The third major theme underlying all eighteenth-century discussions of seduction was anxiety about the state of modern marriage. The problem seemed to be that, nowadays, people married only for money, or not at all. Propertied men disdained wedlock because it had become so easy to ‘indulge themselves in an illicit intercourse’. Worse still, they abused the rituals of courtship in order to seduce women: sleep­ing with them under promise of marriage but then abandoning them. When men and women did marry, for the wrong, mercenary reasons, it led to ill-matched couples, unhappy unions, and adultery.1

These basic themes had first been explored at length in seventeenth- century fiction, poetry and drama. Francis Bacon’s utopian fable, New Atlantis (1627), laments the decline of matrimony:

when men have at hand a remedy more agreeable to their corrupt will, mar­riage is almost expulsed. And therefore there are with you seen infinite men that marry not, but choose rather a libertine and impure single life, than to be yoked in marriage. . . And when they do marry, what is marriage to them but a very bargain; wherein is sought alliance, or portion, or reputation. . . and not the faithful nuptial union of man and wife, that was first instituted.

Or, as Samuel Butler put it a few decades later,

For matrimony’s but a bargain made To serve the turns of interest and trade;

Not out of love or kindness, but designs,

To settle land and tenements like fines.

Tragic plays often explored the unhappy consequences of young people forced into loveless marriage. In comedy, likewise, the contrast between spontaneous love and contrived wedlock was a popular theme.2 As many scholars have pointed out, however, this was only ever a limited critique. It simultaneously celebrated the ideal of happy, affectionate marriage, and its force was restrained by the evident arti­ficiality of theatrical plots and settings.

It was only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, as part of the more general moral panic about the state of the nation, that the apparent degeneration of marriage came to be a topic of serious pub­lic discussion. Most early commentators presumed it was a recent development, but pretty soon its prevalence became a stock trope amongst social analysts. The Tatler, the Guardian, and the Spectator all decried it. In 1727, Daniel Defoe coined the phrase ‘legal prostitu­tion’, which became a popular and enduring shorthand for the evils of loveless, arranged marriages.3

It was also a favourite theme of many early feminists. Most men took wives only for money, complained Mary Astell, a life-long spin­ster; like slaves, women were ‘sold. . . into mercenary hands’ and tyrannized by their husbands. One of Astell’s readers, Sarah Cowper, who as the rich, orphaned, daughter of a merchant had found herself trapped in marriage to an ambitious baronet, recorded bitterly in her diary that she had ‘all my days lived a slave’. When her husband finally died in 1706, she reminded herself henceforth to ‘lead your life in free­dom and liberty, and throw not your self into slavery’. Such was the lust and calculating avarice of modern man, protested Sarah Fyge (soon herself to be forced into a loveless union), that even were ‘poly­gamy allow’d’,

Yet all his wives would surely be abhorr’d,

And some common Lais [i. e. whore] be ador’d.

Most mortally the name of wife they hate,

Yet they will take one as their proper fate,

That they may have a child legitimate,

To be their heir, if they have an estate,

Or else to bear their names: so, for by ends,

They take a wife, and satisfy their friends,

Who are desirous that it should be so,

And for that end, perhaps, estates bestow;

Which, when possess’d is spent another way;

The spurious issue do the right betray,

And with their mother-strumpets are maintain’d;

The wife and children by neglect disdain’d,

Wretched and poor unto their friends return,

Having got nothing, unless cause to mourn.4

By the middle of the eighteenth century it had become a standard subject of fiction and serious writing alike that marrying for money was a ubiquitous problem amongst the propertied classes, the root cause of endless unhappiness, seduction, prostitution, adultery, and immorality. All the leading artists and writers of the period proceed from this premise. The perversity of the marriage market was one of Richardson’s main targets. In Clarissa, even Lovelace’s evil character is blamed on it. It was only when the woman he had wanted to marry jilted him for ‘a coronet’ (i. e., an aristocrat) that he had turned bad, vowing to revenge himself ‘upon as many of the sex as shall come into my power’.5 Hogarth’s series Marriage a la Mode (1745) brilliantly illustrated the same subject. In the first scene we meet the pro­tagonists – the fatuous spendthrift earl, desperate for money; his degenerate son, already poxed from too much whoring; the rich, boorish middle-class Alderman, trading his unwilling daughter for status; and the girl herself, forced by this unnatural marriage into shameful adultery. By the end, her lover has been executed for mur­dering her husband, the miserable wife has poisoned herself, and her miserly, stone-hearted father strips her dying body of its jewels. The only innocent party, her newborn baby, is already crippled and diseased from inherited syphilis – symbolizing not just the fatal unhealthiness of its parents but the dangerous moral and physical corruption of the entire ruling class (see plates 6 and 7).

Why did mercenary marriage become such a fixation? The most basic reason was the increasingly sharp sense that matrimony was not a timeless, God-given institution but merely a fragile human inven­tion. Until the Reformation, it had been a divine sacrament. By the later eighteenth century, however, it had become firmly established that the laws of marriage were merely customary and changeable: as a result, marital trends came to be scrutinized anxiously for signs of social malaise. As Dr Johnson, that great modern conservative, put it, wedlock was a wholly artificial yet socially indispensable construct, which needed all the help it could get from laws and conventions:

it is so far from being natural for a man and woman to live in a state of mar­riage, that we find all the motives which they have for remaining in that con­nection, and the restraints which civilized society imposes to prevent separation, are hardly sufficient to keep them together.6

There were also various more specific reasons for the growing obsession. One was that the advance of male liberty led to a real increase in fornication and seduction under promise of marriage. As Joseph Priestley put it in 1778, ‘the number of women who are debauched by those who really intend to marry them at the time, is small in comparison with those who are seduced by persons who had no such intention’. We can measure this, crudely but unmistakably, in the numbers of children conceived out of wedlock. During the seven­teenth century this figure had been extremely low: by 1650 only about 1 per cent of all births were illegitimate. Thereafter it increased stead­ily, to unprecedented levels. By 1800, about a quarter of all women who gave birth for the first time were unmarried. How many of these were the victims of calculated seduction, rather than a genuine court­ship that foundered, we shall never know (and in any case the distinction is obviously not a clear-cut one). Yet very many of these women had certainly had sex in the expectation of marriage. This was evidently a general trend: by 1800, almost 40 per cent of women who did marry were also already pregnant.7

In eighteenth-century London, the proportion of illegitimate births (and hence, we may presume, the incidence of seduction) had grown to be much higher than in the rest of the country. The few statistics we have suggest that, if anything, middling and upper-class bachelors were over-represented amongst those who impregnated and then abandoned plebeian single women. Their stories are echoed in Moll Flanders’s account of how her mistress’s son tricked her into having sex by acting ‘as if there was no such thing as any kind of love but that which tended to matrimony’, and assuring her ‘that he resolv’d to marry me as soon as he came into his estate; that in the mean time, if I would grant his request, he would maintain me very honourably; and made me a thousand protestations of his sincerity and of his affection to me; and that he would never abandon me’. Only later does she realize ‘that he had never spoken a word of having me for a wife after he had conquer’d me for a mistress’.8

Libertines in high society used the same approach. It was, for instance, the tactic of Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, when pursuing the attractive young widow Mary Pendarves in the later 1720s. For several years he courted her, whilst secretly sleeping with other women. Finally, he moved in for the kill, declaring his love openly and pretending that sex was a necessary prelude to a happy marriage. ‘Our conversation,’ Mary recalled later,

began with common talk of news. Some marriage was named, and we both observed how little probability of happiness there was in most of the fashion­able matches where interest and not inclination was consulted. At last he said he was determined never to marry, unless he was well assured of the affection of the person he married. My reply was, ‘can you have stronger proof (if the person is at her own disposal) than her consenting to marry you?’ He replied that was not sufficient.

The implication was obvious. (When she demurred, he walked out, leaving her broken-hearted.) So notorious was this snare by mid­century that Lady Bradshaigh thought it inexcusable for any sensible girl to be ‘tempted by such an old bait as a promise of marriage’.9

Another reason for the mounting concern over mercenary unions was the growth of the marriage market. Matrimony had always been a matter of prudential calculation. The greater a family’s estate, the more pressing their concern over its preservation, and the more likely that suitable matches would be carefully arranged by the parents and kin, rather than the children themselves. At all levels of propertied society, negotiations over money (dowries, portions, marital property, and inheritance) were a standard part of the making of marriage. 1 0 The theme was already being satirized on the Elizabethan stage. But these material considerations became still more prominent in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

For a start, the period saw a real demographic shortage of eligible elite men, and a sharp increase in the number of upper-class sons marry­ing rich bourgeois daughters. In addition, matchmaking increasingly took place in larger and more public forums. Across the country, the growth of provincial towns and resorts during this period was closely linked, as one observer put it in 1732, to their providing opportunities for ladies ‘to show themselves and make their market’. The competi­tion for wealthy partners thus became much more visible. The effect was further magnified by the rise of newspapers and other media, which not only avidly reported on the business of marriage, but themselves became part of the process. By the 1740s, the location and availability of rich heiresses was so well publicized that one enterpris­ing fortune-hunter was able to fill thirty-two densely printed pages with all the relevant details (names, addresses, stock-market holdings, and reputed wealth) of the latest crop of well-endowed single women (see illustration 7). Finally, partly no doubt in response to these social developments, the upper classes collectively tightened patriarchal control over marriage, in ways that underscored its economic purpose. A series of late seventeenth-century statutes and legal changes weakened the property-rights of wives and children; whilst the 1753 Marriage Act greatly restricted the freedom of young people to marry without the proper oversight and consent of their families. Secret (or ‘clandestine’) marriages, which had become hugely popular in the decades since 1660, were outlawed; all weddings had to take place in the couple’s parish and be publicly announced in advance; and no man or woman under twenty-one could marry if a parent objected. Any clergyman who ignored the new law was to be treated as a felon, and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation to America (one or two did, and were).11

Contemporary awareness of these trends fed into a more general unease about the growing commercialization of society. It was further sharpened by the rise of the opposite ideal: that marriage should pri­marily be a free contract between individuals, based on personal affection. The growing appeal of this ideology was the third reason for the mounting criticism of mercenary marriages. The principle of mutual attraction had deep roots in medieval and Renaissance cul­ture, and it was never as diametrically opposed to prudential considerations as contemporary rhetoric sometimes suggested. None­theless, its authority was boosted at this time by exactly the same intellectual currents that advanced the principle of sexual freedom: the elevation of private conscience, the ideals of personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the presumption that, in all spheres of life, natural instincts should trump artificial customs and prudential considerations. It gained further traction from the growing visibility of female perspectives on courtship and fidelity, for critics of arranged marriage especially decried its unfairness to women.

Nowadays we take for granted that romantic attraction and indi­vidual choice should be the foundation of marriage: it is one of the distinguishing features of western society. Yet the pre-eminence of this principle is a comparatively recent development. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries its political and legal strength amongst the propertied classes was still very limited. The 1753 Marriage Act dir­ectly contradicted it – by trying to make it impossible for the young and infatuated to marry against the wishes of their elders, it ranked individual happiness firmly below the material interests of the patri­archal family. As the historian David Lemmings has beautifully shown, even those parliamentarians who appealed to the ideology of love and affection in opposing the legislation were only cynically adopting its rhetoric. In fact, they were ‘fortune-hunters, who wanted only to keep the marriage-market open for fellow spirits’: rich

An А ССОІШ. Т Oftbrir Platts pf Abode, Reputed Fortum*
and Fortunes ihcy pofllfs in die – STOCKS#





О R,




An exa& Alphabetical List of the

Ladies by Curtefie, Daugh­ters of Peers. °

Baronets Widows.

Widows, and Spinfters in Grcat-Britain. WITH



~ took – hit ‘Stand Upon a JVidvw’s jointure JLand.


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Printed for ]. Roie kts in ITamulUnl.


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7. A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury: the single man’s guide to the
upper echelons of the marriage market in 1742.




1—1 О




Places of Abode.



In the Stocks.


Coulthurft –

Bafinghall-ftreet –


Clark –

York-buildings –


1000 E. f.

Chowne –

Forfter-lane –


Dc Cartro –

Beavers Mark –


1000 E. Г.

Cholmlcy –

Theobalds, Hertford fh.


1000 E. I.

Clayton –

Brook-ft reet –


Cotefworth –

Conduit-llrcet –


1000 E. T. 1000 B.

Cotcl worth –

Hexa m, N orthumberl.


1000 E. I. 1000 B.

Chock –

Villars-ftreet –


1000 E. I.

Craile –

Pall-mall –


Cudworth –

Cccil-ftrect –


1000 E. I.

Crofs –

Mill-bank –


Cutler 2 –

– – –

10,000 Each

1000 B. Each

Carpue –

Haymarkct –


Cox 2 –

. – –

10,000 Each

1000 B. Each

Cox Jenny –

Princes-ftrt. Stocks-Mt.


Clerk –

Kcnfington –


Cooke г –

10,000 Each

1000 B. Each

Craggs –

Bond-ftrcct – –


Coulfton –


1000 B.

Cornwallis – ‘

Sackvile-ftrect –


Cater –


1000 B.

Cotton 3 –

Dover-ftreet –

10,(XX) Each

Carey –

– – –


1000 B.

Cock –

— –


1000 B.

Collins –



1000 B.

Clofc –



1000 B,

Calamy 3 –

– – – –

8,000 Each

1000 B. Each

Carpenter –

High gate.


Dixon –

Hackney –


1000 B. 1000 E. I. 1000 S. S.

Drake –



Decker –

St. James’s-lquarc


1000 E. F.

Dives –

St. James’s –


Decker 3 –

Golden-fquare –

15,000 Each

Davis –

St. Alban s-ftrcct –


Dickens 3

Golden-fquare –

10,000 Each

Dcrham –

Drayton, Middlcfcx


1000 E. Г.



heiresses, they felt, should be fair game for everyone. Yet the attitude was certainly gaining in cultural prominence. Its appeal helps to explain the enormous upsurge in clandestine marriages that occurred in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Its tenets became ubiquitous not just in prescriptive literature, but also in the minds of fashionable men and women. Many upper-class women, especially, appear to have internalized them, even as they navigated unions arranged for profit. All this explains why, by the 1750s, the distinction between marriage for love and for money had become so widely debated.12

Mercenary marriage was therefore a fascinating topic because it illuminated the tensions between passion and prudence, male and female interests, genuine courtship and cynical seduction. Moreover, for most observers its significance went far beyond the motives of the couple themselves. The perversion of marriage also raised deeper, more troubling questions about social order and deference.

As early as 1701, the writer and diplomat Sir William Temple had lamented that mercenary ‘marriages contracted without affection, choice, or inclination’ were leading to the physical and moral degen­eration of the aristocracy and gentry. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was a commonplace of social observation that the upper ranks married less than other classes, and with less success, and that their stock was commensurately deteriorating. To many radicals and feminists this phenomenon epitomized the essential corruption of the ruling elite. Aristocrats had become hopelessly inbred, complained one opponent of the 1753 Marriage Act, and by making cross-class marriages less easy (as greater parental control would doubtless do) the new law would only worsen the problem: ‘Will you confine the great people to marry merely among one another and prevent them from getting a little wholesome blood which they so much want? Will you marry disease to distemper?’ ‘The meaner sort and poor’, observed a demographer around the same time, were generally more fertile, and ‘their children are generally the most vigorous, healthy, hearty, long-lived, liable to the fewest hereditary diseases, and fit to bear the greatest fatigues’. Yet obviously their morals could not be trusted either. Ultimately, as a newspaper correspondent complained in 1752, the problem affected both ends of the social scale:

In low life, people often intermarry with no other view or regard, than the sensual gratification of a present appetite: the copulation of the mob is no better than legal or ecclesiastical fornication. . . In high life, marriage is a mere trade, a bargain and sale, where both parties endeavour to cheat one another.13

Across society, it was feared, lust and avarice were destroying the marital and social fabric.

The final key issue was the balance of authority between parents (especially fathers) and their children (especially daughters). Evidently young couples were often cajoled into marriage by their parents, for the sake of money. This created a moral and social conundrum. So ingrained was the presumption of paternal wisdom and supremacy, so obvious its importance to the stability of families and, by extension, the order of society, that it was difficult to argue that any particular child, let alone all children, had the right to defy a father’s express wishes. All the same, what were the proper limits of parental control? What if the parents were so misguided as to insist on an unhappy, mercenary match?

These questions were the more pressing from the later seventeenth century onwards because they had obvious political implications. Monarchy was after all a system of government based on patriarchal principles: but in the 1640s and 1650s it had been attacked and destroyed, and after 1688 it was increasingly modified by new, con­tractual ideas. As a result, analogies between royal, paternal, and husbandly authority were frequently drawn. This was part of the intellectual background to all debates about marriage. In various ways, therefore, the apparent growth of parental tyranny and avarice could be seen as a quintessential feature of the modern condition, and as the ultimate cause of other serious social evils: the mis-education of children, seduction, adultery, and marital misery. This was one of the central themes of Clarissa, and it resonated widely. ‘Are not such par­ents answerable for any misconduct in the child they have cruelly distressed?’ asked one of the novel’s readers, musing on the heroine’s real-life counterparts. ‘I charge all woeful consequences to their account. They are more wicked, infinitely worse, than a Lovelace.’14 It was a classic Enlightenment perspective. Once again, the explanation

lay not primarily in personal wickedness or frailty, but in a structural social problem: the corruption of parental authority.