With the failure of many marriages today, there is some interest in how the culture of marriage was different in earlier times. So I thought some readers might be curious to know how Alfred Deakin's courtship took place back in the 1880s in colonial Melbourne.
Deakin met his future wife, Pattie, when she was only 11. She was the daughter of a wealthy brewer; he was her teacher at a kind of spiritualist Sunday school. Deakin was a frequent guest at Pattie's home due to her father's involvement in the spiritualist movement.
In 1881, when Pattie was 18, Deakin asked her father for permission to marry her. He only gave him qualified approval, asking that the relationship be tested further. Pattie's family were disappointed with Deakin's low social status and wealth (he was the son of a clerk) - they were not to know that Deakin would be appointed a government minister just two years later in 1883. Pattie was strong-willed and did not follow her parents' advice to break the relationship.
Deakin was writing personal letters to Pattie at this time. They reveal that he wanted her to cultivate herself, so that she would be "well spoken, refined and cultured" and therefore "a woman worthy of any man's affection".
Deakin was given permission to walk out together with Pattie unchaperoned, and he spoke to her about his favourite writers, such as Ruskin, Tennyson and Emerson.
Pattie's parents did all that they could to prevent the marriage, and because Pattie defied them there was no dowry when she did finally marry Deakin. The suggestion in Judith Brett's biography of Deakin is that both were virgins on their wedding night.
What can we make of all this? The following spring to mind:
1. Marriages were not arranged and women did have the final say in who they married. However, asking the father for permission was more than a formality. Parents could put pressure on their daughters to change their minds and they could refuse a dowry if they opposed a marriage.
2. Deakin's courtship reinforces my existing impression that parents were often most interested in maintaining the class status of their daughters. This meant that there was pressure on young men to achieve a certain level of class wealth and status before marriage. For some men, this meant having to wait many years before they were in a position to marry (not necessarily a good thing).
3. There was not a culture of "dating" as we understand it today. Deakin was only left unchaperoned in Pattie's company once his serious intentions to marry her were clear.
4. The relationship dynamic was alpha rather than beta. Deakin expected Pattie to qualify herself to him, by cultivating herself, rather than the other way round. This is hardly surprising given the difference of age and experience (Pattie was only 18, Deakin was mid-20s and soon to be a government minister).