What did Victorian bachelors think of marriage?

We know from letters, diaries and novels that Victorian bachelors expended much thought and worry on the issue of marriage. When confronted with a potential match, they had to weigh up both the financial and personal aspects of the married state.

Financially, Victorian marriage was an expensive business. Among the very poor, perhaps, neither party expected to get much material benefit out of the union. For the lower middle classes and up, however, it was considered essential that a man was able to offer his wife-to-be an adequate establishment – whether that meant a townhouse in Grosvenor Square with ten servants, a carriage and an account with a Paris dressmaker, or a poky semi-detached on the Holloway Road with one frazzled maid-of-all-work. Men of a certain class were expected to move out of their cheap bachelor lodgings, rent (or more rarely, purchase) a family home, spend money doing it up in a suitable style, and ideally earn enough to make their wives ladies of leisure. Given these expectations, marriage presented a significant drain on male finances and may even have put some men off the idea, at least until they were better situated in life.

Along with the financial considerations came the personal, many of which would resonate today. Questions asked by men in the nineteenth century included: Do I love this woman? Will she make me happy? Can I make her happy? Can I bear to spend every Christmas until death do us part with my parents-in-law? Will I still be able to spend time at my gentleman’s club/favourite tavern, or will I be trapped at home, sucked into domestic drudgery?

Victoria and Albert: the ultimately 'happily married couple'
Victoria and Albert: the ultimate ‘happy couple’

Such concerns about money, love and more are reflected in a note which Charles Darwin penned when he was considering marriage. Like the thoroughly logical chap he was, Darwin drew up a list of pros and cons on the subject, which touchingly reflects the concerns of many of his fellow bachelors:

MARRY [pros]

Children – (if it Please God) – Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, – object to be beloved and played with. better than a dog anyhow. – Home, & someone to take care of house – Charms of music & female chit-chat. – These things good for one’s health. – but terrible loss of time. – My God, it is intolerable to Think of spending ones whole life [sic], like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. – No, no, won’t do. – Imagine living all one’s day solitary in smoky dirty London house. – Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with a good fire, & books and music perhaps – Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

NOT MARRY [cons]

Freedom to go where one liked – choice of Society & little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs – Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. – to have the expense & anxiety of children – perhaps quarreling – Loss of time. – cannot read in the Evenings – fatness & idleness – Anxiety & responsibility – less money for books &c – if many children forced to gain one’s bread. – (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much). Perhaps my wife wont like London [sic]; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool.

Charles Darwin, family man (1842)
Charles Darwin, family man (1842)

‘Lisztomania’: Franz Liszt, sex, and celebrity

The 19th century witnessed the rise of the celebrity musician. Previously, musicians were wholly dependent on aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons, and their output was determined by the wishes of these sometimes despotic individuals. Bach, for instance, was a mere Kapellmeister, and Haydn was not much more than a court servant. Even Mozart was unhappily dependent on patrons such as the Archbishop of Salzburg. Beethoven could perhaps be credited with starting the cult of the musician, but it was not until Paganini appeared on the musical scene in the early decades of the 19th century that a performer achieved celebrity status.

Niccolo Paganini, an Italian violinist, was renowned for his outstanding talent. His gripping performance style was an important influence for Franz Liszt, who attended one of his concerts in 1832, saying afterwards, “what a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What suffering, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!…As for his expression, his manner of phrasing – they are his very soul!” But Liszt’s meteoric rise would eclipse even Paganini’s bright star. As one observer remarked in 1832 of Liszt, “when he appears, he will eclipse all other like a sun!”

Franz Liszt was a musical genius, undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists of all time. He could boast of extraordinary technique and immense powers of expression, and was already delighting audiences at the age of twelve. At his first public concert in Vienna, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that some audience members had cried out “A miracle!”, while others suspected some sort of trickery, until the piano was turned around so that the audience could see that he was really playing himself. Professional musicians were just as impressed with Liszt’s talent. In 1832, Liszt performed Mendelssohn’s incredibly difficult new piano concerto with brilliance and entirely without error – even though he had never seen the score before. Awestruck, Mendelssohn hailed this as a miracle.

Liszt in 1837, aged 26
Liszt in 1837, aged 26

Musical ability was, however, not the only reason for Lizst’s success and rise as a celebrity. He was blessed with an extraordinary charisma which mesmerised audiences, sending them into hitherto unknown frenzies of ecstasy, a phenomenon for which Heinrich Heine coined the term ‘Lisztomania’. In 1837, one observer described how “when I first heard him I sat speechless for a quarter of an hour afterwards, in such a stupor of amazement…Such execution…no one else can possess. He plays sometimes so as to make your hair stand on end!” In 1840 Robert Schumann described Liszt’s extraordinary power of “subjugating, elevating, and leading the public”, noting that audiences were “overwhelmed by a flood of tones and feelings”. Hans Christian Andersen, who attended another of Liszt’s recitals in 1840, touched on a common idea that Liszt was divinely inspired: “When Liszt entered the saloon,  it was as if an electric shock passed through it…the whole of Liszt’s exterior and movements reveal one of those persons we remark for their peculiarities alone; the Divine hand has placed a mark on them which makes them observable among thousands”.

Liszt was, furthermore, a master of self-promotion, augmenting his talent by projecting an almost superhuman image; a musician with mysterious, otherworldly abilities. Upon checking into a hotel in Chamonix in 1836, he listed his profession as “musician-philosopher” and his travel route as “in transit from Doubt to Truth”. Heine noted wryly of Liszt’s self-presentation that “the whole enchantment is to be traced to the fact that no one in the world knows how to organise ‘successes’ as well as Franz Liszt – or better, now to stage them. In that art, he is a genius”. Certainly, Liszt carefully cultivated his image, taking full advantage of new artistic mediums. His early depictions are traditional oil portraits, but he soon saw the utility of the lithograph, which could be produced and distributed quickly and cheaply. Liszt also took well to the new medium of photography, for which his pensive air was ideal, and he sat for Europe’s leading photographers from the mid-1850s onwards.

Lithograph of Liszt in 1846, aged 35
Lithograph of Liszt in 1846
Liszt in 1858, aged 47
Liszt in 1858, aged 47

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liszt became so famous that he soon had royalty and nobility at his feet. Liszt was from quite a humble background; his father had been a clerk-musician employed by Prince Esterházy, However, he himself was exceedingly intelligent and well-read, and liked to project a cultivated image, mixing with luminaries of the Paris literary world such as George Sand, Victor Hugo, Heine, Dumas and Balzac. With this successfully augmenting his musical talent, wherever Liszt went in Europe (and he appeared more than 3000 times in public between 1838 and 1846), the nobility clamoured to meet him and hear him play. Liszt did not stand on ceremony with anyone. Observers were astonished when, at the end of concerts, he would step into the front row and casually converse in French with the members of high nobility as if he were a close friend.

 Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, George Sand and Marie d'Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a portrait of Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.
Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, George Sand and Marie d’Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a portrait of Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.

Royalty were also keen to meet Liszt, and they showered him with honours. When Liszt left Berlin in 1842, King Friedrich Wilhelm gave him a coach pulled by six horses, accompanied by a procession of thirty other carriages and an honour guard of students. As the music critic Ludwig Rellstab put it, “he left not like a king, but as a king”. The Austrian authorities gave him a passport on which simply stood Celebritate sua sat notus (“sufficiently known by his fame”). By 1845, Liszt’s star was so high that rumours flew around that he was going to marry the fifteen-year-old Queen Isabella II of Spain, who had supposedly created the title of Duke of Pianozares for him. However, all this adulation didn’t make him more respectful to royalty, to whom he could on occasion be downright rude. When Tsar Nicholas I turned up late to a 1840 recital and started talking, Liszt stopped playing and sat motionless with head bowed. When Nicholas inquired why the music did not continue, Liszt said coolly, “Music herself should be silent when Nicholas speaks”.

An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I (Note the flowers strewed around him)
An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I. (Note the flowers strewed around him)

Although both men and women admired his performances, Liszt held a particular attraction for women. He was very good-looking, with strong features, luxuriant hair and a brooding air. Women wore Liszt’s image on cameos and brooches, fought to collect the dregs of his coffee cup, tore his handkerchiefs and gloves to shreds, wore his cigar butts in diamond-encrusted lockets, turned his discarded piano wires into bracelets, and so on. A contemporary caricature of a Liszt concert in Berlin in 1842 depicts an audience of frenzied women variously screaming, swooning, trying to storm the stage, observing him through binoculars (from the front row) and throwing flowers at him. Heine once consulted a specialist in womens’ diseases about ‘Lisztomania’; the specialist smiled knowingly and talked at length about the mass hysteria caused by a musical aphrodisiac in a confined space.

Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842
Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842

And Liszt was by no means immune to all this feminine adulation. He enjoyed numerous affairs, evincing a preference for ladies of the highest social rank. Among his early conquests were Countess Adèle Laprunarède and Countess Pauline Plater. When the latter was asked to rank the three great pianists who had performed in her salon, she judged on decidedly non-musical criteria, saying that Hiller would make the best friend, Chopin the best husband, and Liszt the best lover. Liszt’s most enduring relationship, however, was with Countess Marie d’Agoult, the daughter of a wealthy German banking family who had married into one of the oldest families in France. Together they had three illegitimate children, one of whom, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner.

Alan Walker, Liszt’s biographer, describes what was probably Liszt’s greatest achievement, completing the transition of the musician from servant to master: “Beethoven, by dint of his unique genius and his uncompromising nature, had forced the Viennese aristocracy to at least regard him as their equal. But it was left to Liszt to foster the view that an artist is a superior being, because divinely gifted, and the rest of mankind, of whatever social class, owed him respect and even homage”.

Liszt in 1847, aged 36
List in 1847, aged 36

The Victorian watercress girl

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London’s working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations describing their lives from the people themselves. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London’s forgotten underclass. One of the most famous and heart-wrenching profiles is of an eight-year-old watercress seller from the East End. She is unkempt and emaciated when Mayhew interviews her, and wears nothing more than a thin dress, a ragged shawl and carpet slippers even in the severest weather.
Idealised depiction of a young watercress seller ~ Frederick Ifold, 1867
Idealised depiction of a young watercress seller ~ Frederick Ifold, 1867

Here is what the ‘ watercress girl’ had to say about her life:

“I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, ‘Four bunches a penny, water-creases’. I am just eight years old – that’s all, and I’ve a big sister, and a brother and a sister younger than I am. On and off, I’ve been very near a twelvemonth in the streets. Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. No, it wasn’t heavy – it was only two months old; but I minded it for ever such a time – till it could walk. It was a very nice little baby, not a very pretty one; but, if I touched it under the chin, it would laugh.

“Before I had the baby, I used to help mother, who was in the fur trade; and, if there was any slits in the fur, I’d sew them up. My mother learned me to needle-work and to knit when I was about five. I used to go to school, too; but I wasn’t there long. I’ve forgot all about it now, it’s such a time ago; and mother took me away because the master whacked me, though the missus use’n’t to never touch me. I didn’t like him at all. What do you think? he hit me three times, ever so hard, across the face with his cane, and made me go dancing down stairs; and when mother saw the marks on my cheek, she went to blow him up, but she couldn’t see him – he was afraid. That’s why I left school.

“The creases [watercress] is so bad now, that I haven’t been out with ’em for three days. They’re so cold, people won’t buy ’em; for when I goes up to them, they say, ‘They’ll freeze our bellies.’ Besides, in the market, they won’t sell a ha’penny handful now – they’re ris to a penny and tuppence. In summer there’s lots, and ‘most as cheap as dirt; but I have to be down at Farringdon market between four and five, or else I can’t get any creases, because everyone almost – especially the Irish – is selling them, and they’re picked up so quick. Some of the saleswomen – we never calls ’em ladies – is very kind to us children, and some of them altogether spiteful. The good one will give you a bunch for nothing, when they’re cheap; but the others, cruel ones, if you try to bate them a farden less than they ask you, will say, ‘Go along with you, you’re no good.’

Fleet Market, the predecessor to Farringdon Market where Mayhew's watercress girl plied her trade
Fleet Market, the predecessor to Farringdon Market where Mayhew’s watercress girl plied her trade

“I used to go down to market along with another girl, as must be about fourteen, ‘cos she does her back hair up. When we’ve bought a lot, we sits down on a door-step, and ties up the bunches. We never goes home to breakfast till we’ve sold out; but, if it’s very late, then I buys a penn’orth of pudden, which is very nice with gravy. I don’t know hardly one of the people, as goes to Farringdon, to talk to; they never speaks to me, so I don’t speak to them. We children never play down there, ‘cos we’re thinking of our living. No; people never pities me in the street – excepting one gentleman, and he says, says he, ‘What do you do out so soon in the morning?’ but he gave me nothink – he only walked away.

“It’s very cold before winter comes on reg’lar – specially getting up of a morning. I gets up in the dark by the light of the lamp in the court. When the snow is on the ground, there’s no creases. I bears the cold – you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts ’em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes ’em to the pump to wash ’em. No; I never see any children crying – it’s no use.

Devil's Acre, Westminster: a typical London slum with its crowded courts
Devil’s Acre, Westminster: a typical London slum with its crowded courts

“Sometimes I make a great deal of money. One day I took 1s. 6d., and the creases cost 6d.; but it isn’t often I get such luck as that. I oftener makes 3d. or 4d. than 1s.; and then I’m at work, crying, ‘Creases, four bunches a penny, creases!’ from six in the morning to about ten. What do you mean by mechanics? – I don’t know what they are. The shops buys most of me. Some of ’em says, ‘Oh! I ain’t a-goin’ to give a penny for these;’ and they want ’em at the same price as I buys ’em at.

“I always give mother my money, she’s so very good to me. She don’t often beat me; but, when she do, she don’t play with me. She’s very poor, and goes out cleaning rooms sometimes, now she don’t work at the fur. I ain’t got no father, he’s a father-in-law. No; mother ain’t married again – he’s a father-in-law. He grinds scissors, and he’s very good to me. No; I dont mean by that that he says kind things to me, for he never hardly speaks. When I gets home, after selling creases, I stops at home. I puts the room to rights: mother don’t make me do it, I does it myself. I cleans the chairs, though there’s only two to clean. I takes a tub and scrubbing-brush and flannel, and scrubs the floor – that’s what I do three or four times a week.

“I don’t have no dinner. Mother gives me two slices of bread-and-butter and a cup of tea for breakfast, and then I go till tea, and has the same. We has meat of a Sunday, and, of course, I should like to have it every day. Mother has just the same to eat as we has, but she takes more tea – three cups, sometimes. No; I never has no sweet-stuff; I never buy none – I don’t like it. Sometimes we has a game of ‘honeypots’ with the girls in the court, but not often. Me and Carry H. carries the little ‘uns. We plays, too, at ‘kiss-in-the-ring.’ I knows a good many games, but I don’t play at ’em, ‘cos going out with creases tires me.

Girl in a slum room, from George Robert Sims' How the Poor Live (1883)
Girl in a slum room, from George Robert Sims’ How the Poor Live (1883)

“On a Friday night, too, I goes to a Jew’s house till eleven o’clock on Saturday night. All I has to do is to snuff the candles and poke the fire. You see they keep their Sabbath then, and they won’t touch anything; so they gives me my wittals and 1½d., and I does it for ’em. I have a reg’lar good lot to eat. Supper of Friday night, and tea after that, and fried fish of a Saturday morning, and meat for dinner, and tea, and supper, and I like it very well.

“Oh, yes; I’ve got some toys at home. I’ve a fire-place, and a box of toys, and a knife and fork, and two little chairs. The Jews gave ’em to me where I go to on a Friday, and that’s why I said they was very kind to me. I never had no doll; but I misses little sister – she’s only two years old. We don’t sleep in the same room; for father and mother sleeps with little sister in the one pair, and me and brother and other sister sleeps in the top room. I always goes to bed at seven, ‘cos I has to be up so early.

“I can’t read or write, but I knows how many pennies goes to a shilling, why, twelve, of course, but I don’t know how many ha’pence there is, though there’s two to a penny. When I’ve bought 3d. of creases, I ties ’em up into as many little bundles as I can. They must look biggish, or the people won’t buy them, some puffs them out as much as they’ll go. All my money I earns I puts in a club and draws it out to buy clothes with. It’s better than spending it in sweet-stuff, for them as has a living to earn. Besides it’s like a child to care for sugar-sticks, and not like one who’s got a living and vittals to earn. I ain’t a child, and I shan’t be a woman till I’m twenty, but I’m past eight, I am. I don’t know nothing about what I earns during the year, I only know how many pennies goes to a shilling, and two ha’pence goes to a penny, and four fardens goes to a penny. I knows, too, how many fardens goes to tuppence – eight. That’s as much as I wants to know for the markets.”

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See more from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor:
Volume I
Volume II
Volume III