What Traditional Marriage?


Frank Reynolds, David Copperfield and Dora Spenlow, 1910

by Talia Schaffer

Gay marriage supposedly interferes with “traditional marriage,” say its opponents. “We have at least 6,000 years of recorded history on our side,” remarked Kris Mineau, president of the conservative group Massachusetts Family Institute. People like Mineau assume that the traditional definition of the family is stable, unvarying and ancient. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the history of marriage is one of frequent, radical change. As a scholar studying the history of marriage in England over the last several hundred years, I can tell you that not only is there is no such thing as traditional marriage, but that gay marriage hardly even counts as a major change in the history of the institution. It is in fact the logical next step in two centuries of evolution.

I specialize in Victorian literature, and as everyone knows who’s read Austen novels or Jane Eyre, the Victorian novel supposedly revolves around marriage. Its central story, “the marriage plot,” features a courtship that ends up with wedding bells and true love at last. No wonder that the Victorian era is often associated with romantic chivalry. As the popular website The Knot, sighs, “there are few (if any) periods that are more romantic”. Victorian-themed weddings and Victorian valentines, featuring lace, candlelight and vintage cherubs, testify to this continuing association.

But if you really think about Victorian marriage plots, something doesn’t add up. Jane Eyre boasts one of the most appalling marriages in fiction, between Rochester and Bertha, before its happy ending. David Copperfield miscalculates drastically in his first marriage. The two main marriages in Eliot’s Middlemarch are disastrous. Catherine Earnshaw is hardly happy in her union with Edgar Linton. One could go on. In fact, as scholar Kelly Hager has recently noted, the “failed-marriage plot” is actually more common than the happy marriage one.

Even more intriguing, some of the happy marriages don’t look at all like the romantic love matches we expect today. In fiction by Charlotte M. Yonge, who was wildly popular in the nineteenth century, characters seem to marry for companionship, mutual caretaking and affection, but never seem to feel anything like desire. (One of Yonge’s biographers even wondered if she knew how babies were made.) The odd thing is that these kinds of companionable matches exist everywhere in Victorian literature, once you start noticing them. For instance, David Copperfield ends up married to (ewww!) his foster-sister, and Fanny Price to her adoptive brother. And there is hardly a Victorian novel without cousin marriages – cousin marriages that seem to promise reliability, kindness, and safety, rather than passion.

So I began to research the history of marriage. As it turned out, the companionable, safe matches I was noticing in Victorian fiction, and the dangerous if not disastrous matches I saw as well, were part of the same dynamic. They were both signs of a huge cultural shift. The Victorian marriage plot is not about celebrating love, but rather about working through a terrifying, risky switch to a brand new idea about marriage.

To understand what that idea was and how we got there, let’s go back to what a truly ‘traditional family’ looked like. From the medieval period through the nineteenth and perhaps even early twentieth century, ‘family’ included servants, apprentices, boarders, remote relations, elderly grandparents, poor cousins, family friends or connections. In the census of 1851 only 36 percent of households contained what we would now call a traditional family: a married couple and at least one child living by themselves. That means that 64% of households worked differently. And ‘traditional marriage’ is just as much of a retrospective invention as ‘traditional family.’ It is true that marriage has always been between a male and a female – but sometimes one or both were children, sometimes they did not know each other, and rarely did they have much say over the transaction. For five or six centuries, maybe longer, then, marriage had nothing to do with freedom of choice, with the participants’ personal feelings, or with state-sponsored legal status. Marriage functioned mainly for the purposes of adjusting social groups and producing legitimate heirs to property.

From the medieval era through the seventeenth century, marriage was a lifelong alliance between extended families. As a result, the elders decided on marriages, often without the children’s acquiescence or even knowledge beforehand. However, given that the participants would have to live together, there was generally some effort made to ensure that they were at least willing to accommodate one another, and if they found each other revolting, the match might not happen. A lively debate broke out in the eighteenth century about whether parents had the right to force their children to marry someone the child found abhorrent. On the one hand, children “are so much the Goods, the Possessions of their Fathers and Mothers, that they cannot without a kind of Theft, give away themselves,” wrote the author of The Ladies Library in 1751. On the other hand, the child had to swear to God to love and honor the other person. If such feeling was impossible, then that vow was blasphemy. Note that the child’s happiness is not much of a concern here.

Even the idea that a wedding is a single occurrence is a modern notion. Back in the Tudor era, marriage involved several components: a public betrothal, an exchange of gifts, extensive legal negotiations, a church service and a consummation. Most of these required some community involvement. From our perspective, premodern marriage often looks more like a merger of two companies than a personal union. If today corporations have been legally declared like people, then in the early modern period, there were moments at which people acted like corporations.

Some people, however, demanded to marry those they chose, regardless of family wishes. John Donne eloped with Anne More in 1601, a scandal that ruined his career and caused him to be put in prison, from which he wrote one of his very shortest poems: “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.” Think of “Romeo and Juliet,” written in the 1590s. The play airs the issues that were very much in people’s minds at the time: how much obedience does a child owe a parent regarding marital choice? Can one pursue one’s own personal preference in a partner? How does marriage alter social affiliations and alliances?

These desires for change culminated in a huge shift in the late seventeenth century, the invention of “consensual marriage”: marriage in which participants had actually chosen one another. Consensual marriage required people to see themselves as individuals, not emissaries of the family. They had to monitor their own traits and evaluate the characters of others, learning to interpret clues to idiosyncratic personal qualities in order to select a partner. Some see this consensual-marriage development as the basis of modern subjectivity. It ties in with the rise of modern capitalism and the emergence of the modern novel as part of a new practice of individualism.

But were eighteenth-century people marrying for love? Not quite. They ideally sought a companionable, trustworthy individual, with decent financial backing, compatible family, and promising future prospects. The family could still pressure members into a marriage or forbid a union. Mary Granville experienced the worst side of this kind of family pressure in the eighteenth century. As a seventeen-year-old, confronted with an obese, dirty old man in his sixties whom her family insisted she marry, Mary later recalled:

I had nobody to advise with; every one of the family had persuaded themselves that this would be an advantageous match for me — no one considered the sentiments of my heart; to be settled in the world, and ease my friends of an expense and care, they urged that it was my duty to submit, and that I ought to sacrifice everything to that one point. I acted as they wished me to do, and for fear of their reproaches, made myself miserable.

A century later, however, Mary would have been able to refuse. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century featured what historians call “the invention of love.” Love had, of course, been around forever, but only in the nineteenth century did it become acceptable to use it as the basis for marriage.

Now people had to marry on the basis of a feeling, rather than rational knowledge of one’s future spouse. Romantic marriage might promise a lifelong bliss if one chose rightly, but utter disaster if one didn’t. After all, under the legal condition called “coverture,” British wives were utterly dependent on their husbands. In the words of Victorian activist Frances Power Cobbe:

By the common law of England, a married woman has not legal existence, so far as property is concerned, independently of her husband. The husband and wife are assumed to be one person, and that person is the husband. The wife can make no contract, and can neither sue nor be sued. Whatever she possess of personal property at the time of her marriage, or whatever she may afterwards earn or inherit, belongs to her husband, without control on her part. If she possess real estate, so long as her husband lives he receives and spends the income derived from it, being only forbidden to sell it without her consent. From none of her property is he bound to reserve anything, or make any provision for her maintenance or that of her children.

Imagine the risks of binding oneself for life this way, if the person one married proved untrustworthy.

Romantic marriage had another problem: it only condoned marriage for, well, romance. Until the nineteenth century, it was perfectly prudent to marry for several reasons: compatible work capacities, the need for household and childcare help, financial interests or political calculations. Yet once marriage narrowed to being merely an expression of heterosexual desire, it excluded any other rationales, and because marriage was usually necessary for economic survival, those who genuinely just needed a helpmate, or who did not desire someone of the opposite sex, were forced to pretend to feelings they might not really share.

All those non-sexy marriages in the Victorian novel? They’re not about a failure to understand how babies are made. Rather, they’re expressing nostalgia for an older, safer, companionate model of marriage. Because romantic marriage felt so scary for Victorians, they often engineered plots in which they could imagine safer suitors. The charismatic, risky romantic choice (Rochester or Willoughby) competes with the boring familiar choice (St John or Colonel Brandon). The marriage plot tests and tries to refashion a marital situation that seemed bad no matter which way one turned, and yet that also remained the only way for most women to survive. Marriage was utterly necessary, but terribly worrisome.

Interestingly however, the necessity of marriage would lift at the end of the nineteenth century. Just as marriage was narrowing into a single expression of a single feeling, other opportunities were expanding, so that most women no longer had to marry in order to survive. From the end of the nineteenth century through the twentieth, women could increasingly access employment and education, and could find ways to satisfy emotional wishes that did not require marriage. In the industrial and post-industrial economy, too, people could imagine earning their own living rather than depending on inherited wealth or landed property. This made it much less urgent to have legitimate heirs. Marriage became harder to do right; but it became less necessary to do it at all.

Furthermore, by the late nineteenth century, marriage became safer. Decades of legal fighting in England established the legal principles governing marriage as we know it today. Acts passed in 1857, 1870 and 1882 gradually expanded women’s rights in marriage, so that eventually wives could own property and retain their own legal status. Crucially, divorce became possible. All these changes validated the new ideal of romantic love – one could follow love and pleasure, because one could still have a reasonable expectation of having money, legal status and future well-being, even if it turned out to be a marital miscalculation. In short, marriage became the personal decision of individuals, based on their own feelings, in a contractual relation that allowed each to keep their own individual identity and possessions, and that could be dissolved if it did not work out.

Thus in England, the basic conditions of modern marriage arrived by the end of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century is the first time that these supposedly ‘traditional’ arrangements could occur. A real traditional marriage would mean that people (especially women) of most classes would have no say in whom they would marry, and no power once they did. Modern marriage – romantic marriage – is far more humane. And romantic marriage depends on one motive: love. As Alex Pareene wrote in Salon recently, “gay marriage supports the modern notion that marriage is a thing two people who love each other do.”

Today we live under the rule of romantic marriage, and within its logic, gay marriage is perfectly conventional. The enormous, shocking, paradigm-changing moments in the history of marriage occurred in the seventeenth century (consensual marriage) and the nineteenth century (romantic marriage). Now that we’ve got modern marriage, gay marriage is, or should be, no big deal at all.

About the Author:

Talia Schaffer is Professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.