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  • How to Choose your Bride in the Late Nineteenth Century November 23, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    The only advice Beachcombing can ever remember getting from a family member about how to choose a wife was ‘have a good look at her mother: she’ll be like that in fifty years’. The best advice he ever came across in his own reading, meanwhile, was in an Iris Murdoch novel (The Severed Head?): ‘only ever get married when you can’t believe your luck’. But this is, in truth, all modest stuff. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that the modern age is not very interested in  maxims around wedding bells, not least perhaps because spouses like career choices can be undone.

    However, other ages took marriage far more seriously and Beachcombing has been reading up recently on marriage advice for young men and women from the past, modern, medieval and ancient. He recently gave one letter from Lorenzo de’ Medici’s mother to show how Renaissance merchant princes made their decisions. And today he thought he would match this with some quaint nineteenth-century advice from a popular encyclopedic work. The following passage comes, as its spelling suggests, from an American book, published ‘c. 1900’, the book in question carries no date and Beach is relying here on the annotation of a librarian with nice Edwardian handwriting.

    In the first place, see the girl you intend to honor as early in the morning as possible, and note whether she is fresh and tidy or limp and frowsy.

    Watch how she treats her pets—her dog, her canary, her little sisters.

    Discover what she eats and drinks, and make yourself certain whether she bathes or uses perfumery.

    Remember if she makes a habit of walking or driving.

    Inform yourself whether she dotes upon Owen Meredith and Henry James, or reads Longfellow and Fenimore Cooper.

    Go to church with her and see if she cares more for the preacher than for the Gospel.

    Make a sly study of her anatomy when you get a chance.

    Walk with her as fast as you can, and dance a whole waltz through with her, and mark if she allows herself breathing room and wears tight slippers.

    Familiarize yourself with her father’s affairs and her mother’s temper; and then, my boy, when you’ve found a girl who is neat, trim, true, healthy, wealthy and wise, sail in and win her.

    Beachcombing doesn’t know where to begin. His first question has to be though whether Owen Meredith/Henry James are worse or better than Longfellow/Fenimore Cooper? Sobre/intellectual vs racy/easy??

    He also feels obliged to celebrate: ‘make a sly study of her anatomy when you get a chance’. Presumably this was not the vulgar ‘bum stare’ of the modern adult male. Was the young man supposed to be assessing hips for child-bearing and breasts for nursing potential?

    Other highlights include the ‘frowsy’ bride and the way the author syntactically makes little sisters into pets.

    Any historical marriage advice gratefully received, particularly such Polonius-style nonsense. Surprising how little there is in modern collections. Drbeachcombing at yahoo dot com.


    26 Nov 2011: Invisible writes in ‘You asked for historical marriage advice. Here are a few snippets, mostly 18th century. But let’s start in 11th century Japan. In The Tale of Genji, the young courtiers often discuss what makes a perfect woman: long, smooth, thick hair; exquisite handwriting; musical talent; the wit to write poetry replete with classical allusions on the spur of the moment and recognize those allusions in her suitor’s poems; a refined sense of fashion in which colors, shading, textures, and weights of textiles tell a story of taste and elegance. (Women could be criticized if even one layer of the 12-layer robe was a shade too pale or if they wore a ‘spring’ color combination in the autumn.) Most importantly, a woman must be completely free of jealousy, no matter how many the man’s amorous adventures or other wives he brings into the home. Prince Genji himself finds this paragon only in a young girl—Lady Murasaki–whom he rears and grooms to be his wife, a relationship which has very unpleasant overtones to a modern-day reader. Here is an excerpt giving some other insight into choosing a wife in Heian Japan. Then  Rules to Choose a Wife from The Gentleman’s Magazine 1740. The Young Man’s Guide, 1839 (hint: avoid novel-readers). And since turnabout is fair play, the female equivalent:  The Daughter’s Own Book, 1833 ‘Never marry a Fop.’  Words we can all live by… An 1899 sermon on the proper virtues in a wife. “A busy bee, rather than a gaudy butterfly.’ Advice on choosing a wife from nuns in 1960s Ireland.  And, I just can’t resist this modern list of rule.’ Thanks, Invisible!

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