The 7-Year Engagement: The Georgian Romance Of Robert & Elizabeth Parker

2 Jan

In the 18th century, marriages were formed on the basis of the ‘happiness’ of multiple parties. Though arranged marriages were not as common as they were in the centuries before, love still did not take center stage (despite some of the more romantic novels of the period that paint a different picture). A marriage was a formal affair, requiring the blessings of the parents, the extended family and friends and finally, the couple themselves. Once ‘out in society’ a young man or woman was able to explore their possibility of partners, conversing with members of the opposite sex in order to determine if a courtship would come next. These flirtations were almost always supervised as it could be perceived as a lack of virtue for an unmarried woman to be alone in the company of unmarried men.

One particular courtship that became something more of an odyssey, was that of Robert Parker and Elizabeth Parker, two middle class (or genteel) people who waited 7 long years to say I do! Now a 7 year courtship in our time might be a bit too long for most couples but its not that odd considering that it’s perfectly acceptable to move in with someone or date them steadily for years before a proposal is even brought about. But back in the 18th century, men and women did not date like they do today so their meetings or courtships, consisted mostly of supervised visits with the family or a few stolen private moments. We know about the courtship between Robert and Elizabeth from the ‘love’ letters they left behind which spanned the years of the mid 1700’s where, it seems, Robert desperately tries to persuade Elizabeth to speak to her father on his behalf. Elizabeth’s father was never fond of Robert, though why that was exactly, is not completely clear though it seems that he mainly disapproved of Robert’s limited wealth and social position. One person who staunchly dissolved of Robert Parker was Elizabeth’s aunt Ann Pellet who made sure, on multiple occasions, to remind her niece about her opinion of her suitor. Ann was confident that Elizabeth could find a better husband than Robert but several seasons spent out in society did little to change Elizabeth’s mind.

elizabeth parker{Elizabeth Parker, pictured above}

So why did it take Elizabeth so long to convince her father to allow her to marry Mr.Parker?

Historian Amanda Vickery has several different theories, but the main one seems to be that Elizabeth, as a woman, struggled with the pull between a duty to appease her father’s hopes for her while also following her own heart. A poorly chosen or got marriage (i.e. elopement) could cause a serious rift between family and finances (as well as her virtue) and then there was the other side of things: divorce was not easily granted. Many women of the 18th century felt the impending weight that the bonds of marriage placed upon them once the marriage contract was set up and they said ‘I do’. Even the most head-over-heels in love woman could still have her doubts about her choice and its easy to see why since these women, in most cases, were truly bound to their husbands ‘until death do us part.’

Courtship was the golden age of romance for most women, a time when the could sit back and allow the men to woo and flatter them, for once, they had a choice and they held the power of judgement.

courtin2 courting

Marriage was not something that could be jumped into without thought or care since the consequences often lasted a lifetime and a poor choice could lead to a lifetime of misery.

One 18th century woman Mary Warde, wrote about her feelings of marriage and its finality:

No woman of understanding can marry without infinite apprehensions, such a step inconsiderately taken discovers a Levity and Temper that is always displeasing to a looker on…and if the woman has the good fortune to meet with a man that uses her well it is being happy so much by chance that she does not deserve it.”

As for Robert Parker, after seven long years of failed attempts, he finally broke through to both Elizabeth and her father when he mentioned the prospect of marrying another woman to Elizabeth in a letter. Whether this was true or a cleaver trick to make Elizabeth confront her father, it is not know but either way it seemed to have worked. Robert was finally granted another chance of proposition to Elizabeth’s father and a marriage contract was soon drawn. Ten days later, they were married.


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