By Jennifer Phegley
|Mrs. Punch: “A man ought to be punished for writing such idiotic love-letters.”
Mr. Punch: “Logical as ever, my adored . . . but it is in the fitness of things that a love letter should be idiotic. Love is a brief (very brief) madness.”
“On Love Letters.” Punch (December 11, 1869): 236.
As Mr. and Mrs. Punch’s conversation indicates, love letters were a central part of courtship that could easily go awry. In this scene, Mr. and Mrs. Punch are discussing love letters that were exposed publicly in court during a breach of promise lawsuit. In order to prove that her suitor had reneged on his commitment to marry her, a woman exposes his embarrassingly effusive letters, which are then reprinted in the newspaper for the perusal of the public. The fear that intimate letters might be seen by unintended eyes led some to follow the dictates of popular love-letter writing manuals intended to help one write the least embarrassing epistle possible. Others advised against writing love letters at all. With so much anxiety about revealing private thoughts in public, it is perhaps surprising that some Victorians embraced an extremely public form of courtship that relied on the press: the matrimonial advertisement. Perhaps this was just another “brief (very brief) madness,” but it is certainly one with which we are familiar today.
Online dating websites are a ubiquitous part of our love lives, whether we are seeking to marry or have a more casual relationship. The religiously-oriented eHarmony claims to have the highest marriage rate of all the matchmaking sites. eHarmony invites visitors to take the “Patented Compatibility Matching System” inventory in order to generate a customized list of appropriate partners, and to write a personal profile their “matches” will read before deciding whether or not they want to start an email correspondence or arrange a meeting. Similar dating forums such as Match.com, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid are less focused on the immediate goal of marriage and more geared toward uniting romantic partners for short-term amusement or long-term relationships that may not include marriage. Regardless of the mission, online dating sites are surging in popularity among a generation of singles who have devoted their twenties and thirties to the establishment of their careers or who have been divorced and are seeking new partners in later life. While the online dating phenomenon seems to be a wholly original invention of the computer age, its roots are firmly planted in the nineteenth-century periodical press.
“Notices to Correspondents” sections of periodicals, devoted to answering reader’s questions about everything from medical ailments to love problems, began appearing in penny magazines aimed at men and women of the working and lower middle classes during the 1840s and 1850s. Matrimonial advertisements organically grew out of these “Notices to Correspondents” sections, particularly in the London Journal, and seem to have been driven primarily by reader demand. Correspondents began to write about their personal traits and desired qualities in a spouse, asking the editors to print their profiles or to match them up with others whose letters had appeared in the magazine. In 1850, only a handful of matrimonial advertisements appeared in each issue of the London Journal, but by the middle of 1852 they had completely taken over the correspondence section. For a brief period from September 1857 to July 1859 editor Mark Lemon removed the ads, causing the magazine’s circulation to plummet and forcing him to resign.[i] The audience thus demanded and received the space to advertise for love.
The broad audience for matrimonial ads is evident from the range of eligible bachelors seeking wives in the London Journal. Advertisers identified themselves as farmers, mechanics, plumbers, engineers, engravers, sailors, merchants, clerks, tradesmen, government officials, military men, clergymen, and even gentlemen “of property” with declared incomes ranging from just shillings a week to £500 per year. Women seeking spouses were more likely to claim large inheritances to entice partners. Some were strikingly honest about the fact that they had little to offer in terms of money. Either way, advertisers were reliant on the editor to put them in contact with their desired match, something that seems not to have happened regularly in the early days. However, public demand shaped the editorial response and by 1867 the London Journal began directing readers to correspond directly with each other through the Weekly Times, its affiliated Sunday paper. In January 1870, a new sub-section of the “Notices to Correspondents” was introduced, called “The Weekly Times.” This column listed people who sought to correspond privately with other advertisers or who would issue more thorough profiles in the Weekly Times. In order to drum up business for the weekend paper, the London Journal added enticing taglines speculating about which advertisers might publish their addresses in the Times for all to see.
Matrimonial advertising spread like wildfire. Matrimonial advertisements were not just a hit among the lower and middling classes. While the middle and upper classes were not seriously reading the London Journal’s notices, they embraced personal advertisements in other venues. By the 1870s matrimonial newspapers had emerged as the primary site for more elite matchmaking in the press. The Matrimonial News (1870-1895) was the most popular newspaper devoted solely to marriage. It made as much as £20 a week for its proprietor during its first two years of publication and its success spurred the development of many short-lived competitors. Any given issue of a matrimonial paper would contain hundreds of personal ads. Spouse hunters could often publish their profiles for free, but were expected to pay the subscription fee to receive the paper as well as a “finder’s fee” upon marriage. Advertisers were identified by number only, but the publisher would hold their names, addresses, and, photographs to be released to admirers with their consent. Whether or not the ads were genuine or successful, of course, remains a mystery. A reviewer at The Examiner was skeptical: “Many of these advertisements are obviously of the kind known in American parlance as ‘Bogus.’ It is, for instance, inconceivable that no fewer than three Members of Parliament should at one and the same time be standing in need of the services of the Editor of the Matrimonial News.”[ii] Matrimonial newspapers were criticized more vehemently than “Notices to Correspondents” columns, because personal ads had now infiltrated middle- and upper- class audiences.
The most common question critics sought to answer was why any respectable person would engage in such abnormal courtship behavior in the first place. As Chambers’s asks in November 1870: “With such evidence of recklessness with which folks will rush into the state that has only two exits, divorce and death, one can hardly wonder at some men being adventurous enough to seek a wife by advertisement—the most risky way imaginable of going about a business risky enough under the best of conditions.” The author speculates that the risk is made acceptable by the promise that “Desperate maidens, bashful bachelors, disconsolate widows, and consolable widowers, need despair no longer; they can now make known their connubial qualities for the small charge of sixpence.”[iii] While the male marriage advertisers are often ridiculed, the women are typically pitied. Yet, as the Illustrated Review notes, if “any young gentleman remains too modest to announce his excellences” in an advertisement, “multitudes of charming young ladies here ask him to marry them; nay contend for the honour of comforting and aiding his desolate existence. ‘Christine,’ ‘Clara,’ ‘Hilda,’ and numbers more are ‘ready to correspond’ (such seems to be the established phrase) with him.” It is interesting that the term “correspond” itself comes to stand in for something potentially more scandalous. The writer goes on to argue that while many of the ads are probably fake and could make a fool of any gentleman who answers them, “the egregious folly of the ladies who enter into correspondence with such advertisers can hardly be too strongly pointed out.”[iv] Women who corresponded with strangers were often seen as self-sacrificial, potentially on their way to becoming fallen women.
Some critics turned their attention to the display of distasteful immodesty and fraudulent self-presentation in matrimonial ads. All The Year Round criticizes female advertisers who are “oblivious to the copy-book maxim about self-praise.” In its study of ads in one issue of a matrimonial newspaper, the magazine counts five women who claim themselves beautiful, eight very handsome, twenty-three handsome, sixteen very pretty, sixteen pretty, fifty-two good-looking, nine nice-looking, twenty nine of good appearance, and eight attractive. Apparently only one poor woman failed in the art of self-promotion. She wrote: “Wanted a husband, by a spinster, aged thirty-eight, without money, and not good-looking. Should this meet the eye of any gentleman wanting a wife, and in a position, and generous enough to take one with these disadvantages, the editors can give address.”[v] These exaggerated examples highlight the press’s insistence on the untrustworthiness of matrimonial advertisements. Indeed, letters that were for a previous generation a proper expression of true feeling become for these journalists a false and potentially dangerous form of self-definition.
Fun magazine featured a series of cartoons parodying the misleading nature of matrimonial advertising, which included self-deception as much as lying to others. In “Matrimonial Advertisements. No. 1,” Araminta Brown—who is “rich, beautiful, and accomplished” but “cannot find a gentleman quite suited to her mind”—receives a promising response from Mr. Bloaterbrain (Figure 2).
However, when they meet for the first time, Bloaterbrain has filled his double-breasted coat with pocket handkerchiefs in order to make his figure more masculine and in line with the “military” type he thinks will appeal to women. Just as he declares his passion for Araminta, his padding slips giving him a pudgy stomach instead of a full chest. Of course, Araminta immediately rejects him for both his false self-presentation and his unattractive figure. In “Matrimonial Advertisements. No. 3,” Miss Aurora Wailboan “writes in frantic desperation to a matrimonial paper.” When she receives a visit from a rather “large-headed young man,” she immediately falls in love, kisses him on the neck, and chases him through the house (Figure 1).
Unfortunately for Aurora, the frightened man turns out to be the piano tuner and not a suitor answering her ad. She has, thus, fallen victim to her own willful self-deception.
These scenarios comically expose some of the serious pitfalls of personal ads that twenty-first-century users of Match.com and other dating websites have certainly experienced. Packaging oneself for the marriage market is still a risky endeavor, though it is a widely accepted one. In the past 150 years, advertising for love has gone from a scandalous—though, for some, attractive—alternative form of courtship to a common—if still slightly embarrassing—way to find a partner.
[i] Andrew King, The London Journal, 1845-83: Periodicals, Production, and Gender (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press, 2004), p. 112, 215.
[ii] ‘Matrimonial Advertisements’, Examiner, (13 November 1875), 1274.
[iii] ‘Matrimony by Advertisement’, Chambers’s Journal, (26 November 1870), 753-754.
[iv] ‘Matrimony Made Easy’, Illustrated Review, (January 1871), 242.
[v] ‘Candidates for Matrimony’, All the Year Round, (26 July 1873), 296.
Jennifer Phegley is Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Praeger Press published her book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England in November 2011.