Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

19th Century Marriage Manuals: Advice for Young Wives

The Bride Adorned by Her Friend by Henrik Olrik, 1850.

The Bride Adorned by Her Friend by Henrik Olrik, 1850.

Covering a range of topics, including domestic economy, conjugal duties, and submission to one’s husband, the bulk of 19th century marriage manuals were directed at young wives occupying the middle and upper classes.  These manuals were written by both men and women and were so numerous during the Regency and Victorian eras that some of the books contain notices wherein the author preemptively defends himself against future allegations of plagiarism.  In author William Andrus Alcott’s 1837 book The Young Wife, or Duties of Woman in the Marriage Relation, Alcott begins by assuring his readers that:

“Every chapter of this work was written many months before the appearance of certain recent publications involving, in some respects, similar sentiments.”

Marriage manuals for young wives did contain many similar sentiments.  Amongst these was a reliance on Christian teachings and beliefs as a foundation for the conduct of a woman within her marriage.  Under the chapter heading of “Submission,” Alcott begins by establishing the origins of woman as a helpmeet, rather than an equal, of man.  He writes:

“There was a time, in the history of our world, when woman did not exist.  Man was not only alone — without a companion — but destitute of a ‘help-meet’ — an assistant.  In these circumstances, almighty Power called forth, and, as it would seem, for this very purpose, that modified, and in some respects improved form of humanity, to which was afterwards given the name of woman, and presented her to man.  She was to be man’s assistant.”

Alcott goes on to argue that leaving her father’s house and removing to that of her husband is in and of itself an act of submission in the young bride.  He reasons that in quitting the sphere in which she was raised, the woman gives up all the rights and privileges to which she has become accustomed.  He asks:

“Does she not submit, at least prospectively, to a long train of circumstances and consequences which, in her father’s house, she would be able to escape?  Does she not even merge her own name in that of her husband?  And is there no concession in all this?  Is there no submission?”

The Reluctant Bride by Auguste Toulmouche, 1865.

The Reluctant Bride by Auguste Toulmouche, 1865.

Based on Alcott’s description, a modern reader might interpret a 19th century woman’s entry into the married state as being equivalent to a life sentence of misery and servitude.  And it certainly could be if the gentleman a young lady married was inappropriate in some way.  For this reason, many authors of 19th century marriage manuals emphasize the critical importance of choosing a proper husband.  In Elizabeth Lanfear’s 1824 book Letters to Young Ladies on Their Entrance into the World, the author stresses the significance of carefully selecting a spouse as opposed to merely acquiescing to a marriage proposal for other reasons.  She writes:

“Marriage, generally speaking, in either sex, is more frequently the result of accident than of selection: propinquity, convenience, interest, or, at best, mere fancy, dignified by the name of love, forms the basis, of most matrimonial engagements.”

Lanfear goes on to express her disapproval of love matches, which she believes do not often result in happy marriages.  She also warns about couples marrying too young, before “either the taste or the judgment are sufficiently matured.”  Alternately, she advises caution when contemplating marriages later in life as older bachelors “do not readily fall into domestic habits” and women of a certain age “are not always disposed to accommodate to circumstances or to give up their own opinions.”  Finally, she counsels young ladies not to marry outside of their rank, writing:

“The woman who marries a man of superior rank to her own is not always treated according to her deserts by his relations; while she who weds with one of an inferior rank in life has no right to expect that her friends will associate with her husband, or treat him with that respect which she may think his due.”

How then was a young lady to choose a husband?  Marriage manuals of the day generally focus more on a gentleman’s character than on any emotion a young lady might feel for him.  Lanfear states:

“Affection may also be found a necessary ingredient with which to sweeten the cup of domestic care; but, at all ages, and under all circumstances, the first and the most important considerations which should be attended to by a woman, before she forms a serious and irrevocable engagement, are the personal character, moral qualities, and mental endowments of the man who is to be her fellow-traveller in the great journey of life.”

The Proposal by Knut Ekwall, 1880s.

The Proposal by Knut Ekwall, 1880s.

Of course, these strictures presuppose that a young lady will have a choice.  What if she only receives one offer of marriage in her whole life?  Is she to refuse her only chance at matrimony simply because her suitor does not live up to the religious, moral, and intellectual ideals enumerated in a marriage manual?  In short, yes.  Lanfear advises:

“Let her patiently await the chance which new connections and riper years may afford; or, if she be agreeably situated as a single woman, rest contented in a state of celibacy, which, though it may lack some pleasures, is far preferable to an imprudent or ill-assorted marriage.”

Interestingly, Lanfear does not portray this contented state of celibacy in the very best light.  She writes extensively on the unhappy lot of the middle-aged spinster and her descriptions do not seem designed to encourage any young lady to willingly choose such a miserable course of existence.  She states:

“The elderly unmarried female is differently, and, generally speaking, less fortunately, situated.  The season of youth and of beauty, of flattery and of juvenile amusements, passed and gone forever, she gradually awakes as from a morning dream, and reluctantly exchanges the gay, the delusive, visions of her early years, for the more sober and dull realities of maturer age.  Her parents are, perhaps, no more, or, if still in existence, declining in health and years, and fast sinking into the gaping tomb: the home circle is broken; brothers and sisters, companions of childhood, dispersed and scattered abroad; partial and admiring friends no longer surround her—by some she has been deserted, by others forgotten; till, at length, no longer sheltered by the paternal roof, she feels alone in the world, solitary and unregarded.”

This elderly unmarried spinster is, according to Lanfear, often at the mercy of a very limited income.  Her own disappointments and mortifications (presumably as a result of being single) cause her to be peevish in temper and to vainly seek out sympathy and friendship.  Unfortunately, rather than kindness, she is met with ridicule and contempt.  Lanfear writes:

“Instead of that attention and consolation which her forlorn situation demands, the finger of scorn is, by the frivolous and the gay, ever ready to be pointed at the antiquated virgin; while the silly youth and giddy girl find amusement in ridiculing those little foibles and harmless singularities which not unfrequently mark the character of the single woman.”

The Arranged Marriage by Vasili Pukirev, 1861.

The Arranged Marriage by Vasili Pukirev, 1861.

With impoverished spinsterhood as a grim alternative to marriage, it is no wonder that so many young ladies were anxious to accept the first gentleman who happened to propose.  As a result, it was not uncommon for a new bride to find herself in a situation fraught with difficulty.  But whether her new husband was a drunkard, a wastrel, or a man prone to using the vilest of curses in his daily conversation, all of the marriage manuals I have researched provide the same advice.  A woman should never complain.  She was to remain dignified and, at all times, exercise forbearance.  This is typified in Lanfear’s advice to wives whose husbands have been unfaithful.  She writes:

“By preserving a dignified reserve in conduct, a forbearing silence on the subject of her wrongs, pursuing the even tenour of her way—without turning either to the right hand or the left—fulfilling as usual the daily routine of Christian and domestic duties, calm and unruffled—she will, at all events, strengthen her own virtues and elevate her own character.  By such conduct she will also secure the respect and esteem of all around her, and possibly in time regain the heart of her husband; that is, if it be a heart worthy of her solicitude: if it be not, let her transfer her alienated affections to her children.”

Infidelity was not the only crime for which a wife was expected to exercise forbearance.  In Alcott’s book, he makes vague reference to a husband asserting his conjugal rights, stating:

“Sometimes your trial is still more severe.  There are wives to whom their husbands seem to say — not in words, perhaps, but by their daily practice — Now that we have you in our possession, we are resolved to make you submit to our own course.  Nothing, perhaps, will more severely test your forbearance than this assumption, on the part of your husband, that might gives right.  But what will you do?  Will you resent it?  Suppose your husband uses words which imply a determination to exercise the superiority which he claims; will you ‘answer a fool according to his folly,’ or will you bear and forbear?”

Arrufos by Belmiro de Almeida, 1887.

Arrufos (The Quarrel) by Belmiro de Almeida, 1887.

Patience, acceptance, and self-sacrifice are emphasized as desirable qualities for the 19th century bride.  Not only must she “bear and forbear” when it comes to infidelity and marital rape, she must also allow her husband to prevail in everyday arguments.  To continually assert herself is to run the risk of driving her husband from the home.  In his 1839 book, The Young Bride’s Book: Being Hints for Regulating the Conduct of Married Women, author Arthur Freeling insists that it is the new bride’s responsibility to resolve the first quarrel – and every quarrel thereafter.  Addressing the young wife, he reasons:

“You have more of the ill consequences to endure: home must be the centre of a woman’s happiness; make that miserable, and the light of her days has faded.”

A version of this sentiment is echoed in other 19th century marriage manuals.  The wife is repeatedly urged to sacrifice her own desires and, in some cases, her own common sense, in order to bolster the self-esteem of her new husband.  Lanfear writes:

“A sensible woman, to preserve the peace and secure the affections of her husband, will often sacrifice her own inclinations to his.”

Meanwhile, any selfishness on the part of the new husband is generally dismissed.  Lanfear expresses a common enough 19th century sentiment when she explains:

“Men are less called and less accustomed than women, even from their earliest youth, to exercise the virtues of self-denial or self-control; and, being naturally more sensual, and, by the laws of decorum and the usages of society, less restricted in the indulgence of their appetites and the gratification of their passions, are less ready to sacrifice their own personal pleasures and propensities for the benefit or the accommodation of others.”

Mother and Her Children by Alfred Stevens, 1883.

Mother and Her Children by Alfred Stevens, 1883.

What happens if, after all of the young bride’s forbearance and self-sacrifice, the young husband continues to be a brute and a bully?  In her 1815 book Practical Hints to Young Females on the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress of the Family, author Mrs. Taylor addresses this circumstance, explaining that sweetness, kindness, and “the coolness of a reasonable mind” are their own rewards.  She writes:

“Even if they failed to produce the change in his feelings that might be expected, [they] would at least have the most salutary influence upon your own, and bring a revenue of peace to the mind under all its trials.”

After all of this marital advice, most of which involves sublimating your feelings and placating an unreasonable husband, spinsterhood may not appear such a grim alternative after all.  If one looks hard enough, one can even find a brief paragraph within these 19th century marriage manuals which reveals the many benefits of remaining single.  Surprisingly, it is in Lanfear’s book.  She states:

“The single woman of the present day is chiefly distinguished from her married sisters by possessing more literary acquirements, more elegant accomplishments, or higher attainments in some particular art or science, than the numerous avocations of domestic life have allowed the matron either time or opportunity of attending to.”

The Unconditional Lover by Vittorio Reggianini, late 19th century.

The Unconditional Lover by Vittorio Reggianini, late 19th century.

Naturally, I cannot cover all of the topics included in 19th century marriage manuals for young wives.  Suffice to say that the bulk of information available is geared toward domestic concerns such as household economy, servants, and the education of children.  Many books have chapters dedicated to delicacy, modesty, and purity of character.  While others focus a great deal on Christian teachings and biblical quotations.  The wedding night is never mentioned and sex – except for the vague reference I noted above – is not addressed at all.

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


Alcott, William Andrus.  The Young Wife, or Duties of Woman in the Marriage Relation.  Boston: George W. Light, 1837.

Freeling, Arthur.  The Young Bride’s Book: Being Hints for Regulating the Conduct of Married Women.  London: Henry Washbourne, 1839.

Lanfear, Elizabeth.  Letters to Young Ladies on Their Entrance into the World.  London: J. Robins & Co., 1824.

Taylor, Mrs.  Practical Hints to Young Females on the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress of the Family.  London: Taylor & Hessey, 1815.

West, Jane.  Letters to a Young Lady in which the Duties and Character of Women are Considered.  New York: O. Penniman & Co., 1806.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, and Shelf Awareness, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

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