How to choose a wife, Victorian style

Hannah Salisbury, Engagement and Events Manager

Archives are wonderful places for surprise discoveries. When searching for one thing, you will often come across something completely different that you would never have thought to go looking for. In this sense working in an archive is challenging for the easily distracted, as there is always something intriguing to pursue.

My latest find, from the parish records of St Botolph’s in Colchester, is this Victorian poem, which gives advice to a man named Fred in choosing a wife (click the images for larger versions, and see below for a transcript):

Now why my dear Fred don’t you marry?

I had hop’d the late rumour was true

Now take my advice and don’t tarry

But set off instanter* to woo

But first my dear Fred pay attention

And though you should love and admire

If she’s one of these Ifs that I mention

Dear Fred make your bow & retire

If you find that she can’t darn a stocking

If she can’t make a shirt or a pie

If she says “Oh! Law!” “Mercy”! “How shocking”!

If she ever drinks beer on the sly

If soon of the country she’s weary

If politics e’er are her theme

If she talks about “Hershel’s nice theory”

Or “Lardner’s dear book upon Steam”

If she crosses her legs or her letters

If you’ve seen her drink three cups of tea

If she boasts of those wearing her fetters

If she’s sick when she goes on the sea

If she seems the least bit of a scold

If her manners have any pretence

If her gown does not cover her shoulders

If her bustle is very immense

If she’s nervous, or bilious, or sickly

If she likes to take breakfast in bed

If she can’t take a hint from you quickly

If her nose has the least touch of red

If she screams when she’s told she’s in danger

If she seems a coquette or a flirt

If she’ll polka or galoppe with a stranger

If she’s stupid or if she is pert

If she’s one of these Ifs oh! then sever

The chain she around you has bound

And seek for a maid in whom never

These follies and failings were found

* While not a word we’re familiar with today, this word looks like ‘instanter’. The Oxford English Dictionary lists ‘instanter’ as a humorous or archaic word meaning at once, or immediately

If Fred was fortunate enough to find a girl who measured up to these exacting standards one does have to wonder whether he would ever had any fun with her, or indeed a meaningful conversation.

The poem is unsigned and undated, so I hoped that its content might provide some clues that would help to pin it down at least to a decade. Some of this evidence, however, is a bit contradictory:

‘If her bustle is very immense’

Bustles were fashionable from the late 1860s until the early 1890s.

If she talks about “Hershel’s nice theory”

This seems most likely to refer to Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), a polymath who published papers and books on a range of scientific subjects between 1821 and 1867.

Or “Lardner’s dear book upon Steam”

This could refer to a few different publications by Irish scientific writer Dionysius Lardner, who published works about steam engines in 1828, 1832, 1836, 1840, 1844, 1856 and 1857.

If she’ll polka or galoppe with a stranger

The polka and galop were lively, energetic dances popular across Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century.

 

This evidence all points to a date in the 1840s or 1850s, apart from the line about the bustle. If bustles did not come in until the late 1860s, the poem must date from after then.

If anyone has any further information or spots any more clues that could tell us more about this poem, do please leave a comment or get in touch with us.

2 thoughts on “How to choose a wife, Victorian style

  1. Re: How to Choose a Wife, Victorian Style
    Much of the poem to which you refer appeared in “Sharpe’s London Magazine: A Journal of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading” (No. 1) November 1, 1845 on P.238-239. It was titled: “Letter from Captain B___, to Lord H___ F___”. The first line was “And are you in love, my dear Harry?”. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th stanzas recited all the “ifs” of your quoted poem exactly. The last stanza, though, was as follows:
    “If she’s one of these ifs, my dear Harry
    Oh, sever the chain she has bound!
    That it’s very unpleasant to marry,
    Both Caudle and Socrates found;
    A wife is a wretched invention,
    And oh, not, a matter of course!
    Shall I have one? – That’s not my intention;
    (Unless the girls take me by force.)”

    It would appear that either your quoted poem or this published one has been taken from the other. However, the date of publication establishes the approximate age of the poem, which is really your question.
    John Sharp

    • Hi John, thank you very much for sharing this, I wonder what the relationship between the two poems is, and if any other versions appear anywhere else. Many thanks!