- Matrimonials in the Morning Post:Literary Wife-Traps in Conservative Contexts
Far from representing an open market for courtship,1 early nineteenth-century matrimonial advertisements were a conservative extension of traditional modes of courtship into the realm of print culture. Matrimonial advertisements circulated in a cultural milieu of disapproving readers. Alarming, and sometimes humorous, warnings against matrimonial advertising alleged its potential for deception, fraud, and danger.2 Female correspondents [End Page 199] were particularly threatened; readers imagined male advertisers as "Heartless, mercenary wretches, who ought to be shunned by all respectable females!" (Y. M. 41). Yet in spite of the public prejudice against them, matrimonial advertisements tended to have socially conservative functions. If we attend more closely to the varying print contexts in which matrimonial advertisements appeared, as well as analyze recurring discursive patterns within the advertisements, we find that matrimonial advertising often functioned to shore up traditional ideas about class, gender, sexuality, and marriage.
A survey of matrimonials printed in the Morning Post illustrates how a newspaper's character, reputation, and circulation shaped the content of matrimonial advertising.3 Why the Morning Post? Recent scholarship on matrimonials focuses on their circulation among the aspirational classes.4 Matrimonials for and by members of the upper classes, especially those published prior to the 1870s rise of niche periodicals devoted to matrimonial advertising, have been overlooked, and yet these provide some of the most fervent defences of advertising as a respectable mode of courtship.5 In the Morning Post, matrimonials intermittently appear on the first page, surrounded by advertisements for goods, services, and employment opportunities. The Morning Post was well known for fashionable news and conservative politics. According to Wilfrid Hindle's history, the Morning Post was "recognized as a champion of Conservatism for over a century" (4) and "very much the organ of the leisured classes" (5). The newspaper had a reputation for snobbery in the first half of the nineteenth century. A Punch writer dubbed it the "Fawning Post" for its sycophantic reporting of the Royal family (Hindle 166). Evoking an elite female readership, a contemporary Fraser's Magazine critic described the newspaper as
the oracle of the drawing-room, and the soft recorder of ballroom beauties and drawing-room presentations. . . . In all matters interesting to the female world of fashion this paper has always the best information, which it employs in a discreet manner, imparting just as much of private affairs as the public ought to know, and no more.(qtd. in Hindle 165)
The conservative tone and fashionable reputation of the Morning Post are reflected in the matrimonials printed between 1820 and 1860. For one thing, advertisers describe themselves as gentlemen of property seeking ladies with matching resources and connections. In contrast to matrimonials included in the notices to correspondents sections of less-fashionable papers, which unapologetically published advertisers' pecuniary problems, there are far fewer matrimonials in the Morning Post that express socio-economic aspirations. The lack of such advertisements complicates the stereotype of the fortune hunter prevalent in public discourse about matrimonials.6 In fact, many of the Morning Post matrimonials explicitly state that "Money is no [End Page 200] consideration" (8 Nov. 1858) or "Whatever fortune the lady may possess will be strictly settled upon herself" (26 May 1860). The few Morning Post matrimonials that do appear to be motivated by economic reasons are genteelly regretful in tone, while still asserting the advertiser's social status. One such 1830 advertisement seeking a "Lady of ample fortune" apologetically explains that the advertiser "possesses at present a comfortable independence, and very considerable expectations hereafter, but being entailed property, it cannot be set apart for the purposes of a marriage settlement, which explains the necessity of this public intimation of his views. He would not, however, desire an union with any Lady not at least his equal in society" (9 April 1831).
In reinforcing the class hierarchy and tacit rules for endogamous marriage within the upper social strata, these advertisements, contributed solely by male correspondents looking for wives, are noticeably gendered.7 Advertisements uniformly feature chivalric promises of honour and secrecy that reveal the articulation of gender, sexuality, and class, given that they are as...