Matrimonial Ads in the Victorian Press: Fantasy, Imagination, Story, Life

“Honest, Thick-Skinned Advertisements for Goods”?

The London Journal 5 March 1853
The beautiful heroine: The Will and the Way by J.F. Smith in The London Journal 5 March 1853

W.D. a tall, dark, young man, with £200 per annum, derived from an investment in the funds, would like to have a fair-complexioned young wife; he has just returned from Italy, but does not admire the dark beauties of that land of poetry and song.

MARIA C., of Wavertree, who resides with a cross old aunt, is desirous to join her fate with that of a medical man; she wants a comfortable domestic home; she is a good housekeeper, and not afraid of labour, having kept her late father’s house without a servant; she is not a child but “fat, fair and forty” with a fine complexion, splendid and perfect set of teeth, also beautiful hands and small feet. She has £64-a year now, and will have £500 on the death of her aged aunt.

(both from “Notices to Correspondence,” The London Journal, 5 March 1853, p. 416)

2015-05-21 15.23.58Who of us hasn’t, if we’re honest, scanned what not so long ago were the “Personals” in newspapers? I certainly used to and no doubt would today if I happened to come across them  (now you have to make an effort by going to specialised websites – the pleasures of chance encounters in the press are altogether rarer). Weren’t the personals wonderful invitations to fantasy? What would X be like? Would I like them? Would they like me? Are they like me? What a funny ad! – what kind of person would answer that? etc etc

If the above two quotations from the penny fiction weekly London Journal are anything to go by,  it seems the fantasies of Victorians were rather different from ours. They assume marriage is less about romantic love or sex than comfortable domestic arrangements. The fantasy concerns a better life obtained through the synergistic pooling of resources, whether those resources be money,  labour, or looks. W.D.’s main selling points are his £200 a year and – perhaps for some – commitment to his home country; Maria C. supplements her offer of £64 a year with the prospect of an additional £500, commitment to hard work, experience of managing a household – and, her father being dead, no interfering relatives (remember Lady Audley’s sponging father?).

To read them like that is to read them as  “honest, thick-skinned advertisements for goods” as the Spectator put it in a review of the later (and very successful) magazine entirely devoted to matrimonial ads, the Matrimonial News (1870-1895).

Of course, one can easily weave stories about these two — though, even if imaginary,  I hesitate to call them fantasies.

Perhaps W.D. was on the rebound, jilted by an Italian beauty he had encountered in Florence,  Venice or Naples. £200 is a fair amount to to live on but not enough to keep a carriage or horses: why doesn’t he declare other possibilities of income such as training for the law? He’s probably feckless and superficial, a Shallow Hal who only wants a blonde. Or perhaps he is an Artist who lives only for Beauty. Ah! Now there’s an idea for a novel plot! Ouida might well have used it (except that in 1853 she was only 14 and had six years to go before her first tale was published). Still, one thinks of Folle Farine in 1871 (not one of Ouida’s sunniest – W.D. in this novel would be a heartless monster!)

As for Maria C. from  Wavertree – why does she want a medical man? Is she ill? £64 a year and £500 on the death of an aunt, a father with no servants, based in a Liverpool suburb — not a promising social or financial additional asset for a physician. Despite her fair hair, in no substantive sense is she Rosamond Vincey in George Eliot’s Middlemarch!  But maybe a surgeon would find Maria useful, for surgeons in the 1850s, although they were fighting for status,  were still associated with trade. Or perhaps an apothecary would do? Interestingly, I can’t think of a novel plot in which Maria C.’s story might have appeared in this period. One can imagine a naturalist novel by Gissing where her story could be told, but in the early 1850s the heroines were young and beautiful. A Punch cartoon might feature her as a harridan man-chaser, Dickens might parody her in Pickwick Papers as Rachael Wardle or Mrs Bardell, but Maria C. is just not narratable in fiction of this period, at least not in a way which would give her a decent interior life. She has no voice in print other than what she herself gives it – a remarkable achievement on her part.

Notices to Correspondents page, The London Journal 5 March 1853
Notices to Correspondents page, The London Journal 5 March 1853

I’ve recently been reading Jennifer Phegley’s very entertaining Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England (2011) and (not for the first time) was struck by the imaginative possibilities of these ads that she discusses so well (click here for a fun lecture by by Jennifer delivered in Kansas in February 2012)

While the ads don’t seem to link directly to novels of the period, it’s interesting   that it seems a reflex for us to decode them –  extend them  – flesh them out – by trying (and perhaps failing) to link them to such novels.

I’m reminded of Lisa Zunshine’s contention in Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel that however we may be trained in academia to treat texts as dead objects, we keep wanting to animate them by ascribing to them a spirit, an identity, a personhood of which they are symptoms. And isn’t  trying to connect the matrimonial ads to novels in some curious way a bizarre instance of that, as if the novels were more alive than the ad? We don’t know W.D.’s or Maria C’s real stories, so we have to turn in a really bizarre way to something we consider the next best thing: the Victorian novel.

This is a far cry from the fantasies inspired by the personals of the late twentieth century: they prompt a different set of questions and today offer different, retrospective solutions, that, however imaginary, are, well, not fantasies so much as wishes that dead words on paper or screen that bore little or no relation to the material lives of real people might, perhaps once, have been the stories and memories instinct with life and breath.

For a light-hearted little video on matrimonial ads from the BBC, see my discussion with the wonderful Lucy Worseley here.

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at http://www2.gre.ac.uk/about/schools/humanities/about/departments/cca/staff/andrew-king.

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