Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Almack’s Again: The Marriage Mart

Somewhat to my be- musement, I’ve found myself writing a series of novellas set around that Regency institution, Almack’s Assembly Rooms. Modern readers can certainly understand how Almack’s was the place to be, the most exclusive of exclusive social venues, because that concept is timeless...but there’s one aspect of Almack’s we haven’t discussed before, and I thought it might be interesting to do so.

Almack’s was nicknamed ‘the Marriage Mart’ because it was the place for aristocratic young women and young men (or not so young ones) to go to look over the season’s marital prospects. It was Almack’s very exclusiveness that made it attractive for spouse-shopping: if only persons of a certain social class were allowed within its precincts, then by definition anyone there could be considered “safe” as a potential marriage partner. Watchful parents could relax, knowng that their romantically–minded daughters would not be solicited for the next dance by a shop-clerk or a nouveau-riche City merchant; men would not find their eyes and their fancies caught by an attractive but unsuitable young woman who dropped her aitches and didn’t know how to properly address a duchess or arrange seating at a dinner party.

Sounds kind of...well, cold, doesn’t it? Yes, absolutely, by modern standards of courtship and marriage. But the early 19th century was in flux as far as what marriage was all about.

Up until the rise of Romanticism in the 18th century, marriage was as much a financial transaction as it was about finding a husband or wife...and the wealthier the families, the truer this was. Families considered what other families they wanted to ally themselves with through the marriages of their sons and daughters for reasons of outright monetary gain as well as for less tangible but still enormously important assets like social, economic or political influence. You might decide that you wanted your son to marry the daughter of a family whose political support you sought for your career, or who might bring as part of her dowry land or other assets you coveted. And while you made some attempt to make sure the new couple would be compatible...well, that wasn’t necessarily the first consideration. But as the concept of marrying for companionship and love took hold, it fought for a while with the older view of marriage...and Almack’s was a prime example of that uneasy compromise.

It’s also hard sometimes for Americans to wrap their heads around just how class conscious England was (and still is, to a degree.) We’ve discussed that fact before—just how separately the different social classes lived their lives and the difficulty of moving from one class to another when it dictated everything about you, from how you moved and spoke to your education and expectations in life. Now, think of how that might come into play when looking for a husband or wife...and once again, Almack’s begins to be much more understandable, if not, by our standards, admirable. It’s not so surprising that Almack’s importance faded as class barriers became more fluid with the rise of the middle classes, and by the late 1830s, it had lost almost all its old cachet—not forgotten, but also, for many reasons, not mourned.


Helena said...

I'm English, and it does amuse me when I see it suggested that America is not class conscious. Based on contemporary novels and films as well as news stories, America certainly does have a class system. The starting point seems to be wealth -- the very rich, and even just the rich, definitely consider themselves superior to those who are poor and, more to the point, seem to be regarded as superior by those who are not rich. And from what I can tell, making yourself rich by hard work or luck doesn't grant you automatic entry into this class; you can be considered nouveau riche in America just as used to be the case in Regency England.

There also appears to be a stratification based on birth, with some families held in high esteem. This persists even if the specific individual has nothing to recommend himself but his name.

There is also the cachet of being a celebrity, which can overlap with riches and/or family name, but not necessarily.

Think of the stories which would not make sense if America did not have its own class system. The film Sabrina comes to mind, both the original and the modern version. Its basic premise -- the chauffeur's daughter should not marry the rich family's son -- would make no sense if there were not distinctions based on money/family name. Or The Thomas Crown Affair: the police have to handle TC with kid gloves because of his position, which seems to be all about his wealth.

Politicians also seem to acquire some status and kudos just because they are politicians, although it does seem that to be a successful politician you have to have plenty of money (or very rich supporters), so maybe that partly an aspect of the reverence for money.

I suspect it's just as difficult for someone to move between these different classes in America today as it was in Regency England. I'm pretty sure that the social life organised for the top of American society isn't susceptible to infiltration by those from "lower" classes. So it really shouldn't be difficult for American readers to understand Almacks etc..

Marissa Doyle said...

Helena, I don't think I ever said that Americans aren't class-conscious, and I agree that that consciousness usually revolves around wealth. I disagree about birth, however: thirty or forty years ago, maybe...but I live in a part of the US where there are a lot of those old, esteemed families, and the names just don't carry the cachet they once did.

I do maintain, though, that it is often difficult for modern Americans to wrap their heads around the concepts of Regency-era Almacks--the reason I wrote this post was in reaction to several beta-readers (Americans, from several different parts of the country) of my first Almack's story not being able to understand why Almack's was what it was. :)

QNPoohBear said...

Americans of the period could be just as class conscious. A prominent local family of the Federal Era had 3 daughters and two were forbidden by Papa to marry their choice of suitors. Papa wanted the suitors to prove they were worthy. One was Prussian and without job prospects and one was a rake and gamester. American daughters seem to be less protected or else Mama looked the other way for the youngest found a way around her father's restrictions - she got pregnant while he was away! She was allowed to marry her rake after that! She felt marriage provided her with more freedom to have her own house and get out from under her parents' thumbs. The other sister ended up marrying her choice as well. They both should have listened to their father for their stories did not end happily ever after.
Read about my visit with the Browns in 1800: