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The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, 1729 (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/36.111)

As we all know the main goal for all gently bred young ladies was to make a good marriage.  The following advice from 1753 makes very interest reading for anyone from the 21st century:

Madam

The hurry and impertinence of receiving visits on account of your marriage and paying visits on account of your marriage being now over, you are beginning to enter into a course of life, where you will want much advice to divert you from falling which your sex are subject.  I have always borne an entire friendship to your father and mother;  and the person they have chosen for your husband hath been, for some years past, into many errors, fopperies and follies to my particular favourite.  I have long wished you might come together, because I hoped, from the goodness of your disposition and by following the counsel of wise friends and might, in time, make yourself worthy of him.  Your parents were so far in the right that they did not introduce you much into the world, whereby you avoided many wrong steps, which others have taken, have fewer ill impressions to be removed;  but they filled as is generally the case, in too much neglecting to cultivate your mind, without which it is impossible to acquire or preserve the friendship and esteem of  wise man, who soon grows weary of acting the lover, and treating his wife like a mistress, but wants a reformable companion and true friend thro’ every stage of life.  It must be therefore your business to qualify yourself for these offices, wherein I will not fail to be your director as long as I shall think you deserve it, by letting you know how you are to act, and what you ought to avoid.

And beware of despising or neglecting my instructions, wherein will depend not only your making a good figure in the world, but your own real happiness, as well as that of the person, who out to be the dearest to you.

I must therefore desire you in the first place, to be very slow in changing the modest behaviour of a virgin.  It is usual, in young wives, before they have been many weeks married, to assume a bold forward look and manner of taking, as if they intended to signify, in all companies, that they are no longer girls, and consequently, that their whole demeanor, before they got a husband, was all but a countenance and constraint upon their nature;  whereas I suppose, if the votes of wise men were gathered, a very great majority would be in favour of those ladies, who, after they were entered into that state, rather chose to double their portion of modesty and reservedness.

I must likewise warn you strictly against the least degree of fondness to your husband before any witness whatsoever, even before your nearest relations, or the very maids of your chamber.  This proceeding is so far exceeding odious and disgustful to all who have good breeding or good sense, that they assign too very unamiable reasons for it, the one is gross hypocrisy, the other has too bad a name to mention.  If there is any difference to be made, your husband is the lowest person in company, either at home or abroad;  and every gentleman present has a better claim to all marks of civility and distinction from you.  Conceal your esteem and love, in your own breast;  reserve your kind looks and language for private hours, which are so many in the four and twenty, that they will afford time to employ a passion as exalted as any as was ever described in a French romance…..”

And so the letter proceeds for five pages! (if you would like to see the full letter then let me know and I can email you a transcript).

The sign off is “Your most faithful friend, and humble Servant, J S”.  It could just as easily have been Mr Collins as the tone, although well meaning, sounds pompous today.  The letter could have been written by a man (after all most of those working on such publications were indeed male) or as is seen with Pride and Prejudice could have been written by a woman with a strong sense of satire.

Some of the advice imparted is rather good if put in a rather unfortunate (even for the mid-Eighteenth Century) manner:

You have but a very few years to be young and handsome in the eyes of the world, and as few months to be so in the eyes of a husband who is not a fool;  for I hope you do not still dream of charms and raptures, which marriage ever did and ever will put an end to.”  This statement leads to a very interesting section on how sad it is that the women withdraw to allow men to discuss serious matters whilst they, the women are “in a separate club, entertain each other with the price and choice of lace and silk, and what dresses they liked and disapproved at the church or playhouse.  And when you are among yourselves, how naturally, after the first compliments, do you apply your hands to each other’s lappets, and ruffles, and mantuas, as if the whole business of your lives, and the public concern of the world, depended upon the cut and colour of your dresses”.

Yet like so much of this communication praise turns to criticism in the matter of a few words.  This is particularly seen in the section on the importance of learning in women so that they do not bore their husbands and so that they can join in general discussions about the Arts and Sciences.  Rapidly though what appears to be a sensible discussion about the plight of women in this arena the reader is advised to read aloud to her husband ever day or to “any other friend (bit not a female one)” to better advance her knowledge and skills.  Reading should be seen only as a means of improving “good-sense” and should not be taken to far that she becomes one of “those learned ladies”  for these individuals are set apart from society and have to be contemptible to their own sex as well as to men.

Perhaps surprisingly the letter continues with a section on cowardice which is seen as an unacceptable characteristic in either sex but is made worse for the female who admires the “a colonel or a captain, on account of his valour” but is, herself, frightened by the sight of a spider, earwig or frog.  To the writer this is rank hypocrisy.

The language if the letter is quite strong for what we imagine was the norm of the time when apparently communicating with a young female in an open forum.  In one section towards the end of the letter he says “I would recommend you to be acquainted of a common prostitute, rather than to that of such Specimens as these [the “Specimens” being bold women who mix with “coxcombs”].  I have often thought that non man is obliged to suppose such creatures to be women, but to treat them like insolent rascals disguised in female habits, who ought to be stript and kicked down the stairs.”

Interestingly the letter concludes with a brief request that the young wife should remember not to spend more money than her husband can afford lest the butcher’s bill goes unpaid.  This seems more likely to have been a concern of a member of the middling-sort rather than the ton.  By these few lines there is a suggestion of who the publication was aimed at.

Citation: J, S. 1753, “A Letter to a very young Lady on her Marriage”, The Ladies Magazine : or, The Universal Entertainer, 1749-1753, vol. 4, no. 17, August 18 1753, pp. 262-266.  Accessed at http://search.proquest.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/britishperiodicals/docview/5896826/fulltext?accountid=14697 on 01 February 2014

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