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19th Century Marriage Manuals: Advice for Young Husbands

By: MimiMatthews.com

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.”

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 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.”

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