What did eighteenth-century men want?


What did eighteenth-century men want?

Lecture by Amanda Vickery (Royal Holloway)

Given at University College London, on November 11, 2010




Such is the gloom that surrounds settling down today and the glamour that attaches to mature bachelor freedom, it is hard to imagine that there was a time when marriage represented the summit of a young man’s hopes.

Forty years after the sexual liberalization of the 1970s, it is easy to forget that only marriage promised true sexual fulfillment for Christians, turning furtive or frustrated boys into fully-realized men. Marriage was the only acceptable framework for children, through whom men made a claim on the future, but also confirmed their potency. Virility was one of the most celebrated masculine qualities. The father who led a handsome family into church radiated both an air of commanding respectability and a glow of unmistakable sexual success.

Marriage promised physical excitement. Two days before his marriage in January 1754, 33 year old Josiah Wedgwood positively frothed with anticipation of ‘the blissful day! When she will reward all my faithful services & take me to her arms! To her Nuptial bed! To – Pleasures which I am yet ignorant of’. He took the precaution of working over-time the week before his wedding to clear time to enjoy his bride uninterrupted. Marriage was a sexy prospect.

In the 17th and 18th century, bachelorhood was a temporary and unprestigious state best solved by marriage. The Batchelor’s Directory of 1694 was unequivocal – ‘Matrimony – what can better agree with man and more exactly relate to his necessities?’ Even men who felt no attraction to the opposite sex had to marry to gain the full benefits of adulthood.

There were even proposals to levy a tax on mature bachelors as a deterrent and a punishment for their evasion of the burden of domestic government and social provision. Perpetual bachelors were the ‘vermin of the State’ pronounced the Women’s Advocate stonily. ‘They enjoy the benefit of society, but Contribute not to its Charge and Spunge upon the publick, without making the least return’.

We associate the history of home and private life with women, but what did house and domesticity mean to men? More than you might think argues Professor Amanda Vickery.

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