- Victorian Girls Gone Wild:Matrimonial Advertising and the Transformation of Courtship in the Popular Press
In the story “Advertising for a Wife,” published in the working-class magazine Bow Bells in 1895, a young woman named Emma is urged by her father, Mr. Glue, to answer a matrimonial advertisement. This is a highly unusual scenario, given that advertising was thought of as a disreputable way to find a spouse, especially for women. But Mr. Glue is a lawyer who hopes to catch the man who placed the ad in order to prosecute him for debt. Glue, like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, uses the daily newspaper advertisements to hunt down criminals and solve crimes. As Matthew Rubery points out,
few readers were more skilled in the use of baited advertisements than Sherlock Holmes, whose book of clippings … served as an informal archive in solving numerous cases since lawbreakers were among the most habitual employers of this clandestine means of communication. The criminal underworld investigated by Holmes was found in the most unlikely of hiding places—the newspaper’s front page.(57)
Mr. Glue “looked to derive more or less of personal advantage” from reading the daily advertisements; “indeed since he had hit on this expedient, the second column of the Times had proved a little fortune to him” (566). In this case, he wants his daughter to lure the debtor—who is using the ad to attract a wealthy wife—into his trap. The fact that Glue would put Emma in such a compromising position is suspect enough, but he also lies to her about his motives. He suggests that “it would serve the coxcomb right to send him on a fool’s errand” and promises her a new guitar if she agrees to “put the gentleman’s sincerity to the test” (566). However, the plan backfires when Emma’s maid, Lucy, overhears a conversation that reveals the true identity of the advertiser and Glue’s self-interested reason for involving his daughter.
The advertiser happens to be none other than Captain Frederick Fitz-Mortimer, the man with whom Emma fell in love during a party on the Isle of Wight the previous summer. Emma is angry with her father for duping her, but also filled with “shame at the knowledge that Fitz-Mortimer, of whom she had thought so highly, having had recourse to such a disgraceful expedient [End Page 129] as advertising for a wife” (567). Emma’s own willingness to respond to the matrimonial advertisement marks her as adventurous at best, reckless at worst. Merely communicating with an unknown man was considered a risky business, and arranging a clandestine meeting with him worse. But instead of reconsidering her own willingness to participate in the unusual scheme, she decides to double down on it. With Lucy’s assistance, Emma arranges another secret meeting, to take place before the original one, so that she can warn Fitz-Mortimer about her father’s plan. The captain recognizes her handwriting and comes eagerly to the rendezvous, where he confesses that he has not proposed to her before only because her father is his nemesis. He affirms his desire to marry Emma, and she accepts his proposal, thus solving his financial difficulties by placing her independent fortune at his disposal. Perhaps surprisingly, “Old Glue was eventually softened and Fitz-Mortimer was thoroughly reclaimed, and once more restored to society” (568). Thus, a discredited form of courtship allows Emma to pursue her lost lover with the unlikely encouragement of her father. Glue thinks he is going to nab a criminal by asking his daughter to answer an ad, but instead his daughter nabs a husband. If marriage was women’s “business” during the Victorian period, then responding to or writing a matrimonial ad was one way of improving one’s business options. Emma ends up using the Times ad the same way her father does, to “derive … personal advantage.” Ultimately, matrimonial advertising is a more successful tool for Emma’s business than it is for her father’s.
In this essay, I trace the rise of matrimonial advertising as a popular alternative to polite courtship practices, focusing on...