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.Sometimes these affairs ended happily, sometimes not.For young girls, it was prudent to hide a couple of friends in the closet to secretly witness the pledges and forestall backsliding.In parts of Britain, 50 percent of brides were great with child.Court records are a trove of intimate tittle-tattle and gory details that shamefaced ladies and gentlemen would have preferred to keep private.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.Influential relatives had almost complete control of the course of events.
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.The problem was that a swain eager to start a household of his own often had to wait until his father or guardian saw fit to dispense his property in the son's favor.Sometimes a younger son or daughter could not be betrothed before his or her elder siblings.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.