Once upon a time, marriage was, particularly for women, #goals. The quest for a husband was always the end game, and the search for a suitable candidate for matrimony has obsessed families for centuries, even informing the plot of many a novel across all cultures, among them Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, and of more recent vintage, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
Since women back in the day were regarded as nothing more than breeding machines, they were thus not in need of formal education, which consequently meant that they had very little by way of employable skills. Therefore, it became of paramount importance to marry a woman off sooner rather than later in order to secure her economic future.
Men, especially men with a respectable amount of money, were in need of a suitable wife to run the household and produce heirs.
As the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice declares: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Sometimes it was the woman who was in possession of a good fortune or a sizable dowry, which then made her eminently more marriageable. How many American fortunes, for instance, have spared crumbling stately homes across Britain from ruin during the epoch that became known as The Gilded Age?
The recently concluded upstairs-downstairs TV series Downton Abbey, which immortalized the saga of the Earl of Grantham’s family and the household staff that served it, no doubt in creating Cora Crawley took its cue from the many American heiresses who banked on their fortunes to land them the ultimate social cachet: a title, courtesy of marriage to a British aristocrat.
That was how a Vanderbilt became a duchess.
It was Vanderbilt money, via the beautiful Consuelo Vanderbilt who in 1895 married Charles Spencer-Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough, that allowed Blenheim Palace to be maintained in splendor for the foreseeable future. Engineered by Consuelo’s socially ambitious mother, Alva, it was a match made in stock market and society heaven: The duke reportedly received a marriage settlement $2.5 million in railroad stock. Maritally speaking, however, the two were doomed to a loveless union as each was in love with someone else at the time of their marriage.
Consuelo herself wrote:
“I spent the morning of my wedding day in tears and alone; no one came near me. A footman had been posted at the door of my apartment and not even my governess was admitted. Like an automaton I donned the lovely lingerie with its real lace and the white silk stockings and shoes… I felt cold and numb as I went down to meet my father and the bridesmaids who were waiting for me.”
The Duchess of Marlborough wasn’t the first bride to realize that marriage, especially the transactional, strategic kind, as most marriages were at the time, was not the fairy tale it was hyped up to be. The concept of marrying for romantic love, not security, gradually took hold in the Western world from the Age of Enlightenment onwards.
Generations of women have since been raised on a diet of Disneyfied happy endings, with misty-eyed girls dreaming of the moment they would walk down the aisle in their magnificent white lace bridal gowns with the long trains, the six-foot tall tiered wedding cakes, the exquisite bouquets of white roses or orchids or gardenias, and their handsome princes waiting at the aisle to whisk them away to their own happily ever afters.
Yet none of these fairy tales we grew up with ever depict what happens after the vows are exchanged, fostering the fantasy that marriage to the handsome prince is the culmination of a woman’s life, and everything will be perfect from then on for he has rescued you from a life of spinsterhood, emptiness, and almost certain boredom and desperation. It’s Prince Charming as the ultimate rescue remedy: Now your life is complete because—to borrow from Jerry Maguire—he completes you.
Your handsome prince may end up beating or boring you to death, he may seriously be a disaster in bed, and he may not even be your intellectual equal, but hey, you did it, you got married, you matter, because, #goals. (See: Amy Schumer’s Princess Amy sketch.)
Belatedly, Disney has come to realize how the dangerous and insidious vapidity their movies, based on frothy fairy tales of yore, have distorted the notions of love, marriage, self-worth, and personal agency, most acutely for young girls everywhere who were taught that their value as marriageable commodities was tied to their virginity.
Newer Disney offerings, thankfully, portray much stronger women—princesses, even—who don’t need men to “complete” them. Elsa, is that you? I hope it is not too much to hope that these depictions of stronger, more confident, more-self-reliant women who make life choices on their own terms seep into the consciousness of impressionable young girls—and boys—in the generations to come.
In the short story “Phyllis and Rosamond” from Memoirs of a Novelist by Virginia Woolf, Phyllis says to her sister,“Father asked me yesterday what I could do if I didn’t marry. I had nothing to say.”
To which Rosamond answers, “No, we were educated for marriage.”
This was in 1917.
I would like to think that almost a century later, women are educated to think for themselves and decide their own futures.
It seems, nevertheless, that outdated notions are difficult to overcome. Upon learning that my daughter was studying Mathematics at university, an aunt shook her head and remarked ruefully, “It’s a good thing she’s beautiful, otherwise no man will marry her.”
Fortunately for my daughter, whether she chooses to marry or not, she knows there’s more to life than merely putting a ring on it.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published earlier this year by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
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Art by Dorothy Guya