Select the perfect partner

For Victorians, finding someone of the right status and temperament was crucial. Love often came afterwards

Choosing a suitable spouse was essential at a time when it was difficult to get out of a marriage. Before 1858, divorce was only available by private Act of Parliament; even after that date, adultery was the only basis for divorce, and wives had to prove additional aggravating factors, such as desertion or cruelty.

10th February 1840: Queen Victoria (1819 - 1901) and Prince Albert (1819 - 1861) on their return from the marriage service at St James's Palace, London. Original Artwork: Engraved by S Reynolds after F Lock. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Lonely hearts ads (typically put out by men) were increasingly likely to emphasise the desire for an attractive mate who would be a good homemaker. It was recognised that love, while important, might well develop after marriage. In Harriet Martineau’s 1839 novel Deerbrook, Dr Hope marries out of a sense of obligation but grows to love his wife, while Charlotte Brontë urged a friend to consider a proposal of marriage – even if she felt disgust for the man – if he had “common sense, a good disposition [and] a manageable temper”.

While husbands and wives were expected to play different roles within marriage, society frowned on unions in which the differences between them were too great: marriages across classes were rare.

Left: Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day, 29 July 1981. Right: Prince William and Catherine Middleton on their wedding day, 29 April 2011. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

When it came to age, most brides and grooms would have been in their mid-20s. Of those marrying for the first time between 1850 and 1899, the average age was a little under 26 for men and a little over 24 for women. By those ages, most working-class couples would have been in employment long enough to have built up some savings. Nevertheless, some married first and set up home later. The rector of Wortham in Suffolk described how one couple married and then lived separately while they saved up for a bed.

Larger age gaps – and longer engagements – were more common among the middle and upper classes, where couples would defer marriage until the man had established himself in his profession and could furnish a suitable home. At 21, the writer Molly Hughes became engaged to 30-year-old Arthur, an aspiring barrister, but their marriage did not take place for another 10 years.

A bride and groom pose in a garden in the 1890s. Most first-time couples would have been in their mid-20s, but some did not wed until they were more financially secure. (Photo by F. J. Mortimer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A bride and groom pose in a garden in the 1890s. Most first-time couples would have been in their mid-20s, but some did not wed until they were more financially secure. (Photo by F. J. Mortimer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Choose where to tie the knot

As the 19th century progressed, couples had more choice over where they made it official

Around the time that Victoria ascended the throne, new laws came into force regulating how her subjects could marry. Up until then, all marriages had to be performed according to the rites of the Church of England, with only Jews and Quakers exempt. The Marriage Act 1836 made it possible to have a civil ceremony in a register office. The act also allowed nonconformist Christians and Catholics to marry according to their own rites, as long as they did so in a registered place of worship and with a civil registrar in attendance. And from 1856, non-Christian places of worship could also be registered for marriage.

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Despite the reforms, most couples continued to marry in an Anglican church. By 1900, such marriages still accounted for two-thirds of the total, with only one-sixth of couples choosing a civil ceremony. The fact that civil weddings took place in the actual office of the registrar may have put off many. One witness commented that he “never saw such a marriage in my life – there was no ring put on”. On the other hand, a civil ceremony did offer more privacy than one in church. Unsurprisingly, bigamists were twice as likely to choose a register office than was the norm.

The laws governing who could marry remained unchanged by the 1836 act, however: girls could marry at 12 and boys at 14. Not that marriages under those ages were necessarily invalid. If the couple remained together once both had reached the legal age, the marriage was binding. Even when, in 1885, it was made a criminal offence to have sex with a girl under the age of 16, the fact that the couple were married was a valid defence.

Anybody marrying under the age of 21 was encouraged to ensure they had parental approval. Those who falsely swore on oath that they were of age and had parental consent could forfeit any property they might otherwise have gained through their marriage. Parents had the power to forbid the banns of marriage for children under 21 – but there were plenty of ways of getting married without one’s parents knowing, including eloping to a parish where the couple were unknown.

Pick your guests – wisely

Some couples opted for grand events, while others chose to marry in secret

When Jane Eyre declared, “Reader, I married him,” she reported that only the parson and the clerk were present at her wedding to Mr Rochester. Judging from the witnesses who signed real-life marriage registers, this was not that unusual. Some couples were no doubt marrying quietly because of parental disapproval. In Our Mutual Friend, Bella Wilfer creeps out of the house early in the morning to get married without telling her mother, although she does ensure that her father will be at the wedding.

Higher up the social scale, weddings were expected to be more lavish affairs. The sexton who was called upon to witness one marriage thought the absence of guests very suspicious in the light of the superior social standing of the couple, and confidently recalled the details in the groom’s trial for bigamy seven years later.

Some couples ended up sharing their special moment with complete strangers. At both Manchester Cathedral and St John’s church in the East End, vicars would routinely marry couples in batches to save time and money.

Buy a special dress, if you can afford it

The white wedding gown caught on in Victorian times – but for many, wearing a dress just once was unthinkable

The white silk satin and lace dress that Queen Victoria wore when she married Prince Albert in 1840 was widely admired and set a trend. The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony reported in 1865 that fawn, grey and lavender were “entirely out of fashion”, although such colours were still suitable for widows or older brides. The novelist Mrs Henry Wood depicted an eloping bride worrying that her white dress would be a tell-tale sign, while in the 1890s the diarist Olive Garnett noted how her friend “looked lovely in regulation bridal attire”.

For most, of course, a dress that would be worn just once would have been an unthinkable extravagance, and brides generally chose something that could be worn on subsequent occasions. This was made easier by the fact that wedding dresses were made to reflect the styles of the day, rather than a fairytale ideal. Over the course of the century, fashionable wedding dresses featured, in turn, crinolines, bustles and leg-of-mutton sleeves. After the wedding, they might be dyed a more suitable colour for everyday use. Lower down the social scale, practical considerations prevailed, with one account of rural weddings noting how the bride’s dress was “generally made of some serviceable material of a pretty shade”.

Grooms attracted less notice, with their outfits becoming plainer over the course of the century. Class determined what kind of attire was appropriate, but the groom was not expected to stand out like his bride.

The future Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace following their wedding, 20 November 1947. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Set the right date for the big day

Changes in the world of work led to Victorians choosing spring or summer weddings

Industrialisation and the move to less seasonally dependent work meant late spring and summer emerged as popular times to marry. But older patterns prevailed in rural areas that were still tied to the agricultural calendar. In Northamptonshire, for example, July (an especially busy time) was the least popular month to marry, while October was the most.

Wedding hours were extended to 3pm to reflect the working hours of the lower classes

Sunday – the one day of leisure for workers – was the most usual one for weddings, particularly in urban areas. Only in the middle of the century did the practice emerge of giving workers an extra half-day off each week, and Saturday became the most popular day. Until 1886, weddings had to take place between 8am and noon. These hours were then extended to 3pm to reflect both the working hours of the lower classes and the changing social habits of the upper classes.

A wedding breakfast, depicted in 1897. Most couples enjoyed a celebration afterwards, usually at the home of the bride. (Photo by Alamy)
A wedding breakfast, depicted in 1897. Most couples enjoyed a celebration afterwards, usually at the home of the bride. (Photo by Alamy)

Throw a party and then escape on honeymoon

Post-wedding celebrations and holidays became the norm as the 19th century progressed

Most couples would enjoy some kind of celebration after the wedding, usually at the home of the bride. Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield hazily recalled “there being a breakfast, with abundance of things, pretty and substantial, to eat and drink” and that he made a speech “in the same dreamy fashion, without having an idea of what I want to say”. The option from 1886 of an afternoon wedding meant that parties also shifted to later in the day, with a dinner and possibly even a dance.

The future Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace following their wedding, 20 November 1947. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The 19th century also saw the honeymoon become an established part of the process of getting married. For the wealthy, this might involve an extended tour of Europe. In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester fantasises about taking the heroine “to French vineyards and Italian plains” in order to share with her the sights he has seen on his travels. Those with less money, or less time, might take a trip within the UK, with Scotland, the Lake District and the seaside being popular destinations. By the end of the century the expectation that the couple would have some time away had even percolated down to the upper working classes. In George Gissing’s novel Thyrza, his heroine, a hat-trimmer, is planning a “wedding holiday” after her marriage.

Some honeymoons included visits to family and friends, but the usual expectation was that this would be a time for the couple to be alone together. As George Eliot put it, the aim was “to isolate two people on the ground that they are all the world to each other”. Honey mooning couples were thought to be easily identifiable by both their demonstrations of affection and their unfamiliarity with each other.

For some unlucky couples, the honeymoon might for the first time expose a fundamental incompatibility. In Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke’s visit to Rome with her aged husband proves a disaster, while John Ruskin’s reaction (or lack of it) to his bride, Effie Gray, resulted in their marriage being annulled.

Professor Rebecca Probert teaches family law at the University of Exeter, and specialises in the current law and history of marriage, cohabitation, divorce and bigamy


This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine