By Cailey McCabe (MA ’20), Department of English, Kansas State University
The words marriage and love often go hand in hand. When someone gets married, you assume the reason behind their marriage is love. Society will judge someone if they marry for any other reason. For example, to marry someone based on their bank account is a societal sin. In fact, women are called gold diggers for marrying men for money instead of for love. However, in the Victorian period, marriages for money were deemed socially appropriate, and were oftentimes accepted more so than marriages motivated by love!
Victorian motivations for marriage can be simplified into three main categories:
- Economics. Need to make some money? Better get married!
- Convenience. Need an assistant? Get a wife!
- Love. Actually care about them? Put a ring on it!
Marriages motivated by economics were very popular during the Victorian period. This motivation today is thought of as a mostly female motivation (hence the gendered term “gold digger”). However, in the Victorian period, economic motivation was shared among both women and men. Women enjoyed economic marriage for a social class status affirmation or boost. Men enjoyed economic marriage for actual access to more money. In fact, “marriage virtually turned legal control of a woman’s property permanently over to her husband” (Davidoff and Hall 276). But marriage could also cost men money as middle-class women didn’t usually have jobs, so once married, men had to support them. Men sometimes had to wait years until they could afford to support a wife and children.
In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), the courting of Blanche Ingram by Edward Rochester would have resulted in an economic marriage. Blanche Ingram is only interested in Mr. Rochester because she knows he has money, so she would be able to live an upper middle class life. She loses interest in Mr. Rochester when he tells her (while dressed up as a fortune teller) that he doesn’t have much money. Mr. Rochester is already wealthy, but by obtaining an upper middle class wife, he would consolidate his social status, as Blanche would become a sign of wealth. This marriage would not be motivated by a shared love of each other, but by a shared love of money and status.
Convenience was more likely to motivate men to marry than women. Men often viewed women as assistants for various parts of their life, whether that was maintaining the house, taking charge of the servants, or keeping in touch with all sorts of family and friends. Women maintained relationships with all these people through letter writing, visits, gift exchanges, etc., providing their husbands with a way of networking. As one Victorian advised a young man “‘if a good wife fell in your way, I would take her as an assistant even though she may not be rich in the World’s wealth’” (282).
In Jane Eyre, convenience motivates St. John’s desire to marry his cousin Jane. St. John does not love Jane, he simply wants someone to help him spread religion in India. Therefore, he is motivated by his need for help. Marriage would simply be convenient to him, as it would make his life a easier in India.
A marriage motivated by love is the most familiar to us today, and (hopefully) the main reason people get married. The Victorian period was much different, as marriage based solely on love was often quite scandalous. Marriage could potentially mix social classes, which was viewed by some as a HUGE societal sin. Middle class was meant to marry middle class, the working class was meant to marry the working class, and so on. Yet, marriages based on love sometimes led to interclass marriage, leading to the class movement up or down of one the partners. A middle class man could fall in love with and marry a servant, and the servant would rise in social class. Or a middle class woman could fall in love with and marry a working class man, and the middle class woman could potentially lower in social class or the working class man could rise in social class depending on the money that the woman brought with her.
In Jane Eyre, the marriage of Jane’s parents is a marriage of love that also involved class movement, so it was scandalous. Jane’s mother, a wealthy Reed woman, marries a poor clergyman. Jane’s mother is disowned from her family, and consequentially moves down in social class.
Motivations behind marriage in Victorian society were fairly diverse, and quite different to what we think of as motivations for marriage today. Marriage was about more than just love. It was about money. It was about social status and appearance. It was about convenience. Jane Eyre is a great Victorian novel to view all these differing motivations behind marriage.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Davidoff, Leonare and Hall, Catherine. “The Hidden Investment: Women and the Enterprise”. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850, pp. 272-315.