The Forty-Year-Old Victorian Bride

The Wedding Dress by Thomas Kennington, 1889.

By the end of the Victorian era, some women were beginning to recognize the advantages of marrying a little later in life, after one had gained a modicum of maturity and life experience. In fact, according to a report in the April 19, 1901 edition of the Islington Gazette, “a spinster bride of forty is becoming more and more frequent, especially in high society.” The Gazette attributes this as much to cosmetics as to changing societal norms, stating that:

“For some reason the look of youthful freshness can be retained in a perfectly marvelous fashion by women of to-day. Complexions are soft and fine at forty, and are sometimes even more so than when the owner was twenty-five…And what gives a more youthful look than soft and lovely colouring and a fine texture of the skin?”

Youthful skin notwithstanding, a forty-year-old bride was not as common as the Islington Gazette would have one believe. In reality, most high society Victorian brides in England and America fell somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, with the marriage age gradually growing later as the century progressed.

Beetham’s Glycerin and Cucumber advert, 1890.
( Courtesy of History World at www.historyworld.co.uk)

An article in an 1890 edition of the Daily Telegraph & Courier reports on the results of a survey conducted in “a serial publication” which asked its readers what they considered to be the best age at which a girl should marry. The question elicited hundreds of responses from “ladies of varied hymeneal experiences.” As the article relates:

“…the large majority [are] of opinion that girls who postpone their assumption of the duties and responsibilities of wifehood until they complete their fifth lustrum have a far better chance of attaining the maximum of matrimonial felicity than those who take their tickets in the lottery of wedlock at a yet earlier age.”

The fifth lustrum was equal to twenty-five years (a lustrum being 5 years). It seems a sensible age, to be sure, but was waiting to marry until the age of twenty-five as popular in practice as it was in theory? According to the Daily Telegraph & Courier:

“As far as female eligibility for matrimony at one age rather than another is concerned, eighteen certainly bears away the bell from twenty-five, according to nuptial statistics. More English and American girls are married before than after attaining years of discretion.”

The Arranged Marriage by Vasili Pukirev, 1861.

The same article goes on to explain that, in other countries, many ladies were even younger than eighteen on their wedding day, stating:

“In France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Roumania, and Greece nothing is more common than that girls should be led to the altar shortly after celebrating their sixteenth birthday, and by men, as a rule, of at least twice their age, with whom they have scarcely exchanged a confidential word or a semblance of affection during their brief spell of betrothal.”

In reality, Victorian brides of eighteen were in little danger of being overtaken by brides of forty, no matter how soft and supple their skin. But it is certainly worth noting that women were beginning to recognize the benefits of marrying later in life. Even if “later” was only so far as the age of twenty-five.

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

Sources

Daily Telegraph & Courier (London, England) 26 May 1890.

The Etiquette of Love, Courtship, and Marriage. Halifax: Milner and Sowerby, 1859.

Islington Gazette (London, England), 19 April 1901.

Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.


Coming September 2018

The Matrimonial Advertisement

England, 1860. When ex-army captain Justin Thornhill places an advertisement for a wife, the mysterious lady who appears on his doorstep isn’t quite what he was expecting. 
Find out more…

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Ellen Borowka
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Ellen Borowka

How sad to describe a forty year woman as a spinster. While I love history and the dress of past times… I’m so glad to live in this time period.

Sarah Waldock
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Sarah Waldock

And I married at 17! and everyone said it wouldn’t last. I have the last laugh as after being married 33 years, we’ve outdone most of the naysayers. I don’t think it’s the age that counts so much as the maturity and readiness …. I wish as good a marriage to my daughter-in-law who was in her early 30s when she became our dear daughter.

Wendy
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Wendy

Very interesting, Mimi! I feel like there is unfortunately still much undue pressure to marry, even by a certain age today (even though that age is quite variable depending on who you ask.) But the point being that we still haven’t really let go of this idea that there are certain “life boxes” that need to be checked off in order for you (and more likely others) to consider your life a “success”. I have a novel idea — marry for LOVE and nothing else. If that means getting married at 18, 25, 37, 59 or 81? Who cares? As… Read more »

Anne
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Anne

Fascinating post!In that wedding painting it seems the gentlemen are all wondering if the young woman can get though the ceremony without “bolting”! One of the points to marrying later back then I would think,would be to practice a kind of birth control. Looking forward to your new book Mimi! Not only cause it’s yours, but I love unexpected couples, thrown together by fate and then ….well, one must wait for the book!

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