Sham Marriages in the Eighteenth Century

In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester contrives to marry Jane bigamously. In Pamela, Mr. B considers outwitting Pamela with a sham marriage; he confesses to this dastardly proposal in the 10th installment of Mr. B Speaks!

There is currently a huge wedding industry in Gretna Green.
As an American, it is hard for me to determine if this is
historically cool or unbelievably tacky. I suppose
the ad speaks for itself.
Both men are romantics who hope that union with their soul-mates, however contrived, will excuse their deception. Mr. Rochester is slightly less hampered by the idea of marriage (Mr. B is positively modern in his reluctance to perpetuate the relationship failures of his class), having only a mad wife to hold him back. Unlike Mr. Rochester, however, Mr. B never actually goes through with the scheme.

Although sham marriages don't appear to have been as popular in eighteenth-century life as its literature might suggest, bigamy did occur in part due to "clandestine" marriages.

Clandestine marriages were performed by any clergyman outside of a church/parish and were common until the mid-1700s. One reason Mr. B can even imagine that Pamela would accept a sham marriage is the ease with which they actually do marry: they chose a day, get a clergyman, get married.

This easy planning (no banns to call, no license to purchase, though Mr. B does obtain the latter) would be impossible a decade or so later when Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1754) made such marriages illegal. Consequently, romance writers of Regency England must resort to special licenses (from archbishops) or Gretna Green if they need a marriage to take place suddenly to the surprise and consternation of others.

It should be noted that in any time period, including our modern one, marriages have been consistently difficult to track since they take place at the city/state/local level. Of course, the Internet is changing that, and a bigamist who publishes Facebook pictures of both his families is in imminent danger of being discovered.

1 comment:

Mike Cherniske said...

All the more reason for you to have a facebook account!