Courtship in the Eighteenth Century

Dr Sally Holloway, Oxford Brookes University

 

In 2012 I came across a bundle of courtship letters in the Centre for Kentish Studies in Maidstone (now kept at the Kent History and Library Centre), exchanged by Elizabeth Jeffreys (c. 1724–79) and her suitor Charles Pratt (1714–94). In 1748, Elizabeth wrote to Charles describing the intensity of her feelings for him. She rhapsodised how:

My Love ingross’s all my time & thoughts I take no pleasures in anything, but thinking on you & hearing from you, writing I esteem one now tho it was formerly my aversion, but as you tell me it gives you pleasure, it becomes the same to me. I only wish I had a more fruitfull Brain to vary (as you do) my expressions, in giving you Proofs how much I love you.

 Her fiancé was equally enamoured, musing the following year:

I have found Love, Ever since I knew any thing of it, to be ye most mysterious Passion of ye Mind, & almost perpetually clashing (pardon me for this blasphemy) with reason…This love is ye bond of all society, & production of all ye Good in this World.

Charles was the third son of Lord Chief Justice Sir John Pratt, and had recently been admitted to Middle Temple himself. His fiancée Elizabeth was the daughter of the gentleman Nicholas Jeffreys, and heiress of Brecon Priory in Wales. It proved a prudent match for them both, with Charles later rising to Earl Camden. Nonetheless, it was the experience of love that they used to give structure and meaning to their relationship, as they anticipated – and advanced towards – the altar.

My new book explores how love was understood, valued, managed, and enacted by couples engaging in courtship in Georgian England. It asks, how did couples conceptualise and convey their emotions? How did they negotiate this potentially fraught period in the life cycle? How did they construct and deconstruct their relationships in words and objects? And what can this tell us about the meanings of love and marriage in Georgian England?

The book is centred around sixty courtships between a wide range of men and women, from servants to wheelwrights, lawyers to gentleman’s daughters. Evidence of these relationships has been preserved in thirty archives and museum collections, in letters, diaries, memoirs, poems, periodicals, newspaper reports, and court cases. Further important evidence comes from objects such as garters, gloves, locks of hair, miniature portraits, rings, snuffboxes and valentine cards. The book uses this evidence to explore how courting practices actively cultivated particular feelings, and the distinct languages and rituals that couples used when falling in and out of love.

Elizabeth and Charles developed their intimacy between 1745 and 1749 through the continual exchange of love letters, of which around sixty have survived. These missives provided a direct way to create an emotional attachment whilst Charles travelled around the country on the court circuit, helping to form and secure their romantic bond. In their letters, the couple discussed their daily routines, their health, disposition, and hope to find happiness in matrimony. Courtship letters were commonly shared among friends and family members, with Elizabeth reading sections of Charles’ letters to her aunt, who professed herself extremely pleased with his style of writing. Letters possessed further significance as material proof of a serious relationship, and if needed could be produced as legal evidence of breach of promise in the common law courts.

Love was distinguished by a number of physical symptoms, with Elizabeth describing her physical weakness, low spirits, unease, anxiety, and continual stream of tears. In response to Elizabeth’s incessant weeping, her sister quipped that ‘she wou’d not be in Love for the world, for she shou’d be affraid of Losing the Lustre of her Eyes by parting with so much water out of them’. Her experience of love was shaped by prevailing ideas about the nerves, the female body, the physical impact of strong passions, the cult of sensibility, and the nature of marriage as an affective union. Elizabeth embraced her suffering as clear proof of her love, noting with satisfaction that ‘I am, as every body observes grown very Grave’. Charles too described his grief at their separation, hoping that it would redouble their joy when they were reunited, and provide the foundation for their future happiness.

The couple also navigated their courtship through gifts, which provided an essential way of processing their emotions, and cementing their romantic bond. Charles sent a ‘prodigiously Fat & fine’ cut of venison for Elizabeth’s family to enjoy, while she reciprocated with some ruffles for him to wear to work at the assizes. In the months leading up to their wedding on 4 October 1749, they set about purchasing shirts, gowns, glassware and linen for the marital home, plus larger symbolic items such as the marital bed. Just like love letters, these objects had the power to symbolise a promised marriage, should a relationship end up in court.

The Game of Love in Georgian England explores how we do love in practice, whether writing a love letter, persistently weeping, exchanging gifts, or setting up home. By studying how individuals navigated their relationships through particular culturally and historically specific languages, objects, and embodied rituals, we can gain a more complete picture of the emotional experience of courtship, and the affective meanings of marriage in the past.

 

The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions,  and Material Culture
will be launched at the IHR in London on Wednesday 22 May 2019

Read about more new books here

 

About the Author: Dr Sally Holloway is Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in History & History of Art at Oxford Brookes University. With Stephanie Downes and Sarah Randles, she is the co-editor of Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions through History (Oxford University Press, 2018) and author of The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions, and Material Culture (Oxford University Press, 2019) .

 

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