This 19th Century Advice For Young Husbands Is A Reminder Of The Bad Old Days

by Mimi Matthews

The Waning Honeymoon by George Henry Boughton, 1878.

Published in 1837, The Young Husband’s Book is described as a “manual of domestic duties.” Written by “a mentor” it contains within its pages advice on everything from choosing a wife to dealing with pesky in-laws. Some of the information is merely common sense, the sort of generic advice newlyweds might hear from well-meaning relatives today. The remainder is very pointedly early 19th century – written by someone who was clearly drawing on their own marital experiences gained during the Regency era and applying them to young couples in what was then the new Victorian age.

Despite our 21st century view of the Victorian age as being generally oppressive toward women, the primary emphasis in this manual is not on how to further subjugate a wife who is already under a husband’s complete legal and physical control, but on the solemn duties a gentleman undertakes when marrying. The foremost of these duties, according to the manual, is the duty to provide for his new bride and future children. To this end, the manual emphasizes the importance of a young husband being “industrious and frugal.” It also advises that he should be temperate and not indulge in any expensive personal tastes, stating:

“He should always be ready to sacrifice his present personal pleasure to the future well-being of those who have the first and best claim to his regard.”

The manual reminds the young husband of the great sacrifice his new wife has made in marrying him. It points out that she has left “her own people and her father’s house,” giving up the society of “those who have been endeared to her from her birth.” In doing so, she has “entrusted her heart and her happiness” into her new husband’s keeping. The manual declares that:

“He must be less than man who does not regard them as a most sacred deposit, and devote every energy and every care to their perfect preservation.”

2The Marriage Proposal by Evert Jan Boks, 1882.

It goes on to state that, in attending to his wife’s safety, comfort, and happiness, the young husband must always be sure to consult her as to her wishes and, though it is up to him to fix a limit on her expenditures, he is encouraged to give her a “fair proportion of indulgence within that limit.” In exchange for this consideration and generosity, the manual informs the young husband that:

“The same law which imposes upon the husband the duty of supporting his wife, gives him a general and paramount claim to her obedience.”

This ironclad rule of obedience is supported with various scriptures from the Bible and the manual declares that any woman of common sense would “readily perceive the propriety of this course.” It is here where we begin to see that the manual casts the young husband in a very paternal role. He must care for his wife and see to her safety and comfort, but at heart, he must realize that she is too delicate and too sensitive of mind to make any decisions for herself at all. Though, as the manual goes on to state, there are a few things on which a wife is qualified to weigh in:

“As to matters of little comparative moment – as to what shall be for dinner – as to how the house shall be furnished – as to the management of the house and of menial servants – as to those matters, and many others, the wife may have her way without any danger; but when the questions are, what is to be the calling to be pursued – what is to be the place of residence – what is to be the style of living and scale of expense – what is to be done with property – what is to be the manner and place of educating children – what is to be their calling or state of life – who are to be employed or entrusted by the husband – what are the principles that he is to adopt as to public matters – whom he is to have for coadjutors or friends – all these must be left solely to the husband; in all these he must have his will, or there never can be any harmony in the family.”

3The Wedding Morning by John Henry Frederick Bacon, 1892.

The manual is sure to explain that though the wife is subordinate, she is no less her husband’s equal. Even so, it goes on to portray women as emotional, usually irresponsible, human beings whose whole purpose – unless they are morally deviant – is to preserve home and hearth and to nurture their husband and children. As the manual proclaims:

“Women feel more acutely than men; their love is more ardent, more pure.”

Ardent and pure, perhaps, but according to the manual, not at all sensible. In many instances, the wife’s ridiculous fancies must be indulged in order to preserve marital harmony. For example, when addressing the subject of jealousy in the marriage, the manual advises young husbands to patronize their wives:

“Though her suspicions be perfectly groundless; though they be wild as the dreams of madmen; though they may present a mixture of the furious and ridiculous, still they are to be treated with the greatest lenity and tenderness.”

The dangers of marital discord are legion. As such, the manual would have the young husband avoid matrimonial conflict at all costs. Sometimes, however, this is out of the young husband’s control. A wife who does not know her place upsets the balance of the family. If allowed to run amok, she may even drive the young husband away and:

“When the husband is driven from his home by a termagant, he will seek enjoyment, which is denied him at his own house, in the haunts of vice, and in the riots of intemperance.”

4Blessing of the Young Couple Before Marriage by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1880-81.

This is as much the young husband’s fault as that of the errant wife. If he had courted and married the right sort of woman and if he had commenced his wedded life implementing the principles set out in the manual, such a turn of events would never have come to pass. To this end, the manual advises a long courtship. Not only will this allow the future husband to learn his intended wife’s true character, but it will also give ample time for his own finer qualities to shine through. This is of paramount importance since, according to the manual, a gentleman who is truly in love is not at all attractive to the object of his affections, whereas a gentleman who is merely trifling with a lady is possessed of consummate skill. As it explains:

“True love has ten thousand griefs, impatiences, and resentments, that render a man unamiable in the eyes of the person whose affection he solicits; besides that, it sinks his figure, gives him fears, apprehensions, and poorness of spirit, and often makes him appear ridiculous where he has a mind to recommend himself.”

Some of the opinions and advice in the manual are odd even for the early Victorian age. In one section, it states:

“In the country parts of Scotland such a thing as an unhappy marriage is not known.”

Another passage which stood out to me was that on second marriages. Say, for instance, a respectable widower should marry a respectable widow. One would think that such a connection was to be encouraged and perhaps it may have been, but there are certain elements to the union which “a mentor” finds distasteful. And, as always, the greater sin lies with the woman. The manual declares:

“A second marriage in the woman is more gross than in the man, argues greater deficiency in that delicacy, that innate modesty, which, after all, is the great charm, the charm of charms, in the female sex. We do not like to hear a man talk of his first wife, especially in the presence of his second; but to hear a woman thus talk of her first husband, has never, however beautiful and good she might be, failed to sink her in our estimation.”

Why the distinction? It is implied that sex has something to do with it, especially the notion that the woman has come to the marriage as anything but untouched. The manual explains:

“That the person has a second time undergone that surrender, to which nothing but the most ardent affection could ever reconcile a chaste and delicate woman.”

5Signing the Register by Edmund Leighton Blair.

As for sex itself, the manual offers no advice to the young husband. The wedding night is not even mentioned and “a mentor” seems to have no notion that sex could be a primary component of marital bliss or that young husbands might need to know a thing or two in order to please their wives in this regard. Of course, pious semi-religious manuals such as The Young Husbands Book and later guides, including an 1853 publication entitled Marriage and the Duties of Marriage Relations, were not the only guidebooks for young gentlemen embarking on married life. The Victorian era was rife with racy pamphlets and erotica which might have proved equally useful. And if all else failed, there were medical texts, such as those by Dr. William Acton, who was notable for his medieval views on all things sexual – as well as his dislike of the women’s rights movement. In his book The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, he writes:

“During the last few years, and since the rights of women have been so much insisted upon, and practically carried out by the strongest-minded of the sex, numerous husbands have complained to me of the hardships under which they suffer by being married to women who regard themselves as martyrs when called upon to fulfill the duties of wives.”

Did many young husbands read these sorts of manuals? It is hard to say for certain. However, given the religious overtones of most of these books, we can imagine that much of what is espoused within their pages was also preached from the Victorian pulpit. Indeed, in many conservative religious denominations, the same tenets are echoed today. Our modern sensibilities naturally gravitate with disapproval toward those portions of text which are sexist or otherwise offensive. But it is important for us to also recognize the solemn burden which was placed on the young husband of the 19th century:

“Having made your choice, and obtained the object of your desire, let it be your ambition that both she and those who gave her to you may ever find increasing cause to rejoice in the union.” 

This post originally appeared on and has been reprinted with permission.

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