Love, marriage and filial duty in eighteenth-century England

Reinier Vinkeles: Young couple talking with an old man and a woman, 1798, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Love is a wonderful and powerful thing, at its best a source of life-long happiness that unites people and generations, and at its worst, a source of excruciating pain that can rip them apart. Despite the universal nature of this feeling, love is not without a history. While writing my PhD thesis on the experience of elite girlhood in eighteenth-century England, I have got to know a young girl that had struggled, like we all have I believe, with the mixed expectations of personal happiness and societal and parental demands. What these expectations are, vary in time.

In 1796 18-year-old Elizabeth (Betsey) Wynne met a young naval officer Captain Fremantle. In her diary, she described her sweetheart’s “fiery black eyes” as “quite captivating.” So he was wonderful in looks and character and she wondered if he thought of her as much as she thought of him. The infatuated girl declared: “poor me, I am in great distress for I cannot help confessing I love that man with all my heart.” She could hardly live without him.

The course of love never ran smoothly. Betsey had to part with her beloved Captain for some months and was left uncertain as to his intentions. After all, it was not advisable for a young lady to take the initiative in courtship. Although she had received a ring from him and a wish to find her in his return “just the same as I am now”, the engagement was not formally settled with her parents. Despite her feelings, Betsey acknowledged that his lack of money, a thing that would hopefully be settled with his battle expedition, was a thing that would hinder her parents’ consenting to the match. A man, who could not support his wife, was not a good candidate. To add her misery, an unpleasant rival also appeared on the scene. She was worried that her father would accept a proposal from a man not of her liking.

Disobedience towards parents was not an option for a daughter, if not very easy to a son as well. At least it usually had some serious consequences. Eighteenth-century society was strictly hierarchical and family was the society in miniature. At least in theory, the father of the household had the ultimate power and children were expected to obey their elders. Respect towards parents was the most important duty. It was no wonder then, that Betsey dreaded the prospect of conflict between filial duty and her own feelings.

When Betsey learned of her Captain’s return she was “counting the days hours, and minutes and find that time passes very slowly”. She was still anxious about her parents’ resistance. It seems that Mr. Wynne changed his mind constantly and kept his daughter on the edge. Even her mother told her that she was “not in the least engaged to him, and that the matter is far from being settled.” Even contrary to her own feelings, Betsey was not ready to act against her parents’ wish. Historians have widely argued, whether the eighteenth-century saw the rise of more individual choice in marital issues and the decline of parental authority. As this little snapshot from the very end of the century indicates, love was not the only foundation in forming a satisfactory relationship. In elite families, whether genteel or aristocratic, parental authority may not have been forced upon, but it still had major impact. It was not worth the risk to lose the social connections provided by family ties for romantic passion.

The story had a happy ending. Betsey married her Captain January 12th 1797.

I want to express my gratitude to Professor Elaine Chalus for introducing me to Betsey.

Henna Karppinen-Kummunmäki

FM, doctoral candidate, cultural history, University of Turku

Further reading:

  • Tague, Ingrid H.: Women of Quality. Accepting and contesting ideals of femininity in England, 1690−1760. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge & Rochester 2002.
  • Vickery, Amanda: The Gentleman’s Daughter. Women’s lives in Georgian England. New Haven & London. Yale University Press (1998) 1999.