Sundays in the parish church, announcing an intended marriage and asking for any objections), or after the parties had obtained a special license.
The Act also insisted that all parties under the age of twenty-one (i.e., the age of majority) who were married by special license needed parental consent in order for the marriage to be valid. Twenty-one was commonly the age when many came into their inheritances, and anything else they were due as 'adults'.
Note that it was entirely lawful for a marriage to take place between parties who were older than the age of consent, but younger than the age of majority (i.e., 21 years old), without any parental consent - if they waited for the banns to be called before legalising their union. So, a fee-gathering parson in a parish were no one knew the bride and/or the groom was an easy way around these new laws.
Could a man kidnap a girl and hide out for three weeks in a parish where no one knew them, have the banns called, and then bribe a clergyman to wed them? He could. Would such a marriage be legal? It would.
Can I write a tale of a heroine who faces such travail? What do you know? I did!
The King's Mistress - a return to Clifton Hall:
For those who do remember, the duke had three children - two sons and a daughter. My new novel, The King's Mistress, is his daughter Lydia's story. Left behind by her brothers, she's used to being alone but her father has other plans - and they don't include consulting her regarding her upcoming wedding. She doesn't approve of his choice of groom at all.
Soon, she's looking for escape any way she can and taking risks she never thought a lady of the ton ever would. When a little lie lands her in big trouble, assistance comes from the most unlikely of people: A man she's lied about, and lied to, but never forgotten...