I was reading a book on the history of marriage, and it mentioned a handful of essays that were written in the US in the late eighteen century on the subject of marriage. Wondering what they had to say about the matter, I turned to Google and found one of them. What follows is the text to “On the choice of a wife” by John Aiken, which forms a chapter in his book, Letters from a father to his son, on various topics, relative to literature and the conduct of life : written in the years 1792 and 1793. It only seems to be available online in this scanned copy of the book or on Google Books. In the course of searching for this, I also discovered H. G. Wells’ On the choice of a wife, which is a much shorter and more amusing document. Anyway, without further ado, here is some late eighteenth century advice on what to look for in a wife.
There is no species of advice which seems to come with more peculiar propriety from parents to children, than that which respects the marriage state; for it is a matter in which the first must have acquired some experience, and the last cannot. At the same time, it is found to be that in which advice produces the least effect. For this, various causes may be assigned; of which, no doubt, the principal is, that passion commonly takes this affair under its management, and excludes reason from her share of the deliberation. I am inclined to think, however, that the neglect with which admonitions on this head are treated, is not unfrequently owing to the manner in which they are given, which is often too general, too formal, and with too little accommodation to the feelings of young persons. If, in descanting a little upon this subject, I can avoid these errors, I flatter myself you are capable of bestowing some unforced attention to what an affectionate desire of promoting your happiness, in so essential a point, may prompt.
The difference of opinion between sons and fathers in the matrimonial choice may be stated in a single position—that the former have in their minds the first month of marriage, the latter, the whole of its duration. Perhaps you will, and with justice, deny that this is the difference between us two, and will assert that you, as well as I, in thinking of this connexion, reflect on its lasting consequences. So much the better! We are then agreed as to the mode in which it is to be considered, and I have the advantage of you only in experience and more extensive observation.
I need say little as to the share that personal charms ought to have in fixing a choice of this kind. While I readily admit, that it is desirable, that the object on which the eyes are most frequently to dwell for a whole life, should be an agreeable one; you will probably as freely acknowledge, that more than this is of too fanciful and fugitive a nature to come into the computation of permanent enjoyment. Perhaps in this matter I might look more narrowly for you, than you would for yourself, and require a suitableness of years and vigour of constitution, which might continue this advantage to a period that you do not yet contemplate. But dropping this part of the subject, let us proceed to consider the two main points on which the happiness to be expected from a female associate in life must depend—her qualifications as a companion, and as a helper.
Were you engaged to make a voyage round the world on the condition of sharing a cabin with an unknown messmate, how solicitous would you be to discover his character and disposition before you set sail! If, on enquiry, he should prove to be a person of good sense and cultivated manners, and especially of a temper inclined to please and be pleased, how fortunate would you think yourself! But if, in addition to this, his tastes, studies, and opinions, should be found conformable to yours, your satisfaction would be complete. You could not doubt that the circumstance which brought you together, would lay the foundation of an intimate and delightful friendship. On the other hand, if he were represented, by those who thoroughly knew him, as weak, ignorant, obstinate and quarrelsome, of manners and dispositions totally opposite to your own, you would probably rather give up your project, than submit to live so many months confined with such an associate.
Apply this comparison to the domestic companion of the voyage of life—the intimate of all hours—the partaker of all fortunes—the sharer in pain and pleasure—the mother and instuctress of your offspring. Are you not struck with a sense of the infinite consequence it must be of to you, what are the qualities of the heart and understanding of one who stands in this relation; and of the comparative insignificance of external charms and ornamental accomplishments? But as it is scarcely probable that all you would wish in these particulars can be obtained, it is of importance to ascertain which qualities are the most essential, that you may make the best compromise in your power. Now, tastes, manners, and opinions, being things not original, but acquired, cannot be of so much consequence as the fundamental properties of good sense and good temper. Possessed of these, a wife who loves her husband will fashion herself in the others according to what she perceives to be his inclination; and if, after all, a considerable diversity remain between them in such points, this is not incompatible with domestic comfort. But sense and temper can never be dispensed with in the companion for life: they form the basis on which which the whole edifice of happiness is to be raised. As both are absolutely essential, it is needless to enquire which is so in the highest degree. Fortunately, they are oftener met with together than separate; for the just and reasonable estimation of things which true good sense inspires, almost necessarily produces that equanimity and moderation of spirit in which good temper properly consists. There is, indeed, a kind of thoughtless good nature which is not unfrequently coupled with weakness of understanding; but having no power of self-direction, its operations are capricious, and no reliance can be placed on it in promoting solid felicity. When, however, this easy humour appears with the attractions of youth and beauty, there is some danger lest even men of sense should overlook the defects of a shallow capacity, especially if they have entertained the too common notion, that women are no better than playthings, designed father for the amusement of their lords and masters, than for the more serious purposes of life. But no man ever married a fool without severely repenting it; for though the pretty trifler may have served well enough for the hour of dalliance and gaiety, yet when folly assumes the reins of domestic, and especially of parental control, she will give a perpetual heart-ache to a considerate partner.
On the other hand, there are to be met with instances of considerable powers of the understanding, combined with waywardness of temper, sufficient to destroy all the comfort of life. Malignity is sometimes joined with wit, haughtiness and caprice with talents, sourness and suspicion with sagacity, and cold reserve with judgment. But all these being in themselves unamiable qualities, it is less necessary to guard against the possessors of them. They generally render even beauty unattractive; and no charm but that of fortune is able to overcome the repugnance they excite. How much more fatal than even folly they are to all domestic felicity, you have probably already seen enough of the matrimonial state to judge.
Many of the qualities which fit a woman for a companion, also adapt her for the office of a helper; but many additional ones are requisite. The original purpose for which this sex was created, is said, you know, to have been, providing man with a help-mate; yet it is, perhaps, that notion of a wife which least occupies the imagination in the season of courtship. Be assured, however, that as an office for life, its importance stands extremely high to one whose situation does not place him above the want of such aid; and fitness for it should make a leading consideration in his choice. Romantic ideas of domestic felicity will infallibly in time give way to that true state of things, which will shew that a large part of it must arise from well ordered affairs, and an accumulation of petty comforts and conveniences. A clean and quiet fire-side, regular and agreeable meals, decent apparel, a house managed with order and economy, ready for the reception of a friend or the accommodation of a stranger, a skilful as well as affectionate nurse in time of sickness—all these things compose a very considerable part of what the nuptial state was intended to afford us; and without them, no charms of person or understanding will long continue to bestow delight. The arts of housewifery should be regarded as professional to the woman who intends to become a wife; and to select one for that station who is destitute of them, or disinclined to exercise them, however otherwise accomplished, is as absurd, as it would be to choose for your lawyer or physician a man who excelled in every thing rather than in law or physic.
Let me remark, too, that knowledge and good-will are not the only requisites for the office of a helper. It demands a certain energy both of body and mind which is less frequently met with among the females of the present age than might be wished. How much soever infirm and delicate health may interest the feelings, it is certainly an undesirable attendant on a connexion for life. Nothing can be more contrary to the qualification of a helpmate than a condition which constantly requires that assistance which it never can impart. It is, I am sure, the farthest thing from my intention to harden your heart against impressions of pity, or slacken those services of affectionate kindness by which you may soften the calamitous lot of the most amiable and deserving of the species. But a matrimonial choice is a choice for your own benefit, by which you are to obtain additional sources of happiness; and it would be mere folly in their stead voluntarily to take upon you new incumbrances and distresses. Akin to an unnerved frame of body, is that shrinking timidity of mind, and excessive nicety of feeling, which is too much encouraged under the notion of female delicacy. That this is carried beyond all reasonable bounds in modern education, can scarcely be doubted by one who considers what exertions of fortitude and self-command are continually required in the course of female duty. One who views society closely, in its interior as well as its exterior, will know that occasions of alarm, suffering and disgust come much more frequently in the way of women than of men. To them belong all offices about the weak, the sick, and the dying. When the house becomes a scene of wretchedness from any cause, the man often runs abroad, the woman must stay at home and face the worst. All this takes place in cultivated society, and in classes of life raised above the common level. In a savage state, and in the lower conditions, women are compelled to undergo even the most laborious, as well as the most disagreeable tasks. If nature, then, has made them so weak in temper and constitution as many suppose, she has not suited means to ends with the foresight we generally discover in her plans.
I confess myself decidedly of the opinion of those who would rather form the two sexes to a resemblance of character, than contrast them. Virtue, wisdom, presence of mind, patience, vigour, capacity, application, are not sexual qualities: they belong to mankind—to all who have duties to perform and evils to endure. It is surely a most degrading idea of the female sex, that they must owe their influence to trick and finesse, to counterfeit or real weakness. They are too essential to our happiness to need such arts; too much of the pleasure and of the business of the world depends upon them, to give reason for apprehension that we shall cease to join partnership with them. Let them aim at excelling in the qualities peculiarly adapted to the parts they have to act, and they may be excused from affected languor and coquetry. We shall not think them less amiable for being our best helpers.
Having thus endeavoured to give you just ideas of the principal requisites in a wife, especially in a wife for one in your condition, I have done all that lies within the compass of an adviser. From the influence of passion I cannot guard you: I can only deprecate its power. It may be more to the purpose to dissuade you from hasty engagements, because in making them, a person of any resolution is not to be regarded as merely passive. Though the head has lost its rule over the heart, it may retain its command of the hand. And surely if we are to pause before any action, it should be before one on which “all the colour of remaining life” depends. Your reason must be convinced, that to form a solid judgment of so many qualities as are requisite in the conjugal union, is no affair of days and weeks, of casual visits or public exhibitions. Study your object at home—see her tried in her proper department. Let the progress be, liking, approving, loving, and lastly, declaring; and may you, after the experience of as many years as I have had, be as happily convinced, that a choice so formed is not likely to deceive!
You may think it strange, that I have not touched upon a consideration which generally takes the lead in parental estimates mates of matrimonial views—that of fortune. But I have been treating on the woman only, not on any thing extraneous to her. Fortune acquired with a wife, is the same thing as fortune got any other way. It has its value, and certainly no small one in procuring the desirable comforts of life; and to rush into a state in which wants will be greatly increased, without a reasonable prospect of being able to supply those wants, is an act, not merely of carelessness, but of downright folly. But with respect to the sources whence their supply is to be sought, that is a particular enquiry to each individual; and I do not think so ill of your prudence as to apprehend that you will not give it all the attention its importance demands. Another consideration, that of the family connexions formed by marriage, is of a similar kind. Its great importance cannot be doubted; but it is an affair to be determined on by the dictates of common prudence, just as in forming those connexions after any other mode; though, indeed, in no other can they be formed equally strong. One who is master of his deliberations, may be trusted to decide these points, as well as any others that occur in the practice of life. That your decisions may always shew you to be possessed of a due power of self-direction, is the earnest wish of
Your truly affectionate, &c.