Marriage Advice From the Turn of the Century

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Photo Credit: Portrait of a man and woman, possibly wedding photo of husband and wife, probably from around the 1890s, photographer unknown, Wakefield 1 High Street, Ealing: whatsthatpicture/Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

If you’re a fan of my work, you know I’m not a romance writer, per se. I have nothing against historical romance, and I love classic romances like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Austin’s novels, but I’m just not in that vein.

However, my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, does have a romantic subplot. And for this, I went searching for information on marriage and love in the Gilded Age. A very interesting article on the Click Americana website cropped up in my research titled “Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s“. It’s actually a series of articles published in the early 20th century by the San Francisco Examiner, so the advice given is actual “real time” suggestions for newlyweds. 

Needless to say, the marriage advice is about what I expected. Although the first few decades of the 20th century were somewhat more progressive than the prior century, there was still a lot of Victorian baggage left from the separate spheres when it came to relationships. The passage that interested me (there are a few included in the article) was written in 1901, just at the beginning of the new century. The advice begins with the obvious: “‘First select a MAN’” (Wheeler Wilcox, par 2). At first glance, this might seem like a “well, DUH” kind of thing. But I think it’s interesting to note Wheeler Wilcox uses the word “select”. Sadly, many women in the 19th century didn’t really chose a marriage partner — their circumstances often made marriage imperative, and they sometimes had to go with whatever was available. But the Gilded Age was the era of the New Woman, so women had choices, even in marriage partners. 

Also interestingly, Wheeler Wilcox was no fool when it came to the personality of the Gilded Age man. She warns women, “[o]f course, he will be more or less selfish. That is the way parents rear their sons to be” (par 3). Her solution to this problem is for the wife to show patience and tolerance, and teach him to be a considerate, kind human being by modeling that behavior.

Some of the advice is actually quite sound, though. For example, Wheeler Wilcox suggests that, when a husband chides a wife about one of her faults, she ought to remind him he has faults as well and enter into an agreement with him so that they can both work on themselves (“‘Let us enter into a Mutual Improvement Society. I want to be everything you admire — you want to be everything I admire. I will try and do my part and you must do yours’” (Wheeler Wilcox, par 6)). There is the assumption here that men and women are equal partners in a marriage and therefore, must compromise and work together to make the marriage a happy one. This wasn’t exactly the attitude the Victorians had toward marriage (as you’ll see later).

Unfortunately, Wheeler Wilcox’s advice sort of goes downhill from there. Wives are told to be prepared to make sacrifices, stroke the husband’s ego, and please him as much as she can. She should create a happy, harmonious home, always having the house clean and looking her best. Wheeler Wilcox even suggests bad behavior (including alcoholism and adultery) should be accepted as a given for some men:

“Of course, we must make allowances for the occasional lawless and drunken mariner who sends his ship on the rocks and the worthless husband who does not appreciate life’s best gifts. There are men whom no woman on God’s earth could keep loyal or honest; but they are exceptions” (par 15)

Nevertheless, the attitude toward marriage and especially a woman’s role in it has clearly shifted from the Victorian period. Although the woman is still expected to play her role as the angel in the house, she is also advised to voice her displeasures in the marriage and expect more of her husband in terms of love, affection, and respect. Such, sadly, was less the case a century before. In another article by Click Americana, we get a taste of pre-Civil War marriage advice. There is no assumption that the woman is equal to the man in marriage. She is the subservient and should always remain so, abiding by her husband’s law in the home, never contradicting him (heaven forbid!), and centering her world around him.

In Pathfinding Women, Vivian is in a thankfully more progressive state of mind than that. Though she’s not quite a New Woman, she has her own ideas about what she wants in marriage, some of which she expresses in a scene with Monte Leblanc, the love interest in the book, and in the company of a Miss Sowberry, who is quite young but has been taught all the virtues of Victorian womanhood by a rather domineering mother:

“There are times when women are a burden to men.” Vivian cast her eyes across a table with the silver-gilled carp. “Just as sometimes men are a burden to women.”

“You have modern opinions about marriage, then?” [Mr. Leblanc] asked.

“Some,” Vivian admitted. “I believe, like Mrs. [Lucy] Stone, that women should keep their maiden names after marriage, if they wish. That’s one reason why I went back to being Miss Alderdice when my husband died.”

“A girl ought to make a home for her husband, wherever it is,” said Miss Sowberry but she sounded as if her opinion were being dictated by someone else.

To read more about Pathfinding Women, which will be out on September 13, check out this webpage. And to learn more about the series, you can go here.     

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Works Cited:

Wheeler Wilcox, Ella. “Love, sense, & patience: The 3 most important things for a happy marriage (1901).” From “Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s.” Click Americana. Synchronista, LLC, 2011-2020. Web. 29 July 2020.

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