Read CHAPTER XIV of The Map of Life Conduct and Character , free online book, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky, on


The beautiful saying of Newton, that he felt like a child who had been picking up a few pebbles on the shore of the great ocean of undiscovered truth, may well occur to any writer who attempts to say something on the vast subject of marriage. The infinite variety of circumstances and characters affects it in infinitely various ways, and all that can here be done is to collect a few somewhat isolated and miscellaneous remarks upon it. Yet it is a subject which cannot be omitted in a book like this. In numerous cases it is the great turning-point of a life, and in all cases when it takes place it is one of the most important of its events. Whatever else marriage may do or fail to do, it never leaves a man unchanged. His intellect, his character, his happiness, his way of looking on the world, will all be influenced by it. If it does not raise or strengthen him it will lower or weaken. If it does not deepen happiness it will impair it. It brings with it duties, interests, habits, hopes, cares, sorrows, and joys that will penetrate into every fissure of his nature and modify the whole course of his life.

It is strange to think with how much levity and how little knowledge a contract which is so indissoluble and at the same time so momentous is constantly assumed; sometimes under the influence of a blinding passion and at an age when life is still looked upon as a romance or an idyll; sometimes as a matter of mere ambition and calculation, through a desire for wealth or title or position. Men and women rely on the force of habit and necessity to accommodate themselves to conditions they have never really understood or realised.

In most cases different motives combine, though in different degrees. Sometimes an overpowering affection for the person is the strongest motive and eclipses all others. Sometimes the main motive to marriage is a desire to be married. It is to obtain a settled household and position; to be relieved from the ‘unchartered freedom’ and the ’vague desires’ of a lonely life; to find some object of affection; to acquire the steady habits and the exemption from household cares which are essential to a career; to perpetuate a race; perhaps to escape from family discomforts, or to introduce a new and happy influence into a family. With these motives a real affection for a particular person is united, but it is not of such a character as to preclude choice, judgment, comparison, and a consideration of worldly advantages.

It is a wise saying of Swift that there would be fewer unhappy marriages in the world if women thought less of making nets and more of making cages. The qualities that attract, fascinate, and dazzle are often widely different from those which are essential to a happy marriage. Sometimes they are distinctly hostile to it. More frequently they conduce to it, but only in an inferior or subsidiary degree. The turn of mind and character that makes the accomplished flirt is certainly not that which promises best for the happiness of a married life; and distinguished beauty, brilliant talents, and the heroic qualities that play a great part in the affairs of life, and shine conspicuously in the social sphere, sink into a minor place among the elements of married happiness. In marriage the identification of two lives is so complete that it brings every faculty and gift into play, but in degrees and proportions very different from public life or casual intercourse and relations. The most essential are often wanting in a brilliant life, and are largely developed in lives and characters that rise little, if at all, above the commonplace. In the words of a very shrewd man of the world: ’Before marriage the shape, the figure, the complexion carry all before them; after marriage the mind and character unexpectedly claim their share, and that the largest, of importance.’

The relation is one of the closest intimacy and confidence, and if the identity of interest between the two partners is not complete, each has an almost immeasurable power of injuring the other. A moral basis of sterling qualities is of capital importance. A true, honest, and trustworthy nature, capable of self-sacrifice and self-restraint, should rank in the first line, and after that a kindly, equable, and contented temper, a power of sympathy, a habit of looking at the better and brighter side of men and things. Of intellectual qualities, judgment, tact, and order are perhaps the most valuable. Above almost all things, men should seek in marriage perfect sanity, and dread everything like hysteria. Beauty will continue to be a delight, though with much diminished power, but grace and the charm of manner will retain their full attraction to the last. They brighten in innumerable ways the little things of life, and life is mainly made up of little things, exposed to petty frictions, and requiring small decisions and small sacrifices. Wide interests and large appreciations are, in the marriage relation, more important than any great constructive or creative talent, and the power to soothe, to sympathise, to counsel, and to endure, than the highest qualities of the hero or the saint. It is by these alone that the married life attains its full measure of perfection.

’Tu mihi curarum requies, tu nocte vel atra
Lumen, et in solis tu mihi turba locis.’

But while this is true of all marriages, it is obvious that different professions and circumstances of life will demand different qualities. A hard-working labouring man, or a man who, though not labouring with his hands, is living a life of poverty and struggle, will not seek in marriage a type of character exactly the same as a man who is born to a great position, and who has large social and administrative duties to discharge. The wife of a clergyman immersed in the many interests of a parish; the wife of a soldier or a merchant, who may have to live in many lands, with long periods of separation from her husband, and perhaps amid many hardships; the wife of an active and ambitious politician; the wife of a busy professional man incessantly occupied outside his home; the wife of a man whose health or business or habits keep him constantly in his house, will each need some special qualities. There are few things in which both men and women naturally differ more than in the elasticity and adaptiveness of their natures, in their power of bearing monotony, in the place which habit, routine, and variety hold in their happiness; and in different kinds of life these things have very different degrees of importance. Special family circumstances, such as children by a former marriage, or difficult and delicate relations with members of the family of one partner, will require the exercise of special qualities. Such relations, indeed, are often one of the most searching and severe tests of the sterling qualities of female character.

Probably, on the whole, the best presumption of a successful choice in marriage will be found where the wife has not been educated in circumstances or ideas absolutely dissimilar from those of her married life. Marriages of different races or colours are rarely happy, and the same thing is true of marriages between persons of social levels that are so different as to entail great differences of manners and habits. Other and minor disparities of circumstances between girl life and married life will have their effect, but they are less strong and less invariable. Some of the happiest marriages have been marriages of emancipation, which removed a girl from uncongenial family surroundings, and placed her for the first time in an intellectual and moral atmosphere in which she could freely breathe. At the same time, in the choice of a wife, the character, circumstances, habits, and tone of the family in which she has been brought up will always be an important element. There are qualities of race, there are pedigrees of character, which it is never prudent to neglect. Franklin quotes with approval the advice of a wise man to choose a wife ‘out of a bunch,’ as girls brought up together improve each other by emulation, learn mutual self-sacrifice and forbearance, rub off their angularities, and are not suffered to develop overweening self-conceit. A family where the ruling taste is vulgar, where the standard of honour is low, where extravagance and self-indulgence and want of order habitually prevail, creates an atmosphere which it needs a strong character altogether to escape. There is also the great question of physical health. A man should seek in marriage rather to raise than to depress the physical level of his family, and above all not to introduce into it grave, well-ascertained hereditary disease. Of all forms of self-sacrifice hardly any is at once so plainly right and so plainly useful as the celibacy of those who are tainted with such disease.

There is no subject on which religious teachers have dwelt more than upon marriage and the relation of the sexes, and it has been continually urged that the propagation of children is its first end. It is strange, however, to observe how almost absolutely in the popular ethics of Christendom such considerations as that which I have last mentioned have been neglected. If one of the most responsible things that a man can do is to bring a human being into the world, one of his first and most obvious duties is to do what he can to secure that it shall come into the world with a sound body and a sane mind. This is the best inheritance that parents can leave their children, and it is in a large degree within their reach. Immature marriage, excessive child-bearing, marriages of near relations, and, above all, marriages with some grave hereditary physical or mental disease or some great natural defect, may bring happiness to the parents, but can scarcely fail to entail a terrible penalty upon their children. It is clearly recognised that one of the first duties of parents to their children is to secure them in early life not only good education, but also, as far as is within their power, the conditions of a healthy being. But the duty goes back to an earlier stage, and in marriage the prospects of the unborn should never be forgotten. This is one of the considerations which in the ethics of the future is likely to have a wholly different place from any that it has occupied in the past.

A kindred consideration, little less important and almost equally neglected in popular teaching, is that it is a moral offence to bring children into the world with no prospect of being able to provide for them. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the neglect of these two duties has tended to the degradation and unhappiness of the world.

The greatly increased importance which the Darwinian theory has given to heredity should tend to make men more sensible of the first of these duties. In marriage there are not only reciprocal duties between the two partners; there are also, more than in any other act of life, plain duties to the race. The hereditary nature of insanity and of some forms of disease is an indisputable truth. The hereditary transmission of character has not, it is true, as yet acquired this position; and there is a grave schism on the subject in the Darwinian school. But that it exists to some extent few close observers will doubt, and it is in a high degree probable that it is one of the most powerful moulding influences of life. No more probable explanation has yet been given of the manner in which human nature has been built up, and of the various instincts and tastes with which we are born, than the doctrine that habits and modes of thought and feeling indulged in and produced by circumstances in former generations have gradually become innate in the race, and exhibit themselves spontaneously and instinctively and quite independently of the circumstances that originally produced them. According to this theory the same process is continually going on. Man has slowly emerged from a degraded and bestial condition. The pressure of long-continued circumstances has moulded him into his special type; but new feelings and habits, or modifications of old feelings and habits, are constantly passing not only into his life but into his nature, taking root there, and in some degree at least reproducing themselves by the force of heredity in the innate disposition of his offspring. If this be true, it gives a new and terrible importance both to the duty of self-culture and to the duty of wise selection in marriage. It means that children are likely to be influenced not only by what we do and by what we say, but also by what we are, and that the characters of the parents in different degrees and combinations will descend even to a remote posterity.

It throws a not less terrible light upon the miscalculations of the past. On this hypothesis, as Mr. Galton has truly shown, it is scarcely possible to exaggerate the evil which has been brought upon the world by the religious glorification of celibacy and by the enormous development and encouragement of the monastic life. Generation after generation, century after century, and over the whole wide surface of Christendom, this conception of religion drew into a sterile celibacy nearly all who were most gentle, most unselfish, most earnest, studious, and religious, most susceptible to moral and intellectual enthusiasm, and thus prevented them from transmitting to posterity the very qualities that are most needed for the happiness and the moral progress of the race. Whenever the good and evil resulting from different religious systems come to be impartially judged, this consideration is likely to weigh heavily in the scale.

Returning, however, to the narrower sphere of particular marriages, it may be observed that although full confidence, and, in one sense, complete identification of interests, are the characteristics of a perfect marriage, this does not by any means imply that one partner should be a kind of duplicate of the other. Woman is not a mere weaker man; and the happiest marriages are often those in which, in tastes, character, and intellectual qualities, the wife is rather the complement than the reflection of her husband. In intellectual things this is constantly shown. The purely practical and prosaic intellect is united with an intellect strongly tinged with poetry and romance; the man whose strength is in facts, with the woman whose strength is in ideas; the man who is wholly absorbed in science or politics or economical or industrial problems and pursuits, with a woman who possesses the talent or at least the temperament of an artist or musician. In such cases one partner brings sympathies or qualities, tastes or appreciations or kinds of knowledge in which the other is most defective; and by the close and constant contact of two dissimilar types each is, often insensibly, but usually very effectually, improved. Men differ greatly in their requirements of intellectual sympathy. A perfectly commonplace intellectual surrounding will usually do something to stunt or lower a fine intelligence, but it by no means follows that each man finds the best intellectual atmosphere to be that which is most in harmony with his own special talent.

To many, hard intellectual labour is an eminently isolated thing, and what they desire most in the family circle is to cast off all thought of it. I have known two men who were in the first rank of science, intimate friends, and both of them of very domestic characters. One of them was accustomed to do nearly all his work in the presence of his wife, and in the closest possible co-operation with her. The other used to congratulate himself that none of his family had his own scientific tastes, and that when he left his work and came into his family circle he had the rest of finding himself in an atmosphere that was entirely different. Some men of letters need in their work constant stimulus, interest, and sympathy. Others desire only to develop their talent uncontrolled, uninfluenced, and undisturbed, and with an atmosphere of cheerful quiet around them.

What is true of intellect is also in a large degree true of character. Two persons living constantly together should have many tastes and sympathies in common, and their characters will in most cases tend to assimilate. Yet great disparities of character may subsist in marriage, not only without evil but often with great advantage. This is especially the case where each supplies what is most needed in the other. Some natures require sedatives and others tonics; and it will often be found in a happy marriage that the union of two dissimilar natures stimulates the idle and inert, moderates the impetuous, gives generosity to the parsimonious and order to the extravagant, imparts the spirit of caution or the spirit of enterprise which is most needed, and corrects, by contact with a healthy and cheerful nature, the morbid and the desponding.

Marriage may also very easily have opposite effects. It is not unfrequently founded on the sympathy of a common weakness, and when this is the case it can hardly fail to deepen the defect. On the whole, women, in some of the most valuable forms of strength in the power of endurance and in the power of perseverance are at least the equals of men. But weak and tremulous nerves, excessive sensibility, and an exaggerated share of impulse and emotion, are indissolubly associated with certain charms, both of manner and character, which are intensely feminine, and to many men intensely attractive. When a nature of this kind is wedded to a weak or a desponding man, the result will seldom be happiness to either party, but with a strong man such marriages are often very happy. Strength may wed with weakness or with strength, but weakness should beware of mating itself with weakness. It needs the oak to support the ivy with impunity, and there are many who find the constant contact of a happy and cheerful nature the first essential of their happiness.

As it is not wise or right that either partner in marriage should lose his or her individuality, so it is right that each should have an independent sphere of authority. It is assumed, of course, that there is the perfect trust which should be the first condition of marriage and also a reasonable judgment. Many marriages have been permanently marred because the woman has been given no independence in money matters and is obliged to come for each small thing to her husband. In general the less the husband meddles in household matters, or the wife in professional ones, the better. The education of very young children of both sexes, and of girls of a mature age, will fall almost exclusively to the wife. The education of the boys when they have emerged from childhood will be rather governed by the judgment of the man. Many things will be regulated in common; but the larger interests of the family will usually fall chiefly to one partner, the smaller and more numerous ones to the other.

On such matters, however, generalisations have little value, as exceptions are very numerous. Differences of character, age, experience, and judgment, and countless special circumstances, will modify the family type, and it is in discovering these differences that wisdom in marriage mainly consists. The directions in which married life may influence character are also very many; but in the large number of cases in which it brings with it a great weight of household cares and family interests it will usually be found with both partners, but especially with the woman, at once to strengthen and to narrow unselfishness. She will live very little for herself, but very exclusively for her family. On the intellectual side such marriages usually give a sounder judgment and a wider knowledge of the world rather than purely intellectual tastes. It is a good thing when the education which precedes marriage not only prepares for the duties of the married life, but also furnishes a fair share of the interests and tastes which that state will probably tend to weaken. The hard battle of life, and the anxieties and sorrows that a family seldom fails to bring, will naturally give an increased depth and seriousness to character. There are, however, natures which, though they may be tainted by no grave vice, are so incurably frivolous that even this education will fail to influence them. As Emerson says, ‘A fly is as untameable as a hyaena.’

The age that is most suited for marriage is also a matter which will depend largely on individual circumstances. The ancients, as is well known, placed it, in the case of the man, far back, and they desired a great difference of age between the man and the woman. Plato assigned between thirty and thirty-five, and Aristotle thirty-seven, as the best age for a man to marry, while they would have the girls married at eighteen or twenty. In their view, however, marriage was looked upon very exclusively from the side of the man and of the State. They looked on it mainly as the means of producing healthy citizens, and it was in their eyes almost wholly dissociated from the passion of love. Montaigne, in one of his essays, has expounded this view with the frankest cynicism. Yet few things are so important in marriage as that the man should bring into it the freshness and the purity of an untried nature, and that the early poetry and enthusiasm of life should at least in some degree blend with the married state. Nor is it desirable that a relation in which the formation of habits plays so large a part should be deferred until character has lost its flexibility, and until habits have been irretrievably hardened.

On the other hand there are invincible arguments against marriages entered into at an age when neither partner has any real knowledge of the world and of men. Only too often they involve many illusions and leave many regrets. Some kinds of knowledge, such as that given by extended travel, are far more easily acquired before than after marriage. Usually very early marriages are improvident marriages, made with no sufficient provision for the children, and often they are immature marriages, bringing with them grave physical evils. In those cases in which a great place or position is to be inherited, it is seldom a good thing that the interval of age between the owner and his heir should be so small that inheritance will probably be postponed till the confines of old age.

Marriages entered into in the decline of life stand somewhat apart from others, and are governed by other motives. What men chiefly seek in them is a guiding hand to lead them gently down the last descent of life.

On this, as on most subjects connected with marriage, no general or inflexible rule can be laid down. Moralists have chiefly dilated on the dangers of deferred marriages; economists on the evils of improvident marriages. Each man’s circumstances and disposition must determine his course. On the whole, however, in most civilised countries the prevailing tendencies are in the direction of an increased postponement of marriage. Among the rich, the higher standard of luxury and requirements, the comforts of club life, and also, I think, the diminished place which emotion is taking in life, all lead to this, while the spread of providence and industrial habits among the poor has the same tendency.

A female pen is so much more competent than a masculine one for dealing with marriage from the woman’s point of view that I do not attempt to enter on that field. It is impossible, however, to overlook the marked tendency of nineteenth-century civilisation to give women, both married and unmarried, a degree of independence and self-reliance far exceeding that of the past. The legislation of most civilised countries has granted them full protection for their property and their earnings, increased rights of guardianship over their children, a wider access to professional life, and even a very considerable voice in the management of public affairs; and these influences have been strengthened by great improvement in female education, and by a change in the social tone which has greatly extended their latitude of independent action. For my own part, I have no doubt that this movement is, on the whole, beneficial, not only to those who have to fight a lonely battle in life, but also to those who are in the marriage state. Larger interests, wider sympathies, a more disciplined judgment, and a greater power of independence and self-control naturally accompany it; and these things can never be wholly wasted. They will often be called into active exercise by the many vicissitudes of the married life. They will, perhaps, be still more needed when the closest of human ties is severed by the great Divorce of Death.