The Marital Institution

The ideal marital arrangement for the upper and middle classes is for a daughter to marry an older man; thus the girl is whisked away into an already furnished home with all the creature comforts. While the man must see to his wife's every need, once married all her property becomes his (and to some degree so does the lady herself). A young woman is considered of marriageable age at fifteen; girls not married by the age of twenty are considered too old to attract a groom. Among the proletariat there is little time for marriage, nor the money to pay a cleric for the ceremony. Lower class couples tend to live 'in sin', married by 'common law'. The notable exception to the rule of age is when marrying a widow; this is often seen as a good thing, as all the widow's property passes by common law to the husband.

Whilst not illegal, divorce is uncommon. The grounds upon which a couple can be granted divorce are adultery, non-consummation of the marriage, 'irreconcilable differences' and 'mental cruelty'. Only the husband can petition the court for a divorce. As previously stated, married women have no property rights, so in the event of a divorce there is nothing to stop a divorced woman, even one of good background, from being cast out onto the streets without a penny!

Divorce is uncommon amongst the upper classes. Women are brought up to believe that they are inferior to their husband, and if he chooses to father bastard children upon his mistress then she should not complain, and certainly not file for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Having said that, being married is often the best way for a woman to seek affairs of her own. Should she become pregnant from an illicit liaison her husband will be forced to claim the child as his own to avoid scandal. So a married lady who is discreet need not fear that she may become 'ruined' as might an unmarried girl.

Romance amongst the upper classes is primarily confined to trashy novels, as few women would dare to marry a man of whom her father did not approve. The potential suitor often agrees the match with the bride's father and the wedding plans are made accordingly, the bride being the last to know. Hence the traditional idea that the young man asks the father's permission to wed.

Middle class people tend to mimic the customs of the upper classes, but marriage on the basis of love is more common, especially amongst the more educated and liberal-minded folk. Adultery is less common, as the middle classes are more inclined to puritan ethics and sleeping around does not fit in well with these. However, amongst the intellectual elite there are movements that call for free love, the rights of women to own property and to vote and have an equal voice (Can you imagine the insanity of it? What will these people advocate next?).

The lower classes, as might be expected, have a very different attitude towards wedlock. Most of the lower classes are not legally married, by law or church, as legal marriage costs money – which they don't have. The institution of 'common law' marriage is prevalent, whereby a couple are considered married after spending 3 years together. Even so, these marriages often break up; in cases of adultery, it traditionally consists of the husband handing over a piece of rope to his wife's lover.

Whilst it is no more or less common than in the 21st century, homosexuality is illegal and sodomy is punishable by death or deportation. However, in the public, single sex schools of Eton, it is common amongst adolescents, although it is generally acknowledged as a “phase” that the boy is going through. Lesbianism is not a crime in Britain: this is not due to liberal sentiment but rather it is because the Queen does not believe women are capable of such activity!

Domestic violence is prevalent at all levels of society. Although it does count as assault and battery, the woman is unlikely to press charges (after all, what woman would be willing to do so to a male police force, with a male judiciary and male jury?). The only time that the forces of justice are likely to become involved is in the event of a death (in which case it is usually treated as murder). Also, men and women have often grown up around violence by the husband towards the wife and both are likely to consider it the normal state of affairs. There have been extreme cases where future fathers-in-law have even instructed their daughters' suitors in the best way to "discipline" their brides-to-be. Among the upper and middle classes, violence towards wives and children is not seen as a pleasant task; rather it is a regrettable one which must be undertaken by the head of household to maintain order. A common theory is that children will learn obedience and respect by strict discipline; 'spare the rod, and spoil the child'. Among the lower classes, there is a frighteningly prevalent belief that when a young woman acquires bruises 'it makes her all the keener on the man that delivered them'.