The Truth About Reformed Rakes: Victorian Views on Marrying a Scoundrel

The Kiss by Carolus Duran, 1868.

If you’ve ever read a historical romance novel, you’ll likely be familiar with the oft-quoted belief that “reformed rakes make the best husbands.” This matrimonial maxim did not, however, originate in the world of Regency and Victorian fiction. In fact, when it came to marriage, many a nineteenth century lady firmly believed that a reformed rake was superior to other men. Not only was a rake more sexually experienced and (presumably) a better lover, but—after having sown his wild oats—a rake was believed to be more attentive to his business and more indulgent toward his wife.

The only difficulty lay in determining if and when a rake had truly left his rakish ways behind him. As author William Andrus Alcott explains in his 1853 Gift Book for Young Ladies:

“The old maxim— ‘a reformed rake makes the best husband,’ might be very well, but for one difficulty, which is that a rake is not very susceptible of being reformed.”

For example, in some cases a rake might appear to be reformed when he was really just tired from all of his raking. In her 1887 book What Women Should Know, Eliza Bisbee Duffey warns her readers that:

What passes for reformation may be only a temporary satiety or physical exhaustion.”

Passionate Kiss by Richard Mauch, 1900.

Though a case could certainly be made for marrying a rake, many Victorian era marriage manuals, medical journals, and religious tracts strongly advised women against taking such a risk. Marriage to a reformed rake could affect not only a woman’s future happiness, but also her health. In some cases it could even lead to her death. According to Duffey:

“A young man who has led a wild, dissipated life may have contracted the worst and most loathsome of diseases. This disease may be in abeyance at the time of his marriage, but it is liable at any time to show itself, and his wife is almost certain of contracting it by contagion.”

Expanding on this subject, an article in the 1878 edition of the Cincinnati Medical Advance warns of both the physical and moral harm a reformed rake might do to his innocent wife and their children. It asks:

“Will the reformed ‘rake’ be a better husband because his youth has been spent in the sink holes of a large city—in the society of prostitutes and their boon companions? Shall he hold the pearl of great price, the heart of a pure woman, in the hand soiled by familiar contact with the very dregs of humanity? Will he be kinder, the truer, the nobler, because he has loved that which is coarse, and false, and vile? Will he be a better father because he has ruined others’ homes, and perchance is ready to transmit to an affectionate wife, and to her children, the fruits of his own evil doings, and cause them to suffer the horrors of the damned by a bequest of the foul poison he contracted while ‘raking’ it in the dens of iniquity?”

Lovers Sitting in the Countryside, attributed to Achille Devéria, (1800-1857).
(Wellcome Library)

With all of that in mind, marriage to a chaste and (hopefully) disease-free gentleman seemed a much safer choice. Admittedly, this gentleman would not be as experienced or as exciting as a reformed rake, but—as Dr. Franklin Entrikin declares in his 1871 book the Woman’s Monitor—all the charms a reformed rake had to offer were “a poor recompense for the pure heart, unsullied mind, and untainted constitutional powers he should have lain upon the hymeneal alter.”

So, outside of a romance novel, should a Victorian lady ever take a chance on marrying a reformed rake? In his 1849 publication Twenty Parochial Tracts on Religious and Moral Subjects, George Henry Watkins offers a practical answer to this question, writing:

“One in a thousand of ‘Reformed Rakes’ may perhaps make a good husband; but how can we say, –how can we know who is really a ‘Reformed Rake.’ –Marriage with a dissolute man is but an experiment to try whether a particular rake can be reformed; but what a risk is run in making such a trial!”

The “Reformed Rake” trope is one of the most popular tropes in historical romance. I tackle it in my upcoming Victorian romance novel The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter, available on January 23, 2018. Thus far, reviewers have been particularly kind to my reformed rake hero. You can read some of their comments below. To find out more or to pre-order your copy, click through to The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter book page.

Mimi Matthews is the author of  The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries, A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty (Pen and Sword Books , July 2018), and The Lost Letter: A Victorian Romance. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Alcott, William Andrus. Gift Book for Young Ladies, or Familiar Letters on Their Acquaintances, Male and Female, Employments, Friendships &c. Auburn: Derby & Miller, 1853.

The Cincinnati Medical Advance, Vol. V. Cincinnati: Jas P. Geppert, 1878.

Duffey, Eliza Bisbee. What Women Should Know. Philadelphia: J. M. Stoddart & Co., 1873.

Entrikin, Franklin W. Woman’s Monitor. New York: C. F. Vent, 1871.

Griffin, Walter T. The Homes of Our Country, Or, The Centers of Moral and Religious Influence. New York: Chas. L. Snyder & Co., 1882.

Watkins, George Henry. Twenty Parochial Tracts on Religious and Moral Subjects. London: Varty, 1849.


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May Tatel-Scott
Guest
May Tatel-Scott

Interesting article. Much is made out of the double standards in the past when women were required to be chaste while men weren’t but as this article pointed out, there are limits to what society will tolerate with men.

S, R, Janssen
Guest
S, R, Janssen

Given the references sited, it looks like the term ‘rake’ was almost synonymous with multiple sexual encounters. I am dubious about existence of a social expectation that Regency and Victorian men remain virgins until marriage.. I suspect it was expected gain sexual experience by discretely keeping a mistress from the “demi-monde.” Probably being a rake included wild gambling, cheating dueling, and membership in such nefarious organizations as the Hellfire Club. In short, I suspect a genuine rake was probably a sociopath, and as such, a very poor prospect as a husband from which it was nigh impossible to divorce.

Celia Hayes
Guest
Celia Hayes

On the side of reformed rakes being good husband materiel – I give the example of Sam Houston and his wife, Margaret Lea. She was twenty-one to his 47, he was twice-divorced, notoriously alcoholic (with reason, likely – resulting from chronic unhealed war wounds) a hot-tempered brawler, soldier and adventurer … and she was a shy, educated gentle Southern belle. They were devoted to each other, and whenever they were apart during the remainder of their lives, they wrote to each other – a letter a day.

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