Persuasions #10, 1988                                                                                                            Pages 117-126


Views from both Directions: Courtship

and Marriage in Letters and Diaries from

the Age of Jane Austen



Daily News, Longview, Washington 98632



Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, 1 Battery Park Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10004







We can begin with an observation – which unexpectedly sounds very much like Jane Austen – written early in the eighteenth century by the philosopher G.W. Leibnitz:


We can miss the right road by trying to follow the shortest one, just as the stone by falling straight down may too soon encounter obstacles which prevent it getting at all close to the centre of the earth.  This shows that it is reason and that will lead us towards happiness, whereas sensibility and appetite lead us only towards pleasure.1


For the next few minutes we wish to recreate from letters and diaries of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the world of Jane Austen as recorded by contemporaries.

I shall read the men’s letters.





And I shall read the women’s letters and diaries.


“ … I consider everybody as having a right to marry once in their lives for love … ” wrote Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra, in 1808.2


Indeed, in Jane Austen’s mind – and in her novels – love and a good marriage were inseparable.

One reason readers find Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and her other works so alive today is that they reflect what real people felt about love and courtship – a theme central to all her works.

From the glittering London salons of Devonshire House to the country inns and Bath ballrooms more familiar to Jane’s characters, young men and women of the period spent a good deal of energy wrestling with romance.

A study of letters and journals written by Jane Austen’s contemporaries reveals real men and women in love, in pain, in doubt, in happiness – emotions Jane recreated in characters ranging from Emma Woodhouse to Mr. Darcy – emotions that two hundred years have done nothing to dim.





During this period, money no longer was the only reason to marry nor was courtship conducted under a chaperon’s unblinking eye.  Although old attitudes and the prudence of elders still had significant sway, many young people of Jane Austen’s class were able to seek an ideal mate and marry for love.

Some people were even coming to the same conclusion that Jane and Elizabeth Bennet did about marriage: That it is better to be single than to marry someone you do not love.





In addition to Jane Austen, our writers who loved, were loved or had observations on love and courtship include:


Fanny Burney, novelist and diarist;


Lord Byron, who needs no description;


Lady Harriet Cavendish, daughter of the 5th Duke of Devonshire;


Lord Chesterfield, the compleat courtier and author of the celebrated letters to his son;


William Cowper, poet and writer of hymns.





We shall also read from:


Samuel Johnson, pre-eminent man of letters;


Hester Lynch Thrale, literary hostess and friend to Johnson;


Horace Walpole, connoisseur of the Gothic, historian and letter writer;


Mary Wollstonecraft, early feminist.







In Jane Austen’s time, as now, finding the ideal mate had a lot to do with one’s success at love and courtship games.

Jane revealed her own ideals – ones in which we can see traces of Mr. Knightley or Captain Wentworth – in a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight:


There are such beings in the World perhaps, one in a Thousand, as the Creature you and I should think perfection, where Grace and Spirit are united to Worth; where the Manners are equal to the Heart and Understanding … 3


A fellow novelist, Evelina author Fanny Burney, had a similar ideal, one she found in her future husband, Comte Alexandre d’Arblay:


His nobleness of character – his sweetness of disposition – his Honour, Truth, integrity – with so much softness, delicacy and tender humanity – except my beloved father and Mr. Lock, I have never seen such a man in this world, though I have drawn such in my imagination.4





For many women, and Jane Austen heroines like Catherine Morland, a ballroom, particularly one in Bath, was an ideal place to find a romantic hero.


“Bath is a good place for the initiation of a young Lady[,]” wrote Samuel Johnson to Hester Thrale on one of her many visits to Bath.  “She can neither become negligent for want of observers, as in the country, nor by the imagination that she lies concealed in the crowd, as in London.”5





But taking a bow from a beau in a ballroom was no guarantee a lady would meet her match.  Lady Harriet Cavendish, daughter of the fifth Duke of Devonshire and later an admirer of Jane Austen, writes of the countless balls she attends without meeting anyone who can touch her heart:


Perhaps it is a misfortune to have such very high ideals of perfection; especially as I always expect to find them realized, but it is also a safeguard and adds interest to every society, though often great disappointment.6


Lady Harriet, whose letters rival Jane’s in their trenchant observations, had the same high standards for her only brother, Lord Hartington, one of the biggest matrimonial catches of the Regency.


“He is just now wild with delight at the Miss Monsons being arrived in Town,” she wrote to her sister in 1808.  “Heaven send his taste may mend before we have a sister-in-law.”7





Men, too, had their ideal women.

Though he never married, Horace Walpole had a keen eye for female beauty and character, something he found in the attractive Berry sisters:


They are of pleasing figures; Mary the eldest, sweet, with fine dark eyes, that are very lively when she speaks, with a symmetry of face that is the more interesting from being pale.  Agnes, the younger, has an agreeable sensible countenance, hardly to be called handsome, but almost …  [T]hey dress within the bounds of fashion, though fashionably; but without the excrescences and balconies with which modern hoydens overwhelm and barricade their persons.  In short, good sense, information, simplicity and ease characterize the Berrys.8


Lord Byron’s views of the ideal woman were considerably more tongue-in-cheek.  Of his mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb, he wrote:


I never knew a woman with greater or more pleasing talents, general as in a woman they should be, something of everything and too much of nothing. 9


But of his future wife, Arabella Milbanke, he said:


Miss M I admire because she is a clever woman, an amiable woman, and of high blood, for I have still a few Norman and Scotch inherited prejudices on that last score, were I to marry.  As to love, that is done in a week (provided the lady has a reasonable share); besides, marriage goes on better with esteem and confidence than romance, and she is quite pretty enough to be loved by her husband, without being so glaringly beautiful as to attract too many rivals.10







From the eighteenth century to the time Jane Austen published her first novels, the relationship between courting couples relaxed considerably.

Witness the stiff proposition faced by Hester Thrale, who in 1778 describes her courtship twenty years earlier by her first husband, the brewer Henry Thrale:


Our Courtship (if such it might be called) was always carried on under the Eye of my Mother, whose project it originally was; and this so completely that except for one five minutes only by mere Accident, I never had a Tete a Tete with my Husband in my whole Life till quite the evening of the Wedding Day.11





Horace Walpole describes another mid-century courtship that was nothing if not brief:


The young Lord it seems has been in love with Charlotte for some months, but thought so little of inflaming her, that yesterday fortnight she did not know him by sight.  On that day he came and proposed himself to my brother, who with much surprise heard his story, but excused himself from giving an answer … he would send for her and know her mind ….  She came and saw this impetuous lover, and I believe was glad she had not refused point blank – for they were married last Thursday.12





Times had changed by the end of the century.  Young people found it easier to get to know each other naturally, making courtship, or even a flirtation, a more lighthearted prospect, as Jane Austen wrote to her sister in 1796:


At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy; and when you receive this, it will be over.  My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.13


But allowing young people to choose a partner for themselves opened the door to heartache and confusion.  Nearly twenty years later, Jane gave her niece, Fanny, this advice about the failure of her first romance:


Oh poor dear Fanny, your mistake has been one thousands of women fall into.  He was the first young Man who attached himself to you.  That was the charm and most powerful it is.14


Some young women still felt pressure to marry to please their relations, a fact reflected in Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Like Fanny Price, Lady Harriet Cavendish was encouraged to marry a suitable man whom she disliked.  She writes of her difficult position to her mother:


… [I]f a year hence or more, I should have altered my mind, I shall be blamed by everybody, accused of being unfeeling, coquettish and other faults, if that is the case, I am now as much bound as if I was actually engaged.15





It took more than finding the right person to bring courtship to a successful conclusion.  One had to have the proper frame of mind, and even be prepared to mend one’s ways.  Before going courting, wrote poet William Cowper to his friend, Chase Price:


… You must Amend, or Despair of finding in Honest Matrimony a sure Contentment – Whatever means you think likely to work such a Reformation I would advise you to pursue; Neither the Single nor the Marry’ d State afford any sure Contentment But to the Virtuous.16


One who did not mend his ways was Lord Byron, whose rakish reputation made it difficult for him to court marriageable young ladies of high society.  In a letter to his worldly friend, Lady Melbourne, he writes of his failure:


… I do not know of a single gentlewoman who would venture upon me …  I admired your niece, but she is engaged to Eden; besides she deserves a better heart than mine.  What shall I do – shall I advertise?17


Courtship through letters might be romantic but it was also remote.  William Cowper wrote:


Our correspondence after this proceeded smoothly for a considerable time, but at length having had repeated occasion to observe that she expressed a sort of romantic idea of our merits, and built such expectations of felicity upon our friendship, as we were sure that nothing human could possibly answer, I wrote to remind her that we were mortal, to recommend it to her not to think more highly of us than the subject would warrant, and intimating that when we embellish a creature with colours taken from our own fancy, and so adorned, admire and praise it beyond its real merits, we make it an Idol, and have nothing to expect in the end but that it will deceive our hopes, and that we shall derive nothing from it but a painful conviction of our error.18





For men and women of Jane Austen’s time, love and courtship were still influenced by property, though not to the degree of a half-century earlier, when Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son:


My kinsman, Lord Strathmore, is to be married, in a fortnight, to Miss Bowes, the greatest heiress, perhaps, in Europe, and ugly in proportion.19


Horace Walpole unleashed this anecdote:


I hear your friend Lord North is wedded; somebody said, “It is very hot weather to marry so fat a bride”; G. Selwyn replied.  “Oh! she was kept in ice for three days before.”20





Jane Austen’s novels, and heroines like Elizabeth Bennet, reflect a growing repugnance for the marriage of convenience.  Letters of the period show a parallel distaste.

Fanny Burney writes about her friend, Mrs. Waddington, who made an arranged marriage in 1789:


I grieve eternally at our long separation and at her barbarous destiny!  tied for life to an establishment!  oh Heavens, how preferable is poverty!21


Early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft did not mince words in a letter to an unknown man who proposed marriage to her in 1795:


In a few words, what I call an insult is the bare supposition that I could for a moment think of prostituting my person for a maintenance; for in that point of view does such a marriage appear to me …22





While many were repelled by the idea of marriage for money, few could marry without some attention to the financial circumstances of their intended, even Lord Bryon, who wrote to his half-sister Augusta:


I have no connections to domesticate with, and for marriage, I have neither talent or inclination.  I cannot fortune hunt, nor afford to marry without a fortune.23





Here is Fanny Burney on the astronomer Herschel’s marriage:


His wife seems good-natured, and she was rich, too! and astronomers are as able as other men to discern that gold can glitter as well as stars.24


When a Miss Sawbridge and a tutor announced their engagement, Jane Austen immediately wrote Cassandra:


… [T]hey must be one of the happiest Couples in the World, and either of them worthy of Envy – for she must be excessively in love and he mounts from nothing to a comfortable Home.25


Women of good family who married without money were sometimes excluded from high society, something Fanny Burney faced when she married the penniless French émigré general, Comte Alexandre d’Arblay:


“How the World would blame me at first, I well know; but his worth, in time, would make its own way and be my vindication,” she wrote to her sister, Susan.26


To remain single was to court economic oblivion, as Jane Austen acknowledges ironically in a letter to Fanny Knight:


Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony. 27







Gradually, however, love gained on money as the reason to get married.  Lord Hertford wrote about his daughter, Isabella, to Horace Walpole.  The words could fit Fanny Price and Edmund Bertman:


The gentleman of her choice is a Mr. George Hatton, a man of respectable family, character and conduct, but a younger brother with a slender fortune …

Could I have made my choice freely, I will acknowledge to you as a friend that I should have waited some other offer, but when my daughter tells me she is unambitious and chooses retired life with a gentlemen of Mr. Hatton’s temper and disposition, and that he has fortune enough to satisfy her views in life, I hope you will think I have done kindly as well as prudently in not withholding my consent.28


When Lord Byron finally prevailed on Miss Milbanke to marry him, a letter to his friend, Thomas Moore, indicates he did so without inquiring about the state of her fortune:


I am going to be married – that is, I am accepted, and one usually hopes the rest will follow …  She is said to be an heiress, but of that I really know nothing certainly, and shall not inquire.  But I do know that she has talents and excellent qualities, and you will not deny her judgement, after having refused six suitors and taken me …  I must, of course, reform thoroughly; and, seriously, if a man can contribute to her happiness, I shall secure my own.  She is so good a person, that – that in short, I wish I was a better.29





Some were saying, as might a Jane Austen heroine, that they would not marry without love:


“I have all my life determined never to marry without having the very highest value and esteem for the man who should be my lord,” Fanny Burney wrote as a teenager to her mentor, Samuel Crisp.  “… I have long accustomed myself to the idea of being an old maid and the title has lost all its terrors in my ears …  Don’t imagine by what I say that I have made a vow for a single life – No: but on the other hand, I have no objection to it.”30





Lord Byron mused to Arabella just after their engagement in 1814 about the key to happiness in marriage:


Do you think my love, that happiness depends on similarities or differences in character?  I doubt it. I am rather inclined to lay more stress upon intellect than is generally done – much upon temper.  Affection must do the rest.31


But neither intellect nor affection was enough to calm the storms that eventually overwhelmed their marriage.





Jane Austen was a firm believer that true regard was the basis of a long-lasting, fulfilling marriage.


“I … entreat you not to commit yourself farther and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him,” she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight.  “Anything is to be preferred than marrying without Affection.”32


In a letter to Fanny Knight written two weeks later, Jane says further:


Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love, bound to one, and preferring another.  That is a punishment which you do not deserve.33





Love was not the only ingredient needed for a successful relationship.  Samuel Johnson warned a friend, Joseph Baretti, of how the thrill of courtship could overwhelm reason:


Of your love I know not the propriety, nor can estimate the power; but in love, as in every other passion, of which hope is the essence, we ought always to remember the uncertainty of events.  There is indeed nothing that so much seduces reason from her vigilance, as the thought of passing life with an amiable woman; and if all would happen that a lover fancies, I know not what other terrestrial happiness would deserve pursuit.34





For some people, however, independence was all.  Neither love nor money was enough to persuade Mary Wollstonecraft to marry William Godwin.  They married only a few days before their daughter was born.  Even then, Mary wished to preserve her independence, as she wrote in this letter to Godwin, who had gone to the countryside:


A husband is a convenient part of the furniture of the house, unless he be a clumsy fixture.  I wish you, from my soul, to be riveted in my heart: but I do not desire to have you always at my elbow – though at this moment I did not care if you were.35





Whenever Jane Austen’s heroines followed their creator’s advice and married for love, we can imagine their receiving congratulations somewhat like those Cowper bestowed on his friend, Samuel Rose:


Among the many who love and esteem you there is none who rejoices more in your felicity than myself; far from blaming, I commend you much for connecting yourself, young as you are, with a well-chosen companion for life …36





We can also imagine that Catherine, Elinor, Elizabeth, Fanny, Emma and Anne found nineteenth century marriage fashions more to their liking than those of the preceding century.

Six months after their own weddings, Jane Austen’s heroines might have written something like the letter Lady Harriet Cavendish sent to her sister shortly after she married Lord Granville Leveson-Gower in 1809:


... early hours, wholesome dinners, a comfortable bed and Granville, adored Granville, who could make a barren desert smile.37





1  G.W. Leibnitz, New Essays on Human Understanding, translated and edited by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 194.


2  Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, edited by R.W. Chapman.  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), p. 240.  Hereafter Chapman.


3  Chapman, pp. 409-10.


4  Madame d’Arblay, Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney [1791-1840] edited by Joyce Hemlow (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1972-1984), II, p. 38.  Hereafter Hemlow.


5  Samuel Johnson, The Letters of Samuel Johnson with Mrs. Thrale’s Genuine Letters to Him [1719-1784], edited by R.W. Chapman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), II, 362.  Hereafter Johnson.


6  Lady Harriet Cavendish, Hary-O: The Letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish [1796-1809], edited by Sir George Leveson-Gower and Iris Palmer (London: John Murray, 1940), p. 110.  Hereafter Leveson-Gower.


7  Leveson-Gower, p. 279.


8  Horace Walpole, Horace Walpole’s Correspondence [1725-1797], edited by W.S. Lewis and others, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937-1983), XXXIV, 25.  (Emphasis in original.)  Hereafter Lewis.


9  George Gordon, Lord Byron, With Byron in Love, edited by Walter Littlefield, (New York: J.H. Sears & Co., 1926), p. 97.  Hereafter Littlefield.


10 Littlefield, p. 131.


11 Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale, Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi) [1776-1809], edited by Katherine C. Balderston (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1942), I,  306.


12 Lewis, XXI, 439 (footnotes omitted).


13 Chapman, p. 6.


14 Chapman, p. 409.


15 Leveson-Gower, p. 103.


16 William Cowper, The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper [1750-c.1799], edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979-1986), I, 73.  Hereafter Cowper.


17 Littlefield, p. 133.


18 Cowper, II,  18-19.


19 Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield [1712-1773], edited by Bonamy Dobree (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode Ltd., 1932), VI, 2795-96.  Hereafter Chesterfield.


20 Lewis, IX, 116.


21 Hemlow, II, 74.


22 Mary Wollstonecraft, Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Ralph M. Wardle, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 327.  Hereafter Wardle.


23 Littlefield, p. 225.


24 Madame d’Arblay, Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay (1778-1840), edited by Charlotte Barrett, with prefaces and notes by Austin Dobson (London: MacMillan & Co. Ltd., 1904), IV, 113.


25 Chapman, p. 230.


26 Hemlow, II, 50.


27 Chapman, p. 483.


28 Lewis, XXXIX, 432-33 (footnotes omitted).


29 Littlefield, p. 138.


30 Frances Burney, Early Diary of Frances Burney, [1768-1777) edited by Annie Raine Ellis (London: George Bell & Sons, 1807), II, 74.


31 Littlefield, p. 142.


32 Chapman, p. 410.


33 Chapman, p. 418.


34 Johnson, I, 146.


35 Wardle, p. 396.


36 Cowper, III, 386.


37 Lady Harriet Granville, Letters of Harriet, Countess Granville [1810-1845], edited by the Hon. F. Leveson-Gower (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1894), I, 25.


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