A Talk about Marriage

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1861


Two maidens, in youthful bloom and beauty, sat earnestly talking. Their thought was reaching away into the future; their theme was marriage.

"I like him well enough," said one of them; "but "

She paused, the objection unspoken.

"What is the impediment, Alice?"

"His income is too small."

"What is it?"

"Eight hundred dollars a year."

"You might live on that."

"Live! Bah! What kind of living?"'

"Not in princely style, I will admit."

"Nor scarcely in plebeian, Fanny. Eight hundred dollars! Why, father pays six hundred dollars for rent; and I'm sure our style of living is plain enough! Eight hundred! Oh no. I like Harry better than any young man I have met. I could love him, no doubt. But he can't support a wife in any decent kind of style."

"Did your father and mother begin their married life on a larger income than Harry now receives? Mine did not, as I have often heard them relate."

"Father and mother! Oh, according to their story, Job's famous turkey was scarcely poorer than they were in the beginning. Mother did all her own work, even to the washing and ironing, I believe. Father's income was not over three or four hundred dollars a year."

"And they were happy together, I am sure."

"No doubt. In fact, I've heard mother say, that the first hard struggling years of their life, were among the happiest she has known. But that doesn't signify for me. That is no reason why her daughter should elect to go into the kitchen, and spend her years in washing, ironing and cooking! If a man isn't able to support a wife genteelly, and in the style to which she has been accustomed, let him marry some poor cook, sewing girl, or washer-woman, who will manage his household with the needed economy. Young men who can't earn more than eight hundred or a thousand dollars a year, should not look into our circle for wives!"

"I don't like to hear you talk in this way, Alice," said her companion. "We are not superior beings, but only the equals of poorer people."

"Did I say that we were superior?"

"One might infer from your language, that you thought so."

"I don't see how the inference can fairly be drawn."

"Our circle for wives, you said just now."

"Yes."

"What do you mean by it!"

"A circle of intelligence, refinement, taste and cultivation," replied Alice.

"You don't say wealth."

"No. My father, though living in good style, is not rich. I have heard him say, more than once, that we lived up to our income."

"Then, we have only our own sweet selves with which to endow our husbands. No houses, or lands; no stocks from which to draw an income; nothing substantial on which to claim the right of being supported in costly idleness. We must be rich indeed as to personal attractions."

"We are educated, accomplished, and and " Alice was a little bewildered in thought, and did not finish the sentence.

"Not better educated, or accomplished, as girls, than are most of the young men who, as clerks, earn only from seven hundred to a thousand dollars a year. In this regard, we are simply their equals. But it strikes me, that, in another view of the case we cannot claim even an equality. They are our superiors."

"Not by any means," replied Alice. "We shall see. Here is Harry Smith, for instance. What is his income? I think you mentioned the sum just now."

"Eight hundred dollars a year."

"That is the interest on how much? let me see about twelve thousand dollars. To be equal, as a match for Harry, then, you should be worth twelve thousand dollars."

"How you talk, Fanny!"

"To the point, don't I? If we are not superior to the young men who visit us; superior simply in virtue of our gender; then, our only claim to be handsomely supported in idle self-indulgence, must lie in the fact, that we endow our husbands with sufficient worldly goods to warrant the condition."

"You are ingenious!"

"No, matter-of-fact. What have you to say against my position, Alice? Are we better than young men of equal intelligence and education?"'

"No, I cannot say that we are."

"If we marry, we must look among these for husbands. Rich men, as a general thing, select their wives from rich men's daughters.

Our chances in that direction are not very encouraging. Your father has no dowry for his child; nor has mine. Their families are large and expensive, and little or nothing of the year's income is left at the year's close. The best they can do for us, is to give us homes; and I feel that it is not much to our credit that we are content to lean on our fathers, already stooping under the burdens of years, care and toil, instead of supporting ourselves. The thought has troubled me, of late."

A sober hue came over the face of Alice, as she sat looking into the eyes of her friend. She did not reply, and Fanny went on.

"There is wrong in this. On what ground of reason are we to be exempt from the common lot of useful work? We expect to become wives and mothers. Is this our preparation? Can you bake a loaf of sweet bread!"

"No."

"Nor can I. Or roast a sirloin?"

"No."

"Or broil a steak? Just think of it, Alice! We can manage a little useless embroidery, or fancy knitting; we can sing and play, dance and chatter but as to the real and substantial things of life, we are ignorant and helpless! And, with all this, forsooth, we cannot think of letting ourselves down to the level and condition of virtuous, intelligent young men, who, in daily, useful work, are earning fair subsistence! We are so superior that we must have husbands able to support us in luxurious idleness or we will have none at all! We are willing to pass by the man to whom love would unite us in the tenderest bonds, because his income is small and marry for position, one from whom the soul turns with instinctive aversion. Can we wonder that so many are unhappy?"

"But eight hundred dollars, Fanny! How is it possible for a married couple to live in any decent style, in this city, on eight hundred dollars a year?"

"They may live in a very comfortable style, if the wife is willing to perform her part."

"What do you mean by her part, Fanny?"

"We will take it for granted, that she is no better than her husband. That, having brought him no fortune beyond her own dear self she cannot claim superior privileges."

"Well?"

"He has to work through all the day."

"Well?"

"Under what equitable rule is she exempt?"

"None. She must do her part, of course. She must keep his house, if he can afford a house. But if he has only eight hundred dollars a year! Why, rent alone would consume half, or more than half of that. There would be no housekeeping in the case. They must board."

"And the wife sit in idleness all day long?"

"She would have nothing to do."

"Could she not teach? Or, by aid of a sewing machine, earn a few dollars every week? Or engage in some other useful work that would yield an income and so do her part?"

"Yes, she might do something of the kind; but if marriage is to make 'slaves' of us, it were better to remain single."

"And live in unwomanly dependence on our parents or relatives. No, Alice; there is a false sentiment prevailing on this subject, and as I think and talk, I see it more and more clearly. Our parents have been weak in their love for us; and society, as constituted, has given us wrong estimates of things. We should have been required to do useful work in the household, from the beginning; and should have been taught that idleness and self indulgence were discreditable. Our brothers go into trades and professions, and made to comprehend, from the beginning, that industry is honorable, and that the way of useful work is the way by which the world's brightest places are to be reached. But we are raised daintily and uselessly, and so unfitted for our duties as wives and mothers. Our pride and self-esteem are fostered; and we come to think of ourselves as future queens, who are to be served in all things, instead of serving others in loving self-forgetfulness. We wonder that an anti-marriage sentiment is beginning to prevail among young men of moderate incomes, in all our large cities. The fault is in us, Alice! The sin lies at our door! We demand too much in the marriage. We are not willing to do our share of work. Our husbands must bear all the burdens."

Alice sighed heavily. Her friend continued: "I have read somewhere that the delight of Heaven is the delight of being useful. And it seems to me, as I dwell upon the thought, that the nearest approach to heavenly delight here, must be that state into which a wife comes when she stands by her husband's side, and, out of love for him, removes one burden and another from his shoulders, and so lightens his work, that smiles take the place of weariness and the shadowings of care. If he is rich she can hardly have so great a privilege; but if they are alike poor, and know how to moderate their desires, their home may become an image of paradise.

Eight hundred dollars! Alice, if you were really fitted to become Harry's wife, you might live with him, doing your part, happier than any queen!

"That is, I must take in work, and earn money, if we board but housekeeping is out of the question."

"No; it should never be out the question in marriage, I think."

"But house-rent alone would take half of our income."

"That does not follow."

"It does, for any house that I would consent to live in."

"So pride is stronger than love. But pride has its wages, as well as love; and the one is bitter, while the other is sweet. It is this pride of appearance, this living for the eyes of other people who do not care a penny for us, that is marring the fair fabric of our social life. Fine houses, fine furniture, fine dresses, parties, shows and costly luxuries of all kinds are consuming domestic happiness, and burdening fathers and husbands, in all grades of society, with financial embarrassment and wretchedness. Alice, we must act wise in this matter!"

"That is, coop ourselves up in two or three poor little rooms, with our eight hundred dollars a year husbands, and do our own cooking and housework. Is that what you want, my pretty one?"

"For shame, Alice! You do not deserve a good man. You are not worthy to wed Harry Smith, and I trust you will pass him by, should he be weak enough to offer you his hand. He can't afford to marry a girl of your expectations; he must content himself with one who, like himself, regards life as real, life as earnest; and the way of use and duty the way to true honor and the highest happiness!"

"Suppose you take him, Fanny," said Alice, half sportively, half petulantly. She was a weak, proud, vain girl.

"If he should offer himself, perhaps I will."

"Oh, then, if he kneels at my feet, I will refer him to you as one likely to make him a good cook and housekeeper."

"Do, if you please. I always liked Harry, and I don't think it would take much effort on my part to love him. He is a great deal better off in the world than I am, having an income of eight hundred dollars a year while I have nothing. On that sum, I am sure, we could live in comfort, taste, and happiness. I would not keep a servant to wait on me, as long as I could do the work of our little household. Why should I keep a servant, any more than he? I would find mental recreation and bodily health, in the light tasks our modest home would require! Need we care as to what the world would says? And what would the world say?"

"That your husband had no business to marry, if he couldn't support his wife!"

"Not by any means, Alice. The world would say, 'There's a sensible couple for you, and a wife worth having. We'll endorse them for happiness and prosperity.' And, what is more, Alice, others would be encouraged to act the same wise part, and thus be made happy through our example. I'll take Harry if he offers himself, and show you a model home and a model wife; so pass him over to me, should he lay his fortune at your feet."