Courtship and marriage

Note: pages in our 18c Leverhulme study section were originally published on the website in 2010. Links have since been checked and updated.

Courtship, marriage, and the relationship between the sexes

Detail from The Wedding of Stephen Bechingham and Mary Cox (1729) by William Hogarth. Source: Wikipedia

This area of vocabulary is one that might be thought to be of particular interest to women writers, for at least two reasons:

  • the importance of courtship and marriage to women in constructing their family and social identities
  • the fact that courtship and marriage are the characteristic subject matter of novels, i.e. the literary genre in which women most frequently engaged, whether as writers or readers.

EOED’s reading of female-authored texts of the long 18th century has noted a number of examples of vocabulary relating to this subject missed by the OED. These examples often take the form of specialized senses of words which, in certain contexts, have a clear specific application to the relationship between the sexes. In other instances, where a term to do with love or marriage has been successfully identified and illustrated in OED, female writers are not infrequently recorded as first users of the term. (As with terms relating to needlework and housekeeping, it is difficult to say which is more likely: that women were indeed the first to use the terms concerned, or that the lexicographers and readers were more inclined to identify the terms in female-authored texts; see discussion on our previous page, Distaff and kitchen.)

Detail from Marriage à-la-mode: 1. The Marriage Settlement (1743) by William Hogarth. Source: Wikipedia

Clearly, courtship and marriage are important to both genders and it would be absurd to contend that male writers did not use such terms. On the contrary, during the 18th century (as well as most other periods), the economic and transactional dimension of marriage was of particular concern to men, given that as heads of families, and owners of family wealth, men usually took considerable interest in and responsibility for arranging family alliances.

Often, then, terms used by women writers, which have a specific sexual or gender connotation not picked up by OED, can be found in male writers too. The verb dispose, for example, is used several times in Penelope Aubin’s novels to mean ‘dispose in marriage’. This sense of the word is not recognized in OED. However it can easily be found in male-authored texts as well: a swift search of ECCO turns up a prior instance in a play by Thomas Southerne. Probably the sense was also current, whether in male or female authors, earlier still (for the Aubin and Southerne examples see Aubin’s unrecorded vocabulary).

As noted in our discussion of Aubin’s use of the term, this sense of dispose also turns up in Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Austen’s writing in particular contains a number of comparable instances of specific courtship or marital senses either under-recorded in OED or missed altogether:

  • alliance (‘union by marriage’): this definition is merged with others in OED s.v. sense 1. Cf. Emma, I.15.132: ‘I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!’
  • attach (‘attract the attachment of for the purposes of marriage’): this specific sense is not identified in OED s.v. sense 7b, although the Dictionary prints two Austen quotations illustrating it
  • distinguish: cf. Mansfield Park, II.vii.238: ‘Sir Thomas…could not avoid perceiving in a grand and careless way that Mr. Crawford was somewhat distinguishing his niece’. The marital implication is not recorded in OED.
Detail from The Dance / The Happy Marriage VI: The Country Dance (c. 1745) by William Hogarth. Source: Wikipedia

By contrast, the first OED Additions volume – the collection of scattered revisions and updatings of OED intermediate between OED2 and OED3 – did identify, for the first time in the Dictionary’s history, the courtship connotation of the verb address, s.v. sense e: ‘To pay one’s addresses to (a woman); to woo, court’. Here Austen furnished the second quoted example (after Sheridan’s The Rivals, 1775): ‘You may live eighteen years longer..without being addressed by a man of half Mr. Crawford’s estate’ (Mansfield Park, III.i.19); cf. Phillipps 1970: 77-8.

Elsewhere, as indicated above, women’s texts furnish the first quotations in OED for terms related to this subject area: for example Seward is the first quoted example for:

  • that was: i.e. (as OED explains), ‘phrase added when a married woman is referred to by her maiden name’: ‘1785 A. SEWARD Let. 31 Dec. (1811) I. 97 Miss Jenny Harry that was, for she afterwards married’. Of the four quotations for this usage, three are from female-authored texts (George Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh), an unusually high proportion

while Austen’s novel Sense & Sensibility supplies the first examples for the marital senses of both engagement and disengagement:

  • ‘”If your engagement had been carried on for months and months..before he chose to put an end to it.”..”Engagement!” cried Marianne, “there has been no engagement”‘ (Sense & Sensibility, II.vii.114 (1811) – a quotation added to OED by Burchfield in the 20th-century Supplement)
  • ‘She might wound Marianne still deeper by treating their an escape from..evils’ (Sense & Sensibility, II.vii.184 – a quotation inserted by OED1 and dated 1796)

These and other examples (e.g. connect, particularity, preference) will be listed in full and treated in more detail in our Austen pages.

Note added August 2018: EOED’s Austen pages will be released over the current programme of website update and revision. See “‘That Reliance on the Ordinary’: Jane Austen and the Oxford English Dictionary“, Review of English Studies (2015a): 744–765, reproduced in the EOED Library.

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, ca. 1756, in Łazienki Palace, Warsaw. Source: Wikipedia

Examples of such vocabulary in other female writers, similarly neglected by the OED, include:

  • sub-marriage (a term found in a letter by Mary Wortley Montagu of 1716): ‘it would be a down right affront and publickly resented if you invited a Woman of Quality to dinner without at the same time inviteing her 2 attendants of Lover and Husband…These sub-marriages gennerally last 20 year together, and the Lady often commands the poor Lover’s estate even to the utter ruin of his family, thô they are as seldom begun by any passion as other matches’ (Halsband 1965: vol. 1, p. 271). Not recorded in OED, although the entry for sub– (sense 5) does record many other whimsical examples of the prefix, and the same Wortley Montagu letter is quoted for the term Belle-Passion (‘love’)

and – possibly –

  • the sex (used to refer to men rather than women): Wortley Montagu may be wittily exploiting the normal signification of the term (i.e. referring to women) in a letter of 1709: ‘If I [i.e. the writer, Lady Mary W-M] am [in love], ’tis a perfect sin of ignorance, for I don’t so much as know the man’s name: I have been studying these three hours, and cannot guess who you mean. I passed the days of Nottingham races [at] Thorsby, without seeing or even wishing to see one of the sex’ (Halsband 1965: vol. 1, p. 10). [Can this interpretation be right? Surely it is women rather than men who would be a rare sight at the races?]

Other terms are recorded in the OED but with low 18th-century documentation:

  • enjoy (used of a man having sex, possibly non-consensual, with a woman): found in Aubin; OED provides no 18th-century quotations
  • pre-engage (used in the passive to mean ‘be previously or already engaged to be married’): this term has recently been revised in OED3 but is under-quoted from the 18th century; it, too, is found in Aubin (see our page on Aubin’s unrecorded vocabulary).

Note also that OED has no 18th-century quotation for the phrase with child (‘pregnant’) as used by Aubin (Aubin & 18c gap) and no doubt many other 18th-century writers.

Last updated on 30 July 2019