Avoiding Errors, Fopperies, and Follies: How to be a Good Wife

 [This article by Elizabeth Hopwood, a graduate student in the English Department at Northeastern University, first appeared in the February 2011 issue of The Readex Report.]

Anyone who’s planned a wedding has probably dealt with unsolicited advice: everything from what drinks to serve, how long (or short) the ceremony should be, how the couple should deal with name changes, and, not least, rules and tips for creating, maintaining, and sustaining a successful marriage.

Although I tried to compartmentalize my upcoming wedding plans far, far away from the bounds of the English department and scholarly research, it just so happened that the peculiarities of wedding/wedded life intersected, oddly enough, with archival research. What follows are portions of a news/opinion piece submitted to The New-England Weekly Journal (Containing the Most Remarkable Occurrences Foreign & Domestic) on February 15, 1731. It is part one of a two-parter called “A Letter to a Lady on her Marriage.” Written by a gentleman who was concerned with communicating ideals of conduct and virtue for the young New England woman, the article lists several follies that the wedded woman must necessarily avoid in order to make “a good Figure in the World.” Brides-to-be, be aware: perhaps we can learn a thing or two about how we ought to govern ourselves after we’ve snagged that husband.

I read this piece first as a scholar and then later, surrounded by wedding invitation samples, etiquette books, and a growing guest list, as a bride. Each reading led me to consider the ever-increasing and sometimes noisy discourse of feminine instruction, and I wondered how much has changed and what has remained the same. I wondered what would happen if instructions from an eighteenth-century conduct manual were translated, interpreted, and applied to the twenty-first century. What follows each gentlemanly tip are this writer’s humble translations, boiled down into easy-to-remember (and certainly sarcastic) “do’s” and “don’ts”. I excerpt:

Madam, …You are beginning to enter into a Course of Life, where you will want much advise to direct you from falling into many Errors, Fopperies, and Follies to which your Sex is Subject…It must be therefore your Business to Qualify yourself with those Offices wherein I will not fail to be your director, as long as I think you shall deserve it, by letting you know how you are to Act, and what you ought to Avoid: and beware of despising or neglecting my Instructions, whereon will depend not only your making a good Figure in the World, but your own real Happiness, as well as that of the Person who ought to be the dearest to you.

 I must therefore desire you in the first place, to be very slow in changing the Modest Behavior of a Virgin…if the Votes of Wise Men were gathered, a very great Majority would be in favour of those Ladies, who after they were enter’d into that State, rather choose to double their Portion of Modesty and Reservedness.

Tip #1, Do NOT Bring Sexy Back.

I must likewise warn you strictly against the least degree of Fondness to your Husband before any Witness whatsoever, even before your nearest Relations, or the very Maids of your Chamber.

Tip #2, No Canoodling in Front of the Help!

…I should likewise advise you to differ in practice from those Ladies who Affect abundance of uneasiness while their Husbands are abroad, start with every knock at the Door, and ring the Bell incessantly for the Servants to let in their Master; will not Eat a bit at Dinner or Supper if the Husband happens to stay out, and receive him at his return with such a Medley of Chiding, and Kindness, and Catechising him where he has been, that a Shrew from Billingsgate would be a more easy and eligible Companion.

Tip #3, While Your Husband Is Away, You are Allowed to Stay in Pajama Pants and Watch “Real Housewives” while Eating an Entire Box of Mac and Cheese for Dinner. But Don’t Vex the Servants. And, Please, No Nagging!

…the Satyricial part of Mankind will needs believe that it is not Impossible to be very fine and very filthy, and that the Capacities of a Lady are sometimes apt to fall short in Cultivating Cleanliness and Finery together: I shall only add, upon so tender a Subject what a pleasant Gentleman said concerning a silly Woman of Quality: that nothing could make her Supportable but cutting off her Head, for his Ears were Offended by her Tongue, and his Nose by her Hair and Teeth.

Tip #4, Be Sweet in Smell, Sweet in Words.

This writer describes eighteenth-century marriage as an institution that values virtue, hygiene, and modesty. With the popularity and prevalence of conduct manuals and articles, this gentleman’s marital advice was yet another voice of the many shaping and constructing the role of wives in the domestic sphere. I can joke to my fellow brides-to-be, “Go forth with this advice, and be successful wives!” But in reality, aren’t we consistently being inundated with modern versions of the conduct manual—within the pages of glossy wedding magazines, on wedding web sites, and even on television shows? (Please note, I am not advocating taking advice from Bridezillas, reality dating shows, or any sitcom featuring the trope of the exasperated yet attractive mom and her bulging, bumbling husband.) What marriage advice have you received? And I wonder…what advice would you give to a young gentleman, on his marriage? Source: “A Letter to a Lady on her Marriage.” New-England Weekly Journal, Boston: 1731. NewsBank/Readex, Database: America’s Historical Newspapers. About the Author Elizabeth Hopwood is a working on her Ph.D. in English at Northeastern University. She has blogged about her wedding planning experience at WeddingBee.com under the pseudonym “Ms. Potato Chips.” Special acknowledgement to colleague Shun Kiang for bringing this archival piece to her attention and for many discussions about its interest and importance.

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