Friday, May 7, 2010

Courtship and Marriage, La Belle Assemblée Style

Ah, La Belle Assemblée, that bible of style and culture read by nineteenth century girls throughout the Empire, and writers wishing to understand them. I was browsing the September 1810 issue this week. One column was labeled “Provincials, Including Remarkable Occurrences, Deaths and Marriages, &c. In the Several Counties of Great Britain,” with Great Britain meaning England, Scotland, and Ireland. There was a report of a woman in Sheerness Garrison in Kent who had given birth to 6 children in 9 months (quintuplets and twins); sadly none lived. There were several stories gruesome stage coach accidents (people trampled by horses, thrown from windows). There was even a long, grisly description of an execution of murderers in Ireland.

But what I found particularly interesting in this issue were the stories of courtship and marriage.

Sometimes, it seems, love conquers all. Take this entry: “Married: Mr. Joseph Holmes of Woodhouse to Miss M. Cooper of Hunflet, near Leeds. The bridegroom is deaf and dumb.”

Then love can work miracles. Take the case of Mr. W. Stephenson and a widow of Derbyshire. According to the magazine, “This blooming young widow had interred her former husband about twelve weeks, and was apparently inconsolable for his loss, till within a few days of her union with Mr. Stephenson, the sight of whose athletic form drove the tear of sorrow from her eye, and replaced it with the compassionate glance of love.”

And sometimes life simply isn’t fair! One story reported how the widowed Mrs. Graham brought charges of breach of promise of marriage against Mr. Hetherington. He told her father he wanted to marry her one July, but by October he still hadn’t made good on his promise. She tracked him down to a posting house and demanded to know why. He made up some lame excuse about his friends not liking her but claimed he didn’t care what they said, he was going to marry her the very next Saturday at Carlisle.

So the poor thing goes to the church, and what does Mr. Hetherington say, right at the altar, but that he’d changed his mind! She goes home, and he follows her, kneels down in front of her and her mother and “imprecated the vengeance of Heaven on himself, if he did not, on the Monday following, fulfill his promise.” So once again she gets ready for her wedding, and he disappears!

When the Court located him and called him to appear, he claimed that 1) she was pregnant and the child wasn’t his (no mention is made anywhere in the year leading up to the story of Mrs. Graham giving birth—longest pregnancy on record—NOT!), 2) she was too old for him (well, she was the same amount of old when you proposed, buddy!), and 3) because he was so young there was a good chance she’d “ensnared” him (yeah, ensnared people generally run away at the drop of a hat). The Court found for Mrs. Graham and awarded her 100 pounds (the equivalent of about $10,000 in the buying power of the U.S. dollar today).

Personally, in a time when stealing a loaf of bread was punishable by death or deportation, I wonder why the fellow wasn’t hanged! But maybe I’m too focused on how wonderful love should be. How would you have dealt with the dithering Mr. Hetherington and much-put-upon Mrs. Graham?


Farida Mestek said...

Thank you for this post! I just love such tidbits. But poor thing indeed!

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, Farida! As you can probably tell, I love these tidbits too. :-)

Rachel said...

LOL That is the stuff penny dreadfuls are made of! What a great story, which also happens to be true!!

What a cad! I'm glad she won her case. Imagine her reputation if she didn't do anything, no one would ever marry her.

I wonder what became of her?!

By the way, where do you come across all these interesting articles of Belle Assemblee? Do you owe copies of the magazine?!

Regina Scott said...


I agree--it would be interesting to see what happened to the poor woman.

I don't own a copy of La Belle Assemblee, worst luck. However, there are several issues available online. I also belonged to a subscription service years ago for period books and magazines. The problem was, I spent all my time reading them and not writing! So, I opted out. I have a huge backlog of materials that I'm getting to bit by bit, which is why you all see them bit by bit. :-)