Rules of Engagement:
Courtship and Marriage in Early Canada
The delightful hours I have passed in your society have left an impression on my mind that is altogether indelible, and cannot be effaced even by time itself. The frequent opportunities I have possessed, of observing the thousand acts of amiability and kindness which mark the daily tenor of your life, have ripened my feelings of affectionate regard into a passion at once ardent and sincere, until I have at length associated my hope of future happiness with the idea of you as a life partner, in them. Believe me, dearest Etta, this is no puerile fancy, but the matured results of a long and warmly cherished admiration of your many charms of person and mind. It is love - pure devoted love, and I feel confident that your knowledge of my character will lead you to ascribe my motives to their true source. Might I then implore you to consult your own heart, and should this avowal of my fervent and honourable passion for you be crowned with your acceptance and approval, to grant me permission to refer the matter to your parents. Anxiously awaiting your answer, I am, dearest Etta, Your Sincere and Faithful Lover, George Courtright. Wednesday October 20th, 1894.
Poor George. He must have agonized over that letter for days, carefully crafting a marriage proposal that would convince his darling Etta of his love, commitment and suitability as a husband. We can imagine Etta, perhaps unfolding the letter with trembling hands, reading it several times and weighing each word, each phrase. She would likely not have been surprised by this turn of events, as it would have unfolded as part of a complex, but well understood, process for finding one's life partner. We do not know what her answer might have been, but we can be sure that she would have measured George's proposal carefully, taking into consideration not only her own hopes, dreams and preferences, but those of her family and community.
Since Canada's earliest days of settlement, the trials of finding a spouse has been a theme consistently chronicled in diary accounts, letters and journals, providing a fascinating window into how early Canadians met, courted and married. They help us to understand what was considered acceptable behaviour, the influence of parents and neighbours and the strategies that were necessary to navigate the sometimes treacherous social terrain.
Just what were early Canadians looking for in a mate? Prior to the 19th century, economic considerations were a strong factor in the selection of a husband or wife. Eventually, however, the concept of marrying for love crept into the equation, and by the early to mid-19th century, the idea of a spouse as a companion was widely accepted. Women were encouraged to look for a man with not only good financial prospects, but also someone who would be kind, temperate and hard-working. Men typically sought women who were even-tempered, patient and capable of engaging in intelligent conversation.
The importance of a spouse as friend is reflected in the 1854 letter of Caroline Hewlett, who commented on the broken engagement her niece Jane Price. "From all I heard of Mr. Campbell he appeared to me from his youth, habits, and insufficiency of means, to be wholly unworthy of Jane, who ought in her husband to have have a man of equal talent with herself, a companion and friend..."
Meeting a life partner was a long process that in many ways began in childhood. Social gatherings that brought together people of all ages, such as religious functions, skating parties, community picnics and work bees were all opportunities for people get to know one another within their social sphere. Parental and community approval was extremely important, as couples would depend upon the assistance and support of family and friends throughout their married lives.
Once a potential partner was identified, parental consent secured and intentions clearly stated, courtship could begin in earnest. This was an intense period when a couple would really get to know one another, spending many hours discussing a wide range of topics, to ensure compatibility. Engagements could last for many months, or even longer if the man required time to settle debts, secure a property or settle into reliable employment. Once a pledge to marry was made, only very exceptional circumstances would allow the engagement to be broken, a circumstance typically met with strong family and community disapproval.
The long and considered courtship process in nineteenth century Canada, grounded as it was in family and community approval, seems to have greatly increased one's chances of a happy, or at least workable, marriage. Someone who clearly married for love and companionship, Susanna Moodie, wrote to her sister Catherine in July 1856, after twenty-five years of marriage: "Time lengthens while he is away. Will age never diminish my love for this man?"
Prepared with information from:
Noёl, Francoise, Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1790-1870. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.
Young, John H. Our Deportment: Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society, F. B. Dickerson and Co., Hamilton, Ontario, 1881.
Azoulay, Dan. Hearts and Minds: Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era 1900-1930, University of Calgary Press, 2011.