Married or Single?
In Married or Single? author Catherine Sedgwick hopes to convince society that the single life is noble, eventful, and fulfilling. Out with the stereotyped ‘Old Maid,’ and in with the unmarried, but well-educated and socially active woman. The story reads like a 1960s soap opera, but without the action. However, I don’t say this as a criticism, I think she intended her novel to be an analysis of relationships and of introspection. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of well-turned phrases packed with meaning. It’s a treasure trove of Victorian idioms, sayings, and vocabulary. It also describes in detail, though sometimes in passing, Victorian attitudes, behavior, and ways. For those interested in writing historical fiction, with America of the 1850s as a setting, Married or Single?, published in 1857, is as helpful as any reference book.
The story follows the life of Grace Herbert, a pretty and sensible young woman of integrity who is sought after by two principle suitors: Archibald (Archy) Lisle, a conscientious lawyer, and another attorney, the dapper and scheming Horace Copley.
Grace’s sister Eleanor lives a blissful married life, though stricken with tragedy when her little boy dies. Later in the story, an acquaintance of Grace’s, the attractive Mrs. Tallis, also loses her young daughter. Both women will learn from the hard but providential lessons that come with the loss of a loved one, and the reader understands that though with marriage comes the fulfilling vocation of motherhood, so comes heartbreak as well.
Death also visits the young and beautiful Letty, who, as a child, was taken care of by Archibald Lisle, whose good deeds seem to follow him wherever. Letty’s death also turns out to be a blessing, because she had been dishonored by Horace Copely. Now, she won’t have to live with her shame. Also, she’ll be spared another heartache: she had deep feelings for her benefactor, Archy, but his heart was destined for another.
One of Archy’s many good deeds is to save a childhood friend, Max, from prison, which very much pleases Max’s sister, Alice, who had asked for Archy’s help in the matter.
Meanwhile, the devious Horace Copely, who constantly seeks out Grace’s attention, finally amuses Grace well enough one evening to pop the marital question to her. Taken in by the ambiance of the night, Grace accepts. Afterwards, she’s ill at ease with her decision, and her good-natured Uncle Walter, a man of common sense and possessed with an ability to understand the true nature of men and women, discreetly bemoans her choice.
Uncle Walter’s sister-in-law and widow, Grace’s stepmother, had hoped Horace Copely would have chosen her worldly and spoiled daughter Anne Carlton as a bride. (One cannot but think of Cinderella, with Grace, of course, as Cinderella, Mrs. Herbert as the evil stepmother, and Ann as both stepsisters rolled into one.) Mrs. Herbert and her daughter are disappointed, but the scheming widow proves to be the consummate actress. Even though she doesn’t show her hand, the insightful and patient Grace knows what cards she’s playing.
When Mrs. Tallis’s daughter died, Grace comforted the grieving mother, and while confiding in Grace, Mrs. Tallis realizes God has taught her an important lesson, that she ought to be more attentive and loving toward her husband whom she has disregarded. If she doesn’t change her ways, her daughter, who loved both father and mother equally, will have died in vain.
This leads Mrs. Tallis to reject the amorous advances of Horace Copely, who has pursued her with gifts. When Grace discovers this, she breaks off with Horace Copely, and goes to spend three weeks with Max, Alice, and their mother in the idyllic (pre-industrial) small town of Mapleton. While there, Archy Lisle shows up, as Mapleton is his childhood home. The mother envisions Archy marrying Alice, and Archy does propose to the daughter, but Alice has another man in mind. Once Archy realizes Alice has a suitor and that Grace has broken off with Horace Copely, he can freely court Grace, the real love of his life.
Though Grace, who at one point decided upon the single life, will no doubt marry Archy, she could have had a fulfilling life, with friends for family and a host of purposeful good works to accomplish, while remaining single. And that’s the lesson of the novel.
Here are a few quotable quotes in Married or Single?, though not all may be of Catharine Sedgewick’s invention:
The richer men are, the more they covet.
Instinct is a divine inspiration—reason only a human ingenuity.
Our country is progressive. One should not look to antecedents.
The cravings for intimacy and affection are not dulled, but made more intense by a reserved nature.
If you want to spread news, tell it to one woman, and you give it wings.
To love and be loved is pretty much all there is to live for.
You should not indulge anxiety; you are a professing Christian.
[The intensity of her nature] is like fire: if the best servant, the cruelest master.
They were both too well-bred, but they had no sympathy, and therefore no reciprocal happiness.
She never conferred a benefit without the particulars of its cost.
There are certain observances that a young lady...can not omit without remark.
[In marriage] though two make one for themselves, they make two for the rest of us.
The desire of conquest is stimulated by its uncertainty.
[Some] mistake impulses for inspirations.
One’s own convenience is lead in one scale, and one’s neighbor’s a feather in the other.
It is the sudden fortunes that come upon people unprepared for them, by education or association, that vulgarize our society.
Those are said to be the happiest days of our lives of which there is least to record.
[Who counts] the three times gathering round the table, where mind and heart, as well as body, find their food?
As slaves must be trained for freedom, so women must be educated for usefulness, independence, and contentment in single life.
Sorrow has made me early wise.
 For whites, life expectancy was 39.5 years in the 1850s, while infant mortality was 216/1000 (vs 5.7/1000 today). https://eh.net/encyclopedia/fertility-and-mortality-in-the-united-states/ Accessed 4/13/2019. One-third of children born alive in the United States in the 1850s died before their fifth birthday. https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality Accessed 4.13.2019.
Newspapers of 1857 carried some very serious stories as well as a column of jokes. Today, it's not always clear which variety amuses us more. In any case, this blog is dedicated to analyzing the pages of the Nebraska Advertiser newspaper of 1857. Chime in if you've run across some interesting stories from the time period.