Marriage in Victorian society was treated differently to the fairy-tale scene we imagine now. The marriages in this period were treated more like a business deal than a romantic gesture or expression of love. Women were largely uneducated (apart from in domesticity's) so it was viewed as necessary for a woman to marry so that she would have someone to look after her and provide for her.
Wedding dresses were a thing of importance, as they still are, following the fashion of the times. The wedding dresses for the middle class differed throughout the course of the Victorian period. The designs, shapes and details of the wedding dresses depended largely on the fashion and dress of the most recent royal weddings.
The importance of marriage was not only felt by the young males and females looking for a partner, but by the parents as well. Arranged marriages had gone out the window by this point, but families were still influencing who their children should meet and engage in courtship with. This freedom to choose who they married did not dramatically increase the level of romance regarded in marriage, rather it meant that the male was able to choose a woman who owned a fair amount, as once married, her property would become his.
The large focus on money and social status left very little scope for romance to dominate in the relationship. As is shown in literary texts from the Victorian era, it was not uncommon or unfathomable that couples should marry for issues such as social status and inheritance. Charlotte Bronte demonstrates this in her novel Jane Eyre:
“I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps for political reasons; because her rank and connections suited him; I felt he had not given her his love” (Jane Eyre, 216).
The set rules and etiquette in society meant that courtship was an important and closely monitored factor of encountering the woman’s husband-to-be. During the courtship and engagement period, the two families would discuss financial issues. The male needed to be sufficient in providing his wife with a reasonable or desirable amount of wealth for living, while the woman (or the woman’s father) had to provide a dowry. A dowry in the Victorian era consisted of the money and property that the bride would inherit otherwise when her parents died.
Essentially everything the woman owned is handed over to her husband. This not only concerns material or object things but also her body. Once a woman marries, she loses her right to refuse sex with her husband, as essentially her mind and body are his. The bond of marriage takes away from the ladies freedom as she spends her time looking after her husband and in turn, his children. When accepting a marriage proposal and going ahead with the wedding, the woman must bear in mind the gender roles that she is expected to fulfil within marriage and married life. Women were expected to look after the household, husband and children. Working class women also needed to work alongside these tasks, meaning they had less time with their children.
Married life for women was viewed as essential to maintain a respectable view of themselves in society. However it was not always a life of luxury, enjoyment and happiness. Edith Wharton’s The Fullness of Life (1893) reveals the stagnant life of a married middle class woman:
“I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone.”
"And your husband," asked the Spirit, after a pause, "never got beyond the family sitting-room?"
"Never," she returned, impatiently; "and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there.”
This shows that married life can be lonely and dull, even for the middle class, rather than the fantasy of romance that we hold in our minds today.
Due to the lack of romance, it was not uncommon that there were unhappy marriages. Bronte’s Rochester talks about his wife Bertha claiming;
“I could not pass a single evening, nor even a single hour of the day with her” (353).
During this period however, divorces were not very common or easy to obtain. A divorce was extremely expensive meaning that the poor were forced to remain in unhappy marriages. Another reason women remained married was to avoid the social stigma that was placed on divorced women.
Bronte, C. Jane Eyre. Penguin Classics. Penguin Books. London, 2006.