19th Century Marriage Manuals: Advice for Young Husbands

The Waning Honeymoon by George Henry Boughton, 1878.

The Waning Honeymoon by George Henry Boughton, 1878.

Published in 1837, The Young Husband’s Book is described as a “manual of domestic duties.”  Written by “a mentor” it contains within its pages advice on everything from choosing a wife to dealing with pesky in-laws.  Some of the information is merely common sense, the sort of generic advice newlyweds might hear from well-meaning relatives today.  The remainder is very pointedly early 19th century – written by someone who was clearly drawing on their own marital experiences gained during the Regency era and applying them to young couples in what was then the new Victorian age.

Despite our 21st century view of the Victorian age as being generally oppressive toward women, the primary emphasis in this manual is not on how to further subjugate a wife who is already under a husband’s complete legal and physical control, but on the solemn duties a gentleman undertakes when marrying.  The foremost of these duties, according to the manual, is the duty to provide for his new bride and future children.  To this end, the manual emphasizes the importance of a young husband being “industrious and frugal.”  It also advises that he should be temperate and not indulge in any expensive personal tastes, stating:

“He should always be ready to sacrifice his present personal pleasure to the future well-being of those who have the first and best claim to his regard.”

The manual reminds the young husband of the great sacrifice his new wife has made in marrying him.  It points out that she has left “her own people and her father’s house,” giving up the society of “those who have been endeared to her from her birth.”  In doing so, she has “entrusted her heart and her happiness” into her new husband’s keeping.  The manual declares that:

“He must be less than man who does not regard them as a most sacred deposit, and devote every energy and every care to their perfect preservation.”

The Marriage Proposal by Evert Jan Boks, 1882.

The Marriage Proposal by Evert Jan Boks, 1882.

It goes on to state that, in attending to his wife’s safety, comfort, and happiness, the young husband must always be sure to consult her as to her wishes and, though it is up to him to fix a limit on her expenditures, he is encouraged to give her a “fair proportion of indulgence within that limit.”  In exchange for this consideration and generosity, the manual informs the young husband that:

“The same law which imposes upon the husband the duty of supporting his wife, gives him a general and paramount claim to her obedience.”

This ironclad rule of obedience is supported with various scriptures from the Bible and the manual declares that any woman of common sense would “readily perceive the propriety of this course.”  It is here where we begin to see that the manual casts the young husband in a very paternal role.  He must care for his wife and see to her safety and comfort, but at heart, he must realize that she is too delicate and too sensitive of mind to make any decisions for herself at all.  Though, as the manual goes on to state, there are a few things on which a wife is qualified to weigh in:

“As to matters of little comparative moment – as to what shall be for dinner – as to how the house shall be furnished – as to the management of the house and of menial servants – as to those matters, and many others, the wife may have her way without any danger; but when the questions are, what is to be the calling to be pursued – what is to be the place of residence – what is to be the style of living and scale of expense – what is to be done with property – what is to be the manner and place of educating children – what is to be their calling or state of life – who are to be employed or entrusted by the husband – what are the principles that he is to adopt as to public matters – whom he is to have for coadjutors or friends – all these must be left solely to the husband; in all these he must have his will, or there never can be any harmony in the family.”

The Wedding Morning by John Henry Frederick Bacon, 1892.

The Wedding Morning by John Henry Frederick Bacon, 1892.

The manual is sure to explain that though the wife is subordinate, she is no less her husband’s equal.  Even so, it goes on to portray women as emotional, usually irresponsible, human beings whose whole purpose – unless they are morally deviant – is to preserve home and hearth and to nurture their husband and children.  As the manual proclaims:

            “Women feel more acutely than men; their love is more ardent, more pure.”

Ardent and pure, perhaps, but according to the manual, not at all sensible.  In many instances, the wife’s ridiculous fancies must be indulged in order to preserve marital harmony.  For example, when addressing the subject of jealousy in the marriage, the manual advises young husbands to patronize their wives:

“Though her suspicions be perfectly groundless; though they be wild as the dreams of madmen; though they may present a mixture of the furious and ridiculous, still they are to be treated with the greatest lenity and tenderness.”

The dangers of marital discord are legion.  As such, the manual would have the young husband avoid matrimonial conflict at all costs.  Sometimes, however, this is out of the young husband’s control.  A wife who does not know her place upsets the balance of the family.  If allowed to run amok, she may even drive the young husband away and:

“When the husband is driven from his home by a termagant, he will seek enjoyment, which is denied him at his own house, in the haunts of vice, and in the riots of intemperance.”

Blessing of the Young Couple Before Marriage by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1880-81.

Blessing of the Young Couple Before Marriage by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1880-81.

This is as much the young husband’s fault as that of the errant wife.  If he had courted and married the right sort of woman and if he had commenced his wedded life implementing the principles set out in the manual, such a turn of events would never have come to pass.  To this end, the manual advises a long courtship.  Not only will this allow the future husband to learn his intended wife’s true character, but it will also give ample time for his own finer qualities to shine through.  This is of paramount importance since, according to the manual, a gentleman who is truly in love is not at all attractive to the object of his affections, whereas a gentleman who is merely trifling with a lady is possessed of consummate skill.  As it explains:

“True love has ten thousand griefs, impatiences, and resentments, that render a man unamiable in the eyes of the person whose affection he solicits; besides that, it sinks his figure, gives him fears, apprehensions, and poorness of spirit, and often makes him appear ridiculous where he has a mind to recommend himself.”

Some of the opinions and advice in the manual are odd even for the early Victorian age.  In one section, it states:

“In the country parts of Scotland such a thing as an unhappy marriage is not known.”

Another passage which stood out to me was that on second marriages.  Say, for instance, a respectable widower should marry a respectable widow.  One would think that such a connection was to be encouraged and perhaps it may have been, but there are certain elements to the union which “a mentor” finds distasteful.  And, as always, the greater sin lies with the woman.  The manual declares:

“A second marriage in the woman is more gross than in the man, argues greater deficiency in that delicacy, that innate modesty, which, after all, is the great charm, the charm of charms, in the female sex.  We do not like to hear a man talk of his first wife, especially in the presence of his second; but to hear a woman thus talk of her first husband, has never, however beautiful and good she might be, failed to sink her in our estimation.”

Why the distinction?  It is implied that sex has something to do with it, especially the notion that the woman has come to the marriage as anything but untouched.  The manual explains:

“That the person has a second time undergone that surrender, to which nothing but the most ardent affection could ever reconcile a chaste and delicate woman.”

Signing the Register by Edmund Leighton Blair.

Signing the Register by Edmund Leighton Blair.

As for sex itself, the manual offers no advice to the young husband.  The wedding night is not even mentioned and “a mentor” seems to have no notion that sex could be a primary component of marital bliss or that young husband’s might need to know a thing or two in order to please their wives in this regard.  Of course, pious semi-religious manuals such as The Young Husbands Book and later guides, including an 1853 publication entitled Marriage and the Duties of Marriage Relations, were not the only guidebooks for young gentlemen embarking on married life.  The Victorian era was rife with racy pamphlets and erotica which might have proved equally useful.  And if all else failed, there were medical texts, such as those by Dr. William Acton, who was notable for his medieval views on all things sexual – as well as his dislike of the women’s rights movement.  In his book The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, he writes:

“During the last few years, and since the rights of women have been so much insisted upon, and practically carried out by the strongest-minded of the sex, numerous husbands have complained to me of the hardships under which they suffer by being married to women who regard themselves as martyrs when called upon to fulfill the duties of wives.”

Did many young husbands read these sorts of manuals?  It is hard to say for certain.  However, given the religious overtones of most of these books, we can imagine that much of what is espoused within their pages was also preached from the Victorian pulpit.  Indeed, in many conservative religious denominations, the same tenets are echoed today.  Our modern sensibilities naturally gravitate with disapproval toward those portions of text which are sexist or otherwise offensive.  But it is important for us to also recognize the solemn burden which was placed on the young husband of the 19th century:

“Having made your choice, and obtained the object of your desire, let it be your ambition that both she and those who gave her to you may ever find increasing cause to rejoice in the union.

*This article is the first in a two part series on 19th Century Marriage Manuals.  The second article, 19th Century Marriage Manuals: Advice for Young Wives, is available HERE.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Acton, William.  The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs.  Philadelphia: P. Blakiston, 1894.

Mentor.  The Young Husband’s Book: Manual of Domestic Duties.  Glasgow: D. Cameron & Co., 1837.

Quinby, George.  Marriage and the Duties of the Marriage Relations.  Cincinnati: J. A. & U. P. James, 1853.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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34 thoughts on “19th Century Marriage Manuals: Advice for Young Husbands

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    Hmm, since the woman didn’t always get the choice in the matter of submitting to the intimacies of a first marriage, it’s a bit hypocritical of the fellow to cant about her having the bravery – and in some first marriages, one suspects the triumph of hope over expectation – to try again. We tend to forget in our liberal society that she might not have been given any options…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I completely agree, Sarah. The criticism of women & 2nd marriages was a bit bizarre. Especially considering that women were (apparently) too delicate & fragile to be alone. What did they expect a proper widow to do? Leap on her first husband’s funeral pyre?

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Probably she was supposed to quietly go into a decline and die… male hypocrisy about the little woman often leaves me gasping at the logical inconsistencies with holes in the logic big enough to drive a carriage and six through them.

        Liked by 1 person

      • A Man Afraid of Being Doxxed for His Analysis says:

        I think it makes perfect sense.
        The concept was that the woman would give herself in return for undying respect and support. A second marriage is, in this conception, to pilfer the gift from a dead man and give it to another.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        It would make sense if that was what happened in real life, but in reality a woman was a commodity to be traded. Now so far as my own husband is concerned, I would agree totally, that it would disrespect him to marry again [since I have no small children in need of the support of a father] but when a marriage was to someone a girl hardly knew, it becomes hypocrisy. The ideals might be lovely, but it’s a shame the reality didn’t often live up to it….

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I interpreted the passage on second marriages a bit differently. When “a mentor” writes that “A second marriage in the woman is more gross than in the man, argues greater deficiency in that delicacy, that innate modesty, which, after all, is the great charm, the charm of charms, in the female sex,” I took it to mean that going into the first marriage, the Victorian woman was (presumably) an innocent. But after the first marriage her eyes have been opened to the sexual aspect of things and, if she had true modesty and delicacy of character, she would recoil from the idea of a second marriage now that she knew what would be required of her. If, instead, she went willingly into a second marriage, it was an indication that she was immodest and lacking the tender sensibilities so valued in Victorian women.

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        heh, now that’s a very interesting interpretation, and quite possibly spot on the money; nice girls lie back and think of England and don’t enjoy the intimacies of the marriage bed, only vulgar pieces and mistresses do that. Which is a load of bunkum, of course, but the prevalent view… But one might, even labouring under that false image, give the benefit of the doubt a woman might respect a second husband enough to put up with the ‘indignities’ she now knows about. Especially if she has children, needing a father.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        One would hope a widow with children wouldn’t be considered immodest or indelicate for remarrying. I like to think that “a mentor’s” view was not the prevailing view at the time, but who really knows for certain? Perhaps he was on par with some of the relationship self-help quacks today?

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    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re exactly right. Dr. Acton was one proponent of this view. In fact, his book “Functions & Disorders of the Reproductive Organs” is entirely addressed toward men, with extensive writing on such topics as Masturbation, Virility, & Impotence. There is nothing about women unless they are discussed in relation to how they serve a man’s wants/needs.

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  2. monicadescalzi says:

    I’m not very fond of drawing parallels between slavery and other states of unfreedom, but the idea that supporting his wife gives the husband “a general and paramount claim to her obedience” reminds me of Queen Victoria’s own views on the subject. “All marriage is such a lottery — the happiness is always an exchange — though it may be a very happy one — still the poor woman is bodily and morally the husband’s slave. That always sticks in my throat.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      In reading the marriage manuals, it seems this state of complete dependence and submission is justified by the belief that a husband not only knew best for his wife, but was always putting her needs and comfort above all other concerns. Perhaps some husbands did so, but in any situation where one human being has complete physical and legal authority over another (I think of the Stanford prison guard experiments) it is bound to lead to abuses of power. And without any legal recourse, a married woman was completely at her husband’s mercy. It was a grim time in the history of women!

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  3. monicadescalzi says:

    Of course this underlying ideology prevented women from rebelling, as most must have shared the dominant beliefs. Imagine being convinced that you’re too unreasonable to be trusted with anything beyond furniture, meals and the management of lower servants – that you’re fragile, emotional, and unreliable – that you should be thankful to have a good steady condescending husband that protects you from your own judgement! Oh dear! I think I “ought to get a good whipping” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Very well said, Monica! I completely agree. It’s unfortunate that some of the most rigid in their beliefs of a woman’s submissive role were women themselves. It never ceases to amaze me how some people will fervently support things that go so completely against their own best interests.

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  4. Sujay Kentlyn says:

    I was struck by how very determined by Class this advice was. It was clearly aimed at ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gentlemen’ – the same advice applied to working class people would have been patently absurd. I wonder how the mentor would have reconciled his gender ideology with the realities of working class life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Very good point, Sujay! It seems like most manuals from that era are geared toward the upper classes. Based on the tone he takes, I can’t imagine ‘a mentor’ would be able to understand the unique needs of working class marrieds enough to advise them.

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      • A Man Afraid of Being Doxxed for His Analysis says:

        I think this is a clear consequence of the times. It was so soon after steam-powered presses were first demonstrated. Adoption of those presses no doubt took longer. Then came time to recuperate the costs, enough to make printing cheaper than on the old press.

        A common man in 1837 would not have bothered to write a marriage handbook. A common man in 1837 even within range of a Free Library may not venture to read it; that is, if he were even literate to do so. No common man would buy it for private use on a yearly income, likely well under 100£.
        Not to mention, if you were actually poor you likely would not even consider books part of your budget.

        There would be little reason to write it, nor read it, and as a result little reason to commission it or print it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Definitely manuals of this variety seem to be geared more toward the upper classes. Still, there are other books on marriage and gender that do at least touch on the working class/poor. This particular manual did not approach the subject at all.

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  5. Reynaldo Claffey says:

    The destruction of Western society s moral backbone through the degeneration of traditional marriage such that the Victorian account reads anachronistic to a modern reader, is, I d venture, a relatively positive development. The conception of traditional marriage that cruder familialists and social conservatives promote then is not really that traditional, nor divinely enshrined. Back when traditional marriage was strong, it was acceptable for people to own people, for young children to be forced to work in sweatshops, and for people to be persecuted, imprisoned, or even killed because of homosexual activity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sujaykentlyn says:

      I’m not really comfortable with the conflation of ‘the destruction of Western society’s moral backbone’ with ‘the degeneration of traditional marriage’ – unless, of course, you’re being ironic? I think it could be seen as evidence of an evolution in moral thinking, from absolute conformity to a rule-based morality e.g. marriage as a life-long monogamous social institution with rigidly defined roles for women and men, regardless of individual temperament or circumstances; to a more nuanced understanding of ethical behaviour which is based on the flourishing of individuals in a context of personal choice and responsibility.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        “…a more nuanced understand of ethical behavior which is based on the flourishing of individuals in a context of personal choice and responsibility.”
        Completely agree with this. I would just add to it the important legal aspect as far as women are concerned. In the present day – though we still have a long way to go as far as equality – women have actual legal rights and when they marry, they do not lose these rights to their husband. This is a huge improvement from the 19th century.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        and although often divorce is used lightly sometimes, women do at least have the right to divorce without having to prove incest on the part of their husband which was about all that they could use to get out of marriage up to the mid Victorian period.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Lucy says:

    i like the article and the pics and pic with marrige iit is so sad that the girl was to marry an old man ; lucky we live now
    maybe you know of others etiquette/ manuals for young women ( of balls and court the society)?
    thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ann Marie Ackermann (@Ann_M_Ackermann) says:

    A very interesting post, Mimi! I can only compare it to a German book of etiquette from the early 19th century that I read. It also gave advice on selecting a wife. Women who spoke up at all to offer their opinions were distasteful and to be avoided.

    I also found the honeymoon painting interesting and wondered when the custom of honeymoons started. Early 19th century Germans didn’t take honeymoons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Glad you liked it, Ann 🙂 It’s fascinating to me that Germany has similar manuals. I suppose some variety of them must exist in most western cultures. The honeymoon is, apparently, an 18th century idea, but didn’t gain traction until the mid to late-19th century. By the Victorian era, it had become an accepted tradition. A few months ago, while researching another article I read a great academic/research based book on the subject titled “Victorian Honeymoons: Journeys to the Conjugal” from Cambridge Studies on Nineteenth Century Literature. It gave a lot of insight into the honeymoon phenomenon, as well as insight into Victorian couples reactions to the wedding night.

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