Unhappy Marriage in the 18th Century 

Image result for marriage of convenience orchardson
William Orchardson, Marriage of Convenience (1884)

In the mid-18th century, a tragic tale of arranged marriage was told – a couple whose marriage was arranged by economic agreement ended tumultuously in misery, adultery, and ultimately – death. Earl Squanderfield, a man with a respectable title, but no fortune – as indicated by his name- tries to remedy this financially dour situation for his son through a beneficial marriage. Meetings with the wealthy local Alderman prove fruitful. His daughter is coming of age, and a union of their two children would raise the station of the daughter to, eventually, a countess – and allow the Earl’s family to once again, reap the benefits of financial wealth. However, trouble is already arising as even before the marriage is complete, the Alderman’s daughter is being distracted by the silver-tongued lawyer.

The marriage is completed, and foreshadowed problems come to fruition. The husband and wife live separate lives. The Viscount spends his evenings in the company of prostitutes and liquor – returning home in a state of exhaustion, with remnants of his nightly ‘escapades’ still on his person. The lady is un-phased by his behaviour, as she too spends her nights in pleasure-seeking activities. One morning, upon the Viscount’s return from his evening ‘dalliances’ he finds his wife in a state of surreal bliss and the home in chaos – a mess of cards indicates she may have been holding a card party. Knocked over furniture indicates the possibility of a hurried exit…is she too taking on a lover? A painting over their fireplace of cupid sitting in ancient ruins foreshadows the future of their disastrous marriage…

The Viscount himself begins to reap the consequences of his nightly pleasures. He contracts Syphilis, and goes to the doctor, mistress in hand, to find a remedy for his venereal disease. No reprieve is given, however, as the prescribed potions fail to work. The doctor’s office contains an ominous skull on the table – once again foreshadowing the ruinous fate of the characters involved in this story.

Things seem to be going well for the wife. Her husband’s father has died, and he has now taken on the title of Earl – making her the Countess. At a social event celebrating her and her husband’s new titles, the lawyer, Silvertongue, makes another appearance. He invites her to join him at an upcoming masquerade. Delighted, she accepts his offer. While Silvertongue persuades his date, paintings above him show biblical scenes – a foreshadow of the consequences of his seduction?

The Countess and Silvertongue attend the masquerade, fully costumed, and take joy in each other’s company – in a manner which exceeds that of platonic friends. They head together to a bagnio – an 18th century coffee house which contains rooms which can be hired discretely. No questions are asked by the proprietor. Their adulterous fantasies await them in the privacy of one of the rooms.

However, their pleasure is interrupted by the Countess’s husband, the Earl! In a fit of rage, the Earl challenges his wife’s lover to a duel, which he loses. As he dies from a wound inflicted by Silvertongue, his wife pleads for forgiveness. Her pleas fall on deaf ears, as the Earl passes away. The room contains a tapestry of the ‘Judgment of Solomon’ who also took advantage of a married woman. Silvertongue’s days are numbered.

The story ends in more tragedy. Silvertongue is hanged for the murder of the Earl – blamed for his role in the duel, since his adultery was its cause. The Countess, overwhelmed by grief of the news of her lover, takes poison. She dies with her child in her arms – a child showing symptoms of Syphilis.

This tragic tale is told through a series of six paintings by William Hogarth titled ‘Marriage a la mode’.

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This series presents a moralising series in a satirical tone – though not too far removed from reality. Henry fielding, in the preface to his novel Joseph Andrews designates Hogarth’s work as strictly ‘caricaturas’ (caricature). He argues that it is exaggerative in its nature, not intending to be a true representation of reality.

“Let us examine the works of a comic history-painter, with those performances which the Italians call caricature…in the caricatura we allow all license. Its aim is to exhibit monsters, not men; and all distortions and exaggerations whatever are within its proper province.”[1]

However, Hogarth disagreed with this assertion, believing his work was ‘character’ in nature, not ‘caricature’ since his pieces depicted true, though fictitious, characters.[2]

Indeed, while Hogarth emphasised that this particular series was not meant to reflect any particular person in contemporary life, it would not have been unfathomable to 18th century men and women. At the beginning of the 18th century, most marriages among the wealthy (aristocracy, middle-classes) were arranged by the parents and were motivated by creating alliances, money, and titles.

Conduct writers sought to push against this trend, offering young people the option to decline their parents’ choice for marriage, instead of casting themselves into an unhappy marriage. Minister William Fleetwood argued against this habit in his manual The Duties of Parents and Children, Husbands and Wives, Masters and Servants (1722):

Marriage is certainly a State and Condition, upon which the Happiness or Misery of Life does very much depend; more than indeed most People think upon beforehand. To be confined to live with one perpetually, of whom we have no Liking and Esteem, must certainly be a most uneasy State…a man or woman runs the most fearful hazard that can be, who married without this affection in themselves, and without good assurance of it in the other. And since it is impossible for anyone to love with another’s affections, but with their own, the parents must consider this especially, how they engage their children to marry…If there be any reason, that young people should be left in anything to themselves, and to their own liberty, it seems to be in the choice of those, with whom they are to live and die; with whom they are to venture being happy or unhappy all their days.[3]

Fleetwood argued that marriage was a life-long commitment; therefore, it is crucial to allow young people the liberty to choose their spouse if they want any chance in happiness. Mary Montagu, an 18th century bride-to-be offers commentary on her upcoming arranged marriage in a letter she wrote, when she compares her marital fate to eternal damnation:

“The apparent impossibility of dear Paradice often makes me resolve to plunge to Hell and lose the Thought for ever.”[4]

However, on the other side of the spectrum were unhappy marriages which relied too heavily on romantic ideals. These ideals focused exclusively on finding a spouse who ignited flames of passion, fuelled, perhaps, by the rising popularity of romantic novels. Indeed, some attributed much unhappiness to novels, believing that the readers (usually women) acquired unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of marriage. (To find more about the effects of ‘novel reading’ read this previous blog post).

One example of this effect may have been found in Mary Bowes, whose life demonstrated the more extreme consequences which may have been found through idealising a romantic marriage. Her first husband, a marriage which she rushed into, was unhappy and distant, and her second – a whirlwind passionate romance – was defined by torrential abuse.[5]

Thus, marriage did define misery for many – some due to their parents arranging marriages which they saw as beneficial for their family line, even though they were undesired by one or both participants. For others, these unhappy marriages were bound up in unrealistic idealisations, fuelled by rising expectations of romance and companionship. For both of these groups – an unhappy marriage could equal lifelong misery; getting married was easy, getting divorce was almost impossible.

 Further reading:

Retford, Kate: The Art of Domestic Life

Moore, Wendy: ‘Love and Marriage in 18th Century Britain’ in Historically Speaking, June 2009

Gowing, Lawrence: Hogarth

Bindman, David: Hogarth

‘Marriage a la Mode’: National Gallery, London

‘Marriage a la Mode’: Tate Gallery, London

[1] Fielding, H. (1989). Joseph Andrews. Toronto: Coles.

[2] Sheila O’Connell. “Hogarth, William.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 3, 2017,

[3] Fleetwood (1722). The Relative Duties of Parents and Children, Husbands and Wives, Masters and Servants.

[4] Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Philippa Mundy, April 1712 in Robert Halsband ed, The Complete Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu (Oxford University Press), p. 122

[5] Mary Eleanor Bowes, Confessions of the Countess of Strathmore London, p. 179

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