Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Deakin's courtship

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).


  1. Nah Mark you don't get it. All parties involved clearly had standards they expected each other to live up to.

    A more blatant example of oppression is more difficult to find, why couldn't they all accept each other as they were?

    After all I'm sure I remember a university lecturer telling me socially enforrced standards of behavior are the first step towards Fascism... or something.

  2. why couldn't they all accept each other as they were?

    James, it must have slipped my mind how wonderfully successful the relationship free for all has proved to be in more modern and enlightened times!

  3. Indeed. Give yourself a slap on the wrist for such crimethink.

  4. " Marriages were not arranged" and "they could refuse a dowry if they opposed a marriage" are contradictions, the implication being that a dowry was paid if the parents approved the marriage. The payment of a dowry does not occur in informal marriages, dowries being exclusive to arranged marriages due to the contractual basis of the exchange of the dowry which requires several distinct and sequential processes: due diligence, an offer, negotiation of terms, an acceptance and a transfer of assets.

    A dowry is not the simple handing over of cash to a nice chap whom the parents like. It is a negotiation of a contract which can be very detailed in terms of value, type of assets (cash, gold, stocks, bonds, property), timing of payments (lump sum or installments), restrictions of uses of the assets and the jurisdiction in which they can be held or used, penalties for misuse etc. The parents of the groom have to be worth more than the dowry and it is usually the parents of the groom who receive the dowry. Therefore to say that "marriages were not arranged" is quite simply false. If there is a dowry then it is arranged.

    1. If you don't want to call it a dowry fine. But the marriage was not arranged, and the father-in-law withheld a financial transfer that would ordinarily have been forthcoming. I am not endorsing this nor criticising it, but describing what happened and comparing it to current practices.

  5. "The father in law witheld a financial transfer that would ordinarily have been forthcoming"

    Precisely. You confirm my point that dowries were paid in normal circumstances but in this case no dowry was paid because Deaken failed the initial process of due diligence, evidenced by the comments alluding to the inferior social status of his family of origin which is the key factor in the arrangement of marriages. Hence the bride's family would not consider a marriage with Deakin and no further negotiations proceeded between the family of the bride and the family of Deakin.

    The bride evidently arranged her own marriage against parental wishes and her family, being liberals, permitted her to do that putting personal freedom above tradition in true liberal fashion. The bride, evidently a feminist valued her own desires and freedom over the authority of her father and the respect she owed him.

    It is very surprising that as a blogger who incessantly criticises feminism, that you have no comment on this striking undermining of male authority which is the principal goal of feminism.