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  • Marriage
  • Ruth Bernard Yeazell (bio)
Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England
by Jennifer Phegley; pp. 196. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012. $40.61 cloth.
Living in Sin: Cohabiting as Husband and Wife in Nineteenth-Century England
by Ginger S. Frost; pp. 264. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2008. $30.95 paper.

“The circumstances of Victorian society made bliss connubial” (341): so Walter E. Houghton briskly introduced the subject of love more than a half century ago in his ground-breaking study of Victorian culture. The Victorian Frame of Mind was avowedly a work of intellectual history rather than an empirical account of how Victorians actually conducted their lives, and much has changed in the scholarly world over the fifty-odd years since it first appeared, not least with the advent of second-wave feminism. But the connubial ideal that Houghton described in 1957 remains very much in force in recent studies of the subject—even, or especially, when the Victorians in question managed to live together without the sanction of the state. As with contemporary debates over the question of gay marriage, it sometimes appears as if those most devoted to the ideal of a permanent and monogamous union were those who found themselves unable to identify legally as husband and wife.

Of the two books under review, Jennifer Phegley’s Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England feels the more familiar, if only because hers is in part a work of synthesis. An opening chapter on companionate marriage necessarily covers material that most students of the nineteenth century will have encountered elsewhere, whether the iconic relation of Victoria and Albert, Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House (1854)1 or the partial legal reforms that gradually eased restrictions on divorce and enabled married women to control their property after the ceremony. Phegley’s survey of courtship practices likewise touches on familiar themes, even as she registers how behavioural standards varied from class to class and shifted, sometimes in unexpected ways, over the course of the century. Behind much of the advice and rule-making can be sensed a struggle to reconcile the companionate ideal—a marriage based on love, or at least on the prospect of emotional affinity—with a concern for more practical matters, such as status or money. The same middle-class Victorians who encouraged lovers to get to know one another sufficiently before marriage also worried that lengthy engagements would collapse under their own weight or—worse yet—result in premarital sex. This last worry, Phegley suggests, was largely unspoken.

With the exception of domestic servants, whose ability to woo and wed appears to have been severely restricted by their employers, members of [End Page 208] the working class tended to marry earlier than professional types and to court one another with a freedom that was sometimes the envy of their social superiors. Factory workers and other waged labourers may not have participated in the London season, the rituals of which Phegley documents in some detail, but they had more access to mixed company than the middle and upper classes; and they apparently worried less about obtaining parental consent to their choice of a mate. Such freedom, needless to say, had its costs, including significant rates of premarital pregnancy, particularly in the first half of the century, and an “explosion” of breach of promise suits from women who believed themselves abandoned after an assurance of marriage (60). At the same time, the closely guarded life of domestic servants did not prevent the birth of illegitimate children, since the very constraints that led servants to marry late or not at all also encouraged habits of secrecy, while making the women among them prime targets for seduction or rape.

No reader of Victorian fiction will be surprised to learn that the period of courtship afforded women a certain measure of social power, though Phegley partly complicates the story by suggesting that the more women ventured into public spaces in the latter decades of the century, the more strictly their behaviour was policed. According to the author of one 1896 manual, for example, the very liberty accorded “modern girls” by comparison with those in her youth made it...


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pp. 208-215
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