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  • Love and Marriage in 18th-Century Britain
  • Wendy Moore (bio)

William Hogarth graphically depicted the pitfalls of arranged marriage in his cautionary cartoon series Marriage à-la-mode, published in 1745. Samuel Johnson famously described second marriages as the "triumph of hope over experience." The Georgians' fixation with wedlock was no accident. The secret of a successful marriage was one of the most hotly debated topics in the salons and coffee-houses of 18th-century England, and the outcome of this febrile discourse set the tone for our modern-day Western approach to marriage based on the ideal of a harmonious, companionable partnership founded in mutual love.1

The shift in ideas about marriage was profound. At the beginning of the 18th century most marriages among landed or moneyed families were essentially financial arrangements designed to cement powerful alliances and exchange or acquire land and property. Although people in working-class and agricultural communities were more or less free to choose their own partners for life—albeit generally within the same narrow economic group and geographical area—the vast majority of marriages among aristocratic, wealthy, and middle-class families were arranged by parents with the prospective bride and bridegroom having little or no say.

Children were often betrothed in infancy and married in their teens, frequently to partners they barely knew and sometimes with disastrous consequences. Lord Halifax in his Advice to a Daughter, published in 1688, made the prospects plain when he explained: "It is one of the Disadvantages belonging to your Sex, that young Women are seldom permitted to make their own Choice."2 But if Lord Halifax—and presumably his daughter—was prepared to accept such an arrangement, others were not.

In a scathing indictment of marriage published in 1700, the writer Mary Astell demanded to know: "If Marriage be such a blessed State, how comes it, may you say, that there are so few happy marriages?"3 She remained a spinster. When the 23-year-old Lady Mary Pierrepont was betrothed by her father in 1712 to an Irish aristocrat she had never met, she described her wedding arrangements as "daily preparations for my journey to Hell."4 Rather than descend into eternal torment, she eloped and married her lover, Edward Wortley Montagu, just days before the planned ceremony.

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From William Hogarth's Marriage à-la-mode, "The Toilette Scene," 1745. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-112875].

As a growing number of thwarted young lovers voted with their feet, so criticism of arranged marriages increased during the first half of the 18th century. Hogarth's popular series of six scenes, which depict the tragic outcome of a marriage contracted by money-grasping parents and silver-tongued lawyers between a debauched young earl and the daughter of a rich merchant, reflected the mood. The writer Hester Chapone characterized such matches as "Smithfield bargains," in reference to the famed London meat market, and exclaimed, "so much ready money for so much land, and my daughter flung in into the bargain!"5

At the same time, the emphasis on self-expression, free will, and personal feelings in early 18th-century novels such as Daniel Defoe's Roxana (1724) and Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) was blamed for undermining the concept of arranged marriages and fueling expectations of romantic love.6 Whether the rising popularity of novels really influenced views on marriage or simply reflected changing opinion can probably never be determined. But certainly the former was the perception among disapproving older generations. François Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambray, in his Instructions for the Education of a Daughter, translated into English in 1713, warned of the dangers of girls reading "romances" and then being "astonished, not to find in the World real Persons, who may answer to these Romantick Heroes."7

Pressure from disgruntled parents, cheated out of advantageous matches by runaway couples, eventually led to the 1753 Marriage Act. Regulating marriage by the state for the first time in England with a series of rules standardizing weddings, the act stipulated that parental consent was required for couples wishing to marry under the age of 21. Undeterred, many...