To wed—or not to wed?—That is the Question

Add as much discretion as Nature hath allotted you

Do you need courting advice? Do you need to write a valentine? If so, the books for you are Gretna Green, or Cupid’s introduction to the Temple of Hymen, by Cupid’s Secretary (1798), and The Beauties of Hymen; or a new Valentine writer (c.1824). These delightful books intended for late 18th and early 19th century readers are held in the Rare Book Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Painted frontispiece from Beauties of Hymen, showing a courting couple backed by Cupid.Frontispiece. Beauties of Hymen (ca.1824). Ref: REng BELL Right 1800 vol.6.

The 48-page Gretna Green is packed with marital and courting advice, containing among other things advice on the folly and danger of marrying widows and old maids, advice on which would be the more preferable given no other choice, and recipes on how to cure love and how to write a love letter.

Written for the ‘entertainment of both sexes’ this gem also includes a map of the Land of Matrimony, which is situated on the extremities of the torrid and frozen zones. The map includes such geographical features as Divorce Island, Fortress of Virtue, and Cape Shilly Shally.

A fantastical map of the land of matrimony, including Divorce Island, Fortress of Virtue, and Cape Shilly Shally.A new map of the Land of Matrimony from Gretna Green, or, Cupid's introduction to the temple of Hymen. Ref: REng TALES v.15.

Detail of the map, showing a 'Prude Island'.Prude Island, from a new map of the Land of Matrimony.

While Gretna Green is written in a tongue-in-cheek style, it is undoubtedly based on the social norms of the day.

For those wanting a cure for love, the author advises:

Take eight ounces of consideration, half the quantity of indifference, ten grains of ingratitude, six scruples of patience, a small sprig of rue, two good handfuls of employment, and four months absence; mix them with the constant conversation of a rival: to this you may add as much discretion as Nature hath allotted you. These boil all together, without intermission, till a third part be consumed, cooling it with a few flights: spread it on the thoughts of your lover’s imperfections; apply the plaister lukewarm to your heart, but observe not to take it off till it comes off of itself. N.B. If this fails, your case is desperate.

And to compose a love letter:

Take five hundred protestations, half as many vows, one hundred lies, fifty drachms of deceit, and equal quantity of nonsense, treble the quantity of flattery; mix the ingredients up together, and add thereto half a scruple of sincerity, sweetening it often with the words angel, goddess, charmer, honey, and the like. When it is sweetened to your taste, take as much of it at a time as you think proper, fold it up in gilt paper, seal it with the impression of a flaming heart full of wounds; let it be carefully delivered, and it is irresistible.

The author is not always convinced that marriage is the best state of existence. He proposes the following revisions to the marriage service: ‘with all my worldly goods I thee endow’ should be replaced by ‘with so much of my worldly goods as I shall think proper’, and the phrase ‘until death us do part’ should be metamorphosed into ‘durante bené placita’, since serving seven years is quite long enough and indeed no man living is obliged by the laws of the land to serve above this number. Even the phrase ‘for better and for worse’ comes under scrutiny and the author observes somewhat cynically that the latter generally comes to pass, so should be changed to ‘for better, and not for worse’.

However, there must be some benefits to marriage as bachelors are urged to re-consider their state, especially as there is no other legal means of increasing the world’s population.

You’re a red herring, or a sprat…

If you need to write a poetic valentine to the object of your desire, an essential aid could be The Beauties of Hymen; or a new Valentine writer. At the cost of sixpence, this 28 page treasure contains numerous poems organised into various categories: whether you be a lawyer, bricklayer, weaver, stay maker, fishmonger, soldier, sailor, shoe maker, or sawyer, there is something here for you; even as specific as a coachman to a laundry maid.

The Sawyer declares:

I am a sawyer by my trade,
And you will find, a hearty blade;
Then to my love, ne’er stand see saw,
Your person near my pit now draw;
No dust shall flow into your eyes,
Which much above all things I prize;
You now my Valentine must be,
And none is so beautiful to me.

Despite the Sawyer’s heartfelt protestations, the answer is:

Your words indeed, are fine and limber,
And you may think that I am timber;
But yet, for all your sugar’d words,
You shall not saw me into boards;
I never, never, can be thine,
So chuse another Valentine.

The Fishmonger is likewise unlucky; perhaps the comparison with fish was off-putting to the recipient:

You are the girl I take delight in,
Much more than haddock, smelts or whiting;
Flat as a flounder I shall be,
Unless you kindly pity me;
And to my tender heart incline,
Who are alone my Valentine.

The answer is:

I do despise your cod and whiting,
For fish I never took delight in;
You’re a red herring, or a sprat,
A crab, a shrimp a prawn, and that
So I must now your suit decline
You shall not be my Valentine.

On the other hand, Stay Makers who can shape the female figure, Bricklayers who can build houses, and Weavers who can create rich adornments for their beloved, are clearly more desirable. The Stay Maker writes:

The slender waist, ah! Let me fit,
How nicely I your shape can hit;
The rising bosom I’ll display,
Thy fitting hips shall all survey;
In ev’ry part you shall be fine,
My pretty little Valentine.

This approach worked, for the reply is:

If you will try your utmost art,
To win my simple Virgin heart;
To make my shape look nice and fine,
Then you shall be my Valentine;
Come when you will to take my measure,
I will receive you, Sir, with pleasure.

Valentines were also written by the female of the species:

No peace I’ve had since first thy form I view’d.
And at each view I find my pain renew’d;
These lines are sent to let my charmer know,
He only is the cause of all my woe;
Haste quickly to me, and relieve my pain,
Give me thy heart, and with it peace again.

Happy Valentines Day!

Studio portrait of unidentified young woman with long hair holding flowers, wearing a Valentine's Day costume.Studio portrait of unidentified young woman with long hair holding flowers. Ref: 1/2-163034-G.

By Ruth Lightbourne

Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing

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