January 1, 2024

Marriage and the 'Prospect of Happiness'

"The Unequal Marriage" by Vasili V. Pukirev, 1862

Historically, given the patriarchal nature of most world cultures, the happy expectations that many brides may have imagined at their wedding fell far short during their marriage—disappointment often began before the honeymoon phase, if there was such a thing. To cope with the lack of attention or even abuse by their husbands, women around the globe had limited choices—especially since ill-treatment of wives was often sanctioned by their religions and governments. “A bride,” nineteenth-century journalist Ambrose Bierce said, “is a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.” Indeed, for eons, a married woman’s “prospect of happiness” was a dilemma.

In the middle of nineteenth-century England “marriage was the subject of much contemporary debate,” wrote best-selling author Kate Summerscale. Divorce laws were being investigated and reformists were “campaigning to improve the lot for married women.” One such reformist, novelist and poet Caroline Norton, even wrote to Queen Victoria—a happily married woman and mother—about the “injustices of wedlock,” as shared by Summerscale:

 “A married woman in England has no legal existence...her being is absorbed in that of her husband.” A wife could not undertake legal proceedings, or keep her own earnings, or spend eons own money as she wished. She “has no legal right even to her clothes or ornaments; her husband may take them and sell them if he pleases.” A wife’s identity was subsumed in that of her husband....

And Caroline Norton should know. “When she left her unfaithful, bullying, profligate husband in 1836,” wrote Summerscale, “he had kept her children from her and had confiscated the money that she earned through her writing.”

[Continue reading this short chapter excerpt on Medium...enjoy!]