In Romeo and Juliet tradition, status, property, and wealth were the dealmakers or the dealbreakers.In early colonial days, marriage might have little to do with the emotional entanglement of two young people. Romantic love did not figure in the parents' equations, and it was not until about the middle of the eighteenth century, when parental influence began to decline, that the concept of love got serious consideration as a matrimonial prerequisite.But any red-blooded young male who independently set his cap at a particular young lady and approached the parents with a view to instigating a formal courtship was in for a hard slog.
Darcy and the demure Miss Elizabeth Bennett, where ne'er a lusty thought or word between them passed.But the rituals of Austen's Pride and Prejudice—idealistically drafted in 1796—as shining examples have long since been passed over, and courtship, that delicate art of hooking a prospective mate and playing the fish all the way to a preacher, is all but dead.Lawsuits transcend social class, and the documents of the disputes leave the impression that all the way up to the lesser gentry, there was dirty linen.For upper-class English and Americans, keeping up appearances was paramount, and heaven forbid that a daughter should tie the knot with, in the vernacular, a bun in the oven. Of enormous concern to quality folk was the social standing of a child's potential mate.Leon Kass of the University of Chicago says that nowadays "for the great majority, the way to the altar is uncharted territory: It's every couple on its own bottom, without a compass, often without a goal.
Those who reach the altar seem to have stumbled on it by accident." It may be that the traditional route to conjugal correctness—chaste courtship, formal engagement, church wedding, consummation, and parenthood, in that order—is less traveled.Defying parental prohibitions, youths occasionally caught the quickest ride to their connubial destination.At left, a coach waits for a pair leaving by the back fence in John Collet's The Elopement, from ca. Starting a family at times leapfrogged a wedding—baby-to-be making a party of three. The anxiety is quickened by the feeling that society has been on the road to ruin since maybe Miles Standish's day and that the prospects of their offspring walking the path to the altar with a nice young man or sweet young woman have greatly diminished since John Alden and Priscilla Mullins made the trip.For couples that could not secure their families' blessings, this was a consolation.You joined hands and declared that you took each other to be a lawfully wedded spouse, and lived together. This short but sweet ritual went by the name "handfasting" or "spousal." Parental permission did not enter the picture.In such situations, couples had to wait into their late twenties before formally entering the connubial state—which some historians say created fertile ground for extracurricular shenanigans, broken promises, and court battles.