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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 January 2012

Teen Brides & Other Age Related Misconceptions

A simple question on Twitter about whether readers preferred younger or older heroines led to me want to address what appear to be rather common misunderstandings about the late Georgian/Regency period (much like my Just How Tall Were People? post, I hope this will be helpful to readers and other authors who just want the facts laid out). So we go, let’s spend a little time talking about things like life expectancy and just how old was a girl when she was deemed to be “at her last prayers”?

My go to book for this is the wonderfully detailed The Family, Sex and Marriage by Lawrence Stone. It’s full of wonderful charts such as the “Proportion of children of peers who reached the age of fifty and never married” to the “Median age at first Marriage of children of peers” and the “Median life-span of heirs of the squirarchy and above who reached the age of twenty-one”.

The editor who posted the original question thought that young (teen) brides were the norm for the Regency and that “30 was middle-aged”. Neither of these statements is true per Stone’s analysis of the historical record (and seeminly large age gaps were not the norm either).

Let’s begin with the most important question: How old were most daughters of the peerage (the most common heroines in our books) when they married for the first time? Stone’s chart shows that during the first part of the era, the median age was ~20-22. Post 1750 (correlating with the passage of Hardwicke’s Marriage Act; Coincidence?), that age jumps up to ~23-24. So, the most common age for the daughter of a peer to marry was not when she was in her teens, but when she was in her early 20s, and an unmarried twenty-five year old would not really be much of an outlier.

Among the sons of peers there is another interesting bit of information: up until c. 1725 the heirs had tended to marry before their younger brothers (~26 vs. ~28). But like the girls, the median age of heirs’ first marriage suddenly jumps up until by 1750 they are holding out until they’re 29-30 (there is no corresponding change for younger sons).

The percentage of peers’ children who had not married by the time they were 50 bounces around between 15%-20% for both sexes, with the percent of “old maids" being a steady 2%-3% larger than that of “confirmed bachelors”.

Finally, life expectancy for these same heirs is in the 65-70 year range (so about 5-10 years less than today, which is unsurprising given the huge strides medicine has made in treating disease and the care of the elderly).

So there’s a little fact-based blog post you can point people to should this crop up again on Twitter (as I’m sure it will) or should a reader ask you about why your heroine is so damn old, LOL!

12 Comments:

Blogger Alyssia said...

I don't know whether it's because I'm in those early 30's myself, or because I've just matured (wait...that's kind of the same thing, isn't it?), but I really enjoy the older heroine. The alleged "spinster." Very interesting (and plausible!) that the age to marry wasn't as young as most people imagine. Teenage marriages were rather medieval, I think--then as much as they are now.

By the way, now I have got to add this book to my nonfic collection. Thanks for sharing!!

3:54 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Teen marriages still happened, but they were the exception rather than the rule (Lady Georgiana Spencer, who became the 5th Duchess of Devonshire, was only 17 when she married the duke).

6:53 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

This chart derives from a periodical aimed at upper middle class English women, but it looks rather similar to the ages of 100-150 years before. The average marriage age has been a bone of contention on the Downton Abbey boards I frequent since, as you've covered here, the "fact" that aristocratic women married between the ages of 17 and 19, and after that were spinsters, is pretty widespread.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I'll also add that complaints about the age span between heroes and heroines is interesting. The age groups of today did not exist until the mid-20th century (1950s-1960s I'd posit), and the general hardships of life meant you were an "adult" once you took on adult responsibilities (work, child-rearing, etc). And within the aristocracy and upper classes, once a girl put her hair up, she was an adult. I think it was Daisy Fingall's memoirs, but she mentioned the abrupt change in her life when she made her debut: she was in the schoolroom one week, romping with her siblings, and the next was wearing evening gowns and being placed beside statesmen and royalty at dinner parties. The entire point of a young lady's life was to prepare her for this moment, so a girl of 19 or 20 was expected to hold her own with a potential suitor of 30 or 40.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Grace Burrowes said...

Then too, marriage was legal for a girl of twelve, though menarche was probably still quite a bit later than for the present generation. I wonder though, if there wasn't also a perception by the young ladies that if they weren't married by 21, they were washed up, etc, regardless of the facts. My daughter claims there are still a lot of conservative college campuses where the women who graduate without becoming engaged consider they've flunked their MRS degree. Absolutely will buy the book.

Wonderful post, now I'm off to read about how tall people really were.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Fascinating stuff and I have got to get this book! Teenaged women is why I don't write YA ! I much prefer to write about a woman in her mid-20's who knows what she wants and goes after it, no matter what the era!

4:44 PM  
Blogger Tracey Devlyn said...

Isobel, thanks for the great post. Love finding new reference books, too.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I highly recommend Stone's books (An Open Elite?, Road to Divorce, Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England, and Uncertain Unions). Really great scholarship and wonderful insights into how people really lived, loved, separated, and divorced. You know, all the stuff that drives our plots.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Jackie Horne said...

Hey, all:

Stone's FAMILY SEX AND MARRIAGE was published in the 1970s, and in the intervening years historians have taken issue with several of the conclusions he reaches (especially the idea that because of high mortality rates, parents didn't invest emotionally in their children). The charts and hard research Stone gathers is great, but take his interpretation of same with a grain of salt...

2:58 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

You have to take any historian’s interpretations with a grain of salt, but I personally find Stone's very insightful. I’d temper them with Trumbach’s though. His Rise of the Egalitarian Family is the other side of the coin, showing how the Georgian family was becoming something very like what we’re used to today. And of course there are real life examples that bear out both of these visions of family in the era.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

I've always preferred the older heroine; even when I was a younger reader I could relate to a less clueless heroine. Maybe it's because I was raised a city girl, or maybe it's because I considered myself precocious. Or maybe (and this is probably more to the point) that with a heroine who has more life experience, the author has the opportunity to create a more complex, deeper, more intriging and interesting character than a heroine who is more of a blank slate.

Thanks, Isobel, for sharing this research. I always appreciate your mythbusting. The truth will be accepted in the Historical Fiction community because there really aren't any genre "rules," but how do Romance readers and editors respond to the truth (e.g. a thoroughly marriageable heroine of 24 who is not "on the shelf") when authors present it in their novels?

4:55 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

No idea. The editor I was discussing this with never bothered to respond to any of my tweets after I mentioned Stone's work.

10:30 AM  

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