Courting with Mr. Darcy

The realities and challenges of finding a mate in Jane Austen’s time were the captivating topics of JASNA-NY’s fall meeting, which took place at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen on September 16, 2017. After a delightful ice breaker spent drafting wedding toasts to characters in Austen’s novels, regional coordinator Claudine Pepe introduced the featured speaker, Dr. Maria Grace Castor-Scheufler, who, after describing how she was recently rescued from her home by boat in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, proceeded to fascinate the audience with the legal ins and outs of Regency courtship.

“Understanding the historical mindset is a challenge when reading Austen,” Dr. Castor-Scheufler said. Modern readers don’t have the same perspective on marriage and courtship as Austen’s contemporary readers would have had. In her era, attitudes toward marriage were very different. Marriage was considered the mark of being an adult.

The cultural expectation was that you had to get married. Many, of course, didn’t or couldn’t. The higher infant mortality rate in boys and the number of fatalities in the long, drawn out Napoleonic Wars were contributing factors in the shortage of men. Marriage, Dr. Castor-Scheufler explained, was not about relationships the way we think of them. Marrying for love was considered foolish. Austen’s female characters wanting to marry for love would have been considered out of step with society, and for centuries parents arranged their children’s marriage.

Dr. Castor-Scheufler outlined the various ways a Regency lady could encounter potential mates and the strict code of courtship that had to be followed. In addition to balls and house parties, the more people you knew expanded your acquaintance and who else you might be introduced to. The less fortunate sometimes took to advertising in newspapers to find partners as a last resort. “A middle age gentleman of respectable rank in life who enjoys a good income of £200 a year…wishes to marry,” began one such ad. Another: “…the lady flatters herself she has many accomplishments and is calculated to make a man happy.”

marriage ads
Courtesy of Meg Levin

The legal implications of a marriage proposal were solidified in the marriage articles, or settlements. The moment a woman married she lost her legal identity and merged with her husband; all of her property became his. Marriage articles were the way to protect her—like a 19th century pre-nup—outlining how she’d be provided for, her pin money, portions to her children, and her jointure, what financial support she’d receive if her husband died.

The talk wrapped up with a lively discussion of entails, the reading of the banns, and the amusing anecdote that weddings in that time period were performed between 8am and noon because “good people did not fear the light of day.” The meeting concluded with finger sandwiches, desserts, and tea, and everyone went home with a bag of birdseed, a safe alternative to the traditional tossing of rice to celebrate a wedding.

– Marybeth Ihle