Emma announces to her father that she wishes to marry Mr. Knightley

Regency romance

Small human moments cut across the centuries


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Marriage, the internet gleefully informs me, is just too expensive for people my age. In June 2023, the Thriving Center of Psychology found that 73 per cent of Millennial and Gen Z couples thought tying the knot too pricey in today’s economy. But is this news?

Take Arthur Wesley, an ambitious young army officer, who proposed to Kitty Pakenham. Thanks to his miserly captain’s salary, Pakenham’s family twice refused to bless the match. Wesley, now better known as Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, eventually did get his way — but only after 12 years of professional success made the marriage financially viable.

Love and Marriage In the Age of Jane Austen is replete with stories of newlyweds reduced to scrimping, or of men staying unmarried for years until their accounts were in order. As such, it can be hard to read this thoughtful new history without contrasting present with past, Austen’s famous dictum about single men “in possession of a good fortune” looming nearby.

Love and Marriage in the Age of Jane Austen, Rory Muir (Yale University Press, £25)

Regency courtships could be even more brutal. Charles Arbuthnot, a diplomat and politician, could only marry his second wife after insuring his life for £10,000.

Yet this book involves far more than the comparative economics of love. Dr Rory Muir evokes the romantic life of Regency Britain in all its variety, from flirtations and honeymoons to children and divorce. As the Duke of Wellington’s protracted courtship implies, what the author calls the “upper layers of society” receive most attention, though lawyers, tutors and even an Irish footman make appearances, too. Sources are equally mixed. The author of several books on the Napoleonic Age, Muir waltzes through letters, diaries and publications with names like the Lady’s Magazine.

Given the book’s title, the novels of the time are another predictable focus, doubly helpful when fiction often reflected real-world ideas. Just as Mr Bennet warns Elizabeth that her “lively talents” risk leaving her in an unequal marriage, many couples were careful to delight in shared interests, such as hunting or Byron’s poetry. And just as Wickham ran away with Elizabeth’s sister, dozens of men really did elope to Gretna Green each year, occasionally pursued by reluctant fathers-in-law.

What emerges from all this research is difficult to characterise, with Muir stressing that marriages were as varied as the people who entered them. Some husbands, like the Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, were remarkably devoted. He was determined, he told his wife in October 1800, “never to pass from one Country to another, even for a day, without you”.

Others, such as Andrew Stoney Bowes, were monsters. On one occasion, Bowes threw a dish of hot potatoes at his wife; elsewhere, he burned her face with a candle, before she finally escaped her tormentor after years of suffering. Despite the preoccupation with wealth and status, approaches to class could be just as diverse. She may have been a mere actress, for instance, but Harriet Mellon’s marriage to the banker Thomas Coutts was apparently happy — as was her second union, following Coutts’s death, to the Duke of St Albans.

With so many characters bustling about, Muir inevitably expands his narrative beyond the domestic setting: one of this book’s strengths is how it anchors Regency romance in wider societal currents. Shipped off to sea as young as 13, with scant opportunities to meet women, naval officers were renowned for marrying fast. In July 1792, Jane Austen’s cousin met Captain Thomas Williams on holiday. Before the month was out, they were engaged, with a wedding day set.

Given the book’s elite cast, love and sex also mingle with politics. We learn of future prime minister George Canning’s marital affection in a letter composed the night before his famous duel with Castlereagh. Of Castlereagh himself, attitudes towards homosexuality are vividly demonstrated by his blackmail. His crime, according to the admittedly unstable Lord Londonderry, was being lured into a brothel by a man dressed as a woman.

Between the pubescent sailors and cross-dressing prostitutes, Regency Britain can now seem utterly alien. But if worries about wedding costs are recognisable to some readers, what really endures from Love and Marriage are small human moments that cut across the centuries. The impoverished son of a bishop, Andrew Barnard is a very Georgian gentleman. Yet in letters to his wife — with talk of a secret retreat called “Cuddle Hall” — he feels captivatingly modern.

Or else Harriet Capel, who became infatuated with a much older man: “Oh that some kind creature would put me at once out of my agonies,” she wrote to him. “Is such a life as mine worth having?”

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