The title of this blogpost comes from one of my very favourite things I’ve found in my years spent researching Victorian marriage, engagement, courtship, and romantic culture in England. It is a little book entitled Shall Girl’s Propose?, written in 1893 by an author who gives himself the moniker of ‘a speculative bachelor.’ The premise of the book is simple— it succinctly outlines the process of late nineteenth-century courtship and engagement while mocking romantic culture and making absurdist suggestions for how it might be improved. The book is equally playful and incisive in its observations of proposal and engagement, especially regarding gender dynamics of the period. For example, on the titular topic of women proposing, our speculative bachelor writes,
I have been wondering all my life why it is that, in the matter of initiative, a coarse, unattractive young man should have the privilege to ask any unmarried woman in the whole world to marry him, while his refined and so much more accomplished sister must make no motion toward any choice of her own, except to sit still and wait for some other girl’s mediocre brother to make a proposal to her.
While this passage, on its face, laments women’s lack of autonomy because of society denying them the ability to actively pursue their desired spouse, it also speaks to a power in their necessitated passivity. It speaks to women being in a position to pass (even harsh) judgement on men who must come to them, share their romantic sentiments in a very vulnerable way, and ask for their hands in marriage. While men were required to take these emotional and social risks, nineteenth-century women, in a rare shift in power dynamic, held the power of acceptance or rejection, even humiliation.
As most in the middle class throughout the nineteenth century married within their immediate social, professional, or even family circles, proposals were a favourite topic of gossip and opened men up to scrutiny as intended husbands not only from women, but also family and friends. The potential for embarrassment and shame in the aftermath of a proposal if one was rejected was so great for men that many etiquette manuals of the time (primarily those written by men) devoted particular admonishments for women who might use a man’s words and actions during a proposal against him. The author of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, for instance, did not mince words when it condemned proposal gossip among women as barbaric— “boasting of proposals is a savage custom, akin to wearing scalps.”
Going on, the author of Shall Girls Propose? claims that even the best and most attractive women were required to choose from “six to twelve offers at most in a lifetime”—even if none of those options were particularly attractive. Compared to our modern experiences with engagements, this is a shockingly high level of rejection.
However, the idea that women would receive more than a proposal or two in their lifetime was the norm. Various sources from throughout the century suggest that women received anywhere from three or four proposals to several dozen. Sometimes they were received in quick succession—often when word got out in a community or social circle that an eligible young lady was considering one proposal, any other interested party took that as his last opportunity to throw his hat into the ring before she accepted, thus creating nuptial feeding frenzies.
Our speculative bachelor goes on to describe another cultural peccadillo pertaining to women’s response to proposals—throughout the nineteenth century, an amalgamation of popularly held ideas such as female modesty, conventions of vetting and testing potential husbands, and the experience or feigning of fear and surprise resulted in women refusing initial proposals, even if they were interested or intending to accept. He describes,
To refuse, and yet not dismiss your appeal, requires on their part no little tact and philosophy. Most girls think that if you capture them easily, you will be led to esteem them lightly. They are apt, therefore, to throw obstacles in your way and make you struggle for their hand. Doing this diplomatically, so that they shall not lose you at last, often requires a high degree of art.
This type of “no” coupled with definite refusals resulted in a very high instance of dismissal for men who needed to steel themselves against the sting of rejection. Managing suitors, weighing options, and fielding proposals from left, right, and centre certainly affected the lives and experiences of nineteenth-century Englishwomen in no insignificant way; however, today we turn our attention to those “coarse, unattractive young men” and “mediocre brothers” turned hopeful and rejected bridegrooms— “[those] who can’t get a chance to try.”
Prerequisites to Proposals: Look Before You Leap
Throughout the 19th century, the entire burden of proposing marriage fell to men, and they were keenly aware of how serious a task they were undertaking, especially within the middle class. It was a widely held belief that a man wasn’t complete until he was supporting a wife and family. At the same time, men and women were advised to take into account a wide range of practical criteria, in addition to the presence of romantic love, when choosing a potential spouse.
The confluence of these ideas meant that the rejection of a marriage proposal could signify sentiments beyond a lack of reciprocal love. It was often experienced as a commentary on a man’s ability as a potential husband, and therefore, a man. A rejection could occur on the basis of class, financial holdings, his character, etc., all of which would have come as a blow to the all-important Victorian reputation. All of this social and cultural weight culminated in the proposal, which the author of The Marriage That Will Suit You and How to Enjoy It (1859) described as, “a vast moment (…) one on which may hang your life-long happiness.”
While fluctuating slightly throughout the nineteenth century, the average age of English couples getting married was around 28 for men and 25 to 26 for women in the middle class. Men tended to be a bit older when they married because they needed to have the financial stability to rent a proper home, furnish that home, hire at least one member of staff, and maintain a wife (custom dictated) in the same lifestyle she would be leaving in her father’s home. In addition, he would need to have the finances to provide for the impending family that would result from his nuptials.
Etiquette manuals of the time harp on this particular point ubiquitously and ad nauseam with examples ranging from simple metaphor (“The man who cannot buy a cage, ought not to attempt to keep a bird”) to Dr. John Kirton lambasting the practice in his 1883 book Happy Homes and How to Make Them:
To marry without provisions is to say the least of it WRONG, and ought therefore to be condemned.
That not being quite strong enough for Dr. Kirton, to fully impress upon the point he yells, in all capital letters, to the women of England:
NEVER CONSENT TO HAVE THE DAY OF YOUR WEDDING FIXED UNTIL YOU HAVE GOOD EVIDENCE THAT YOU ARE TO HAVE A FURNISHED HOME OF YOUR OWN TO GO TO (…) LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP.
While some men proposed on the prospect of having financial stability in the foreseeable future—men in university, apprenticeships, or other professional training—those who were accepted almost always had a previous close connection to the bride’s family, either as family friends or relations, or through having a professional connection. For instance, it was very common for daughters of doctors to marry their fathers’ trainees. Ideally it was recommended that a man would be in a position to propose and then take a year to get everything prepared, including accommodation and savings, before the wedding. Too-long engagements were considered hazardous and to be avoided.
In addition to the requisite funds, there were other requirements men were advised to self-evaluate in order to claim himself ready for marriage. In a chapter titled “Qualifications for Married Life” in his book A New Light on Love, Courtship, and Marriage (1894), the author sets seven qualifications for a man questioning if he is ready for marriage:
1. He must be of proper age, meaning twenty-one at the very least
2. He must have sufficient means
3. He must be of a sound mind
4. He must be of a sound body
5. He must have a good domestic disposition
6. He must have good habits
7. He must have high moral principles
In addition to reciprocated love, these are the criteria by which men were evaluated by potential spouses and formed the basis on which they would be either accepted or rejected.
The Victorian Marrying Man
Men in possession of these attributes (or, perhaps more likely, self assured they were in possession of them) had the impetus to take on either the persona of a bachelor or of a “marrying man.” The nineteenth century “marrying man” was serious about getting married and had the ability to do so. The use of the term “marrying man” inherently states direct action and a clear goal of matrimony—seeking a wife deliberately.
Whether claimed or implied by actions, the label of being a “marrying man” put men in a vulnerable social position. It is a label that, associated with a man’s name, would immediately compel those around him to size him up as a potential husband. It also implied that he was actively courting and entering encounters with women with a specific goal in mind. While technically applicable to any man looking to settle down, in nineteenth-century literature, media, and common usage, “marrying man” was most often used to describe two types of men—the first was a young, wealthy, good-looking, sometimes landed gentleman looking both for a companion and woman to run his household. It was also used mockingly to describe a man usually overly keen to get married or cluelessly proposing to women well out of his league.
To put it in Austenian terms, in Pride and Prejudice, both Mr. Bingley and Mr. Collins might be described as “marrying men,” though obviously with contrasting associations. Typically this second type of man was also otherwise socially or physically less than desirable—unattractive, socially awkward, or too old.
A good example of this is Mrs. Harriet Gordon Smythies’ novel The Marrying Man (1841), in which the titular character is the curmudgeonly and old Mr. Burridge, who convinces himself that his teenage neighbour, Jessy, must be in love with him after she tolerates his company on several occasions. The narrative follows Burridge’s bumbling attempts to court Jessy—by cornering her into conversation and giving her gifts such as a hideous bright yellow shawl and “obsolete lolly-pops” for Christmas. Throughout the book, he is unconscious of his own absurdity and vulgarity in the eyes of all those around him, including Jessy herself.
This literary construct of the “marrying man” is representative of ideas surrounding single and seeking men pervasive throughout the nineteenth century. It is a representative caricature of how society viewed them and how they were often sorted into the two categories of desirable and esteemed or pitiable, mockable, and even repugnant depending on the evaluator.
In addition to advice on the broader requirements of character, pedigree, and financial stability, in order to help men appeal to potential wives—and prevent any embarrassment in their presence—etiquette manuals offered endless directives for every conceivable minutiae of interacting with the opposite sex. An example from Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (1876) reads:
Do not smoke in the presence of ladies, and never stand with your back to the fire,
nor put your feet on the rungs of a chair, nor loll back on sofas, nor yawn, nor read
aloud without being asked to do so, nor put your elbows on a table, nor drum
tunes with your fingers, nor indulge in any of those minor vulgarities which may
render you disagreeable to others.
With anxieties about gossip and the preoccupation that he may have “minor vulgarities” rendering him “disagreeable to others,” it’s no wonder that the overly timid and shy suitor was a popular figure in the nineteenth-century zeitgeist. When it came to proposing, such men might have opted for proposing by letter, which was not uncommon throughout the century, though looked down upon in general.
Popping the Question and The Many Types of “No”
For those braving an in-person proposal, they would need to brace themselves for rejection. Most of them would receive at least an initial “no.”
Now, there were many kinds of “no” this could be. The first would be prompted by modesty and shyness. It could be that the young woman wanted to consult her parents and interrogate her own feelings before committing, which was considered a very sensible thing to do. It could also mean that she was testing the young man’s commitment and that upon a second or third proposal she might accept him.
In a lecture on courtship in 1860, Rev. Joseph Bush addressed this scenario by recommending to men, “If a young woman should ever say no to you, give her seven days to consider of it; and if then she still persists in a positive and permanent no, take it as final.”
Some women, it was often thought, simply needed more convincing of a lover’s suit, and men often redoubled efforts to prove their love and capabilities in consequence. As put in Whom to Marry (1894), “It is a great mistake for a man to be discouraged by a first refusal. A girl likes to be ardently sought in marriage. It flatters her vanity.” This was the most common “no” and one that was typically transformed into a “yes” in due course. Therefore many men could take heart and were often braced for the initial refusal and ready to work to change the mind of his intended.
Strategies for turning a “no” to a “yes” ranged from dignified reasoning, assurances of love, and promises of happiness to the less dignified grovelling, as exhibited by the character of Mr. Cheesacre in Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1864), whose “whimpering” and “blubbering” after being rejected eventually caused proposee Mrs. Greenow to snap embarrassedly, “Mr. Cheesacre, don’t make a fool of yourself. Get up.”
How to deal with a rejected proposal was something covered extensively in advisory literature of the time; men were coached on how to make women change their minds, but also how to look for the signs of a genuine “no” and how to walk away with dignity and magnanimity. Put by one author, “[his conduct] should be characterised by extreme delicacy and a chivalrous resolve to avoid occasioning any possible annoyance or uneasiness to the fair author of his pain.”
As proposals required men to commit and declare their feelings, intentions, and desires, the resulting intimacy was inherently uncomfortable for both parties. The shame and stigma associated with a rejected proposal was so great that many books advised that men go travelling to physically remove themselves from their social context in the aftermath. This is a practice mirrored in nineteenth-century fiction, where you see the majority of rejected men culled off by sending them to faraway lands or into military service to avoid the awkwardness of their proximity to the main love plot.
For obvious reasons, few rejected men reflected on their rejected status in writing. However, the documentary evidence reveals the experience of a rejected proposal as fear and anxiety inducing, as well as humiliating. The figure of the rejected man featured heavily in Victorian culture and, with the almost ubiquity of experience, men often found camaraderie in their shared rejection. The rejected man featured heavily in fiction, poetry, music, and a particularly brutal and macabre genre of popular jokes.
The following are jokes that were published in periodicals in the 1890s:
“When a girl says just ‘no,’ there may be some brightness in the future; but when she says,
‘I will always feel like a sister towards you,’ it’s time to hunt up a clothes line and a good substantial crossbeam.”
He: “Don’t you think you could love me a little if you knew that I would die for you?”
She: “Possibly, if you would give me proof satisfactory to a coroner’s jury.”
“You must have said something awful funny to Miss Snyder over in the corner, because I
heard her laughing so.”
“I didn’t think it funny,” retorted Bones; “I asked her to marry me.”
The vein of self-depreciation and pity running through the narrative of the rejected man echoes a sense of victimisation both by individual women and by society more broadly. As a result, it seems that there were at least some men who saw securing a wife as a numbers game, and they were systematic in working through their friend groups, communities, and siblings’ friends.
The serial proposing—and therefore rejected—man was a pest found in many social circles and oft complained about. The practice of proposal-spamming was more common than one might assume. An article in an issue of the periodical Cupid detailing exactly the practice of proposing to multiple women in quick succession offers the following audacious example:
One of the most curious proposals of which I have heard was that made by a widower to a maid,
wherein he begged her acceptance of his suit; but, half expecting it might fail, urged in a
postscript in the concluding paragraph that, if an acceptance on her part was wholly out of the
question, she should help him to intercede on behalf of the same labour from her sister! The result
of this extraordinary plea was a double feature, of necessity.
This stunning example of a dual rejection suggests a brazenness that we can only assume shielded the proposer of the shame that plagued some other rejected men. It is not known whether he was ever able to seal the deal. However, we can only assume that his bold swing only served to harm his chances of a “yes” going forward. Perhaps he was relegated to perpetual bachelorhood—one of the many so-called failed Victorian men categorised as “those who won’t get a chance to try.”
Maggie Kalenak is currently a fourth year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, Girton College. Her work focuses on romantic culture, as well as courtship, engagement, and marriage in nineteenth-century England. Her methodology emphasises material culture, history of emotions, and sensory history studies. She is available for consultancy.
(A) Speculative Bachelor, Shall Girls Propose? And Other Papers on Love and Marriage. London: Gay and Bird, 27 King William St., West Strand, 1893.
Bush, Rev. Joseph. ‘Courtship and Marriage: A Lecture.’ Published by Request. London: John Mason and York: Lawson and Groves, 1860.
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2006
Davidoff, Lenore and Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1750-1850, London: Routledge, 1987.
Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen. London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1894.
Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Birth to Deathbed. London: Harper Perennial, 2004.
Is Marriage A Failure? With Apologies to Mrs. Mona Caird. A Series of Sketches in “Mona”— Tint by Ernest G. Reynolds and Some Rhymes NOT Without Reason Specially Written by Samuel K. Cowan M.A. London: Angus Thomas, 1889.
Levine, Philippa. ‘“So Few Prizes and So Many Blanks”: Marriage and Feminism in Later Nineteenth-Century England,’ Journal of British Studies. Vol.28, No.2 (April 1989), 150-174.
Mill, Sydney. New Light on Love, Courtship and Marriage. Belfast: Belfast Publishing Co., 110 Royal Avenue, 1894.
Smythies, Harriet Maria Gordon. The Marrying Man, A Novel. London: T.C. Newby, 72 Mortimer Street, 1841.
Tit-Bits Magazine (1893)
Trollope, Anthony. Can You Forgive Her? London: Penguin Books, 2004 (1864).
Wheeler, Maud. Whom to Marry or All About Love and Matrimony. London: The Roxburghe Press, 1894.
(Top) Off. Edmund Blair Leighton, 1889. Manchester Art Gallery.
(Center) Cover of The Marrying Man, 1841. Photo courtesy of Maggie Kalenak.
(Bottom) A vinegar valentine. Photo courtesy of Maggie Kalenak.