How the British nobility once maintained their power with parties and what this still means for marriage markets today. By Maja Brankovic
London, 1813: High society is in a wedding frenzy. The “season” has begun, the country gentry have flocked to the city and taken up quarters in their noble city villas in order to introduce their marriageable daughters into society. In the evening they will dance at balls and have fun at dinner parties, during the day they will stroll through the park with their own kind. They all share one great goal: that a rich man of high rank asks for their girl’s hand in marriage.
For Daphne, eldest daughter of the House of Bridgerton, everything is at stake this year. Dressed all in white, accompanied by her mother, the widowed Viscountess, she approaches the Queen and bows with a curtsy. It’s officially on the market. Her mother has been preparing her for this step all her life. The pressure is high, she doesn’t have much time. A season, maybe two, then she has to be under the hood. The Queen looks her over, takes a liking to her and declares her “spotless”.
Daphne and her entry into what is probably the most exclusive marriage market in the world are the focus of the Netflix series “Bridgerton”, a costume extravaganza that was released at the end of 2020 and is the streaming service’s second most-watched series to date. “Bridgerton” is pure escapism and yet has a core of truth: the young women actually only had a window of a few years to find a husband. If they didn’t succeed, they were destined to die as spinsters. A shame for the women and their entire families.
What is suitable as material for a successful series also has a place in economic research, as a recently published paper by economist Marc Goñi proves. His love of Jane Austen’s books is said to have brought him to the exclusive marriage market of British aristocrats in the 19th century, the Austrian newspaper “Die Presse” once reported. The researcher from the University of Bergen wanted to know exactly how this market worked. Instead, he looked at what changed when this marriage market collapsed from one day to the next.
That is exactly what happened in 1861, when Queen Victoria, in mourning for her late husband, canceled three seasons in a row. The nobles no longer met in London for balls, parties and walks, but stayed in their country residences spread across the country. Goñi wondered: What marriages were contracted during this period? What did that do to the noble families? What happened to her influence? And with their money?
To find an answer to his questions, he dug deep into the documents of Victorian society. He went through the invitation lists for the royal balls from 1851 to 1875, all of which are on file in the British National Archives. He combed through family trees, estate registers and books on the aristocratic family estates. From 1861, the queen’s period of mourning led to an unmistakable break: when the season was suspended for three years, the probability of aristocratic offspring marrying a commoner increased by 40 percent. It probably also accelerated the decline of the nobility itself.
Goñi had an idea what to look for. “Around the age of 22 the market value of the daughters of higher nobles – dukes, marquises and earls – approached that of the daughters of lower-ranking barons and viscounts,” he writes. Daughters who were just a little younger probably also felt this pressure in 1861, and even a canceled season didn’t change that. What’s more, this break probably caused some people to panic about marriage. For no one could know how long the rite would be suspended. The daughters, who were actually “turned” to get married, had to look for a husband in other “markets”.
The researcher could literally see this panic in the data. Because the probability that a young woman with a title would marry a commoner increased by almost half during this time. Moreover, even if they married within their class, they were more likely to marry a poorer husband or choose a suitor closer to where they lived. “Of course they didn’t know when it would start again,” says Goñi. His work implied that many were playing it safe rather than wasting their prime waiting for the ball to return (and risking ending up a spinster). “They probably decided to hurry up and marry whoever was available at the time,” Goñi surmises. Which is understandable, but in the eyes of the family it was probably a mistake.
By marrying a commoner, women suffered a loss of reputation and often a financial decline as well. Both inevitably affected their families. As Goñi’s analysis shows, this set in motion a domino effect. The woman’s brothers were 50 percent less likely to become Members of Parliament.
This was particularly important because a change in law in 1870 allowed the establishment of schools for commoners. Without this political power, the families were unable to resist the taxes imposed by local governments to fund the new schools. The loss of power was doubly painful: on the one hand, the taxes reduced their wealth, on the other hand, their servants now had access to education and thus the hope of a different way of life. Goñi found that taxes were higher near the family home where a woman had married a commoner.
So from the perspective of the aristocrats, it was drama that their highly exclusive marriage market collapsed for a while. For Goñi, however, this insight is not limited to British society in the 19th century, but extends far into the present. To this day, the choice of partner often takes place in exclusive markets, and this still has a major impact on the prosperity of society, he says.
In fact, all recent studies show that people are still searching within a comparatively small radius. According to a study from 2013, most people in wealthy countries look for a partner with a similar level of education, income or social position. In surveys in the USA, 60 percent of respondents say they have met their partner in a place that has some form of restricted access: at university, at work, at church. “Everyone would like to be married to George Clooney, but few have the chance to meet him,” says Goñi. He sees little good in that. Because exclusive marriage markets cement the social division and contribute to the cementing of inequality.
Goni, Marc. Assortative Matching at the Top of the Distribution: Evidence from the World’s Most Exclusive Marriage Market, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 14, no. 3 (July 2022): 445-87.