Letter on Marriage (1845)

by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

[Online editor’s note: written from Birmingham, 18 March 1845, to Edward Lott. – RTL.]

LM.1 You fully succeeded in raising my curiosity to boiling point by your three-page prelude to the tit-bit of news. “Botheration to him,” I every now and then exclaimed as I found myself baulked, just as I thought I was coming to the pith of the matter, by some new prefatory remarks – “when will he come to the point?” Truly, I was strongly reminded of the scenes we oftentimes find depicted in old novels where some garrulous domestic charged with the delivery of news of vital importance, edifies his breathlessly-anxious listeners with introductory reminiscences concerning something that his or her grandmother had seen or heard talk of.
LM.2 Great however as were my anticipations concerning the extraordinary interest of the promised intelligence, they were wholly transcended by the reality. Had you seen the height to which my eyebrows were elevated, you would have been in fear lest they should never find their way down again. Probably they would have reminded you of Mr. B–––––’s when he sings “Fly away.” And then, after all when they did settle themselves to their usual level, I began – I began – what will you say to me when I confess that – that I began to laugh! Why I laughed I really cannot say. You know that I consider myself somewhat of an adept in the analysis of feeling, but I own that in this case I am at fault. I think my laughter chiefly proceeded from sympathy with you, and it may be that it partly arose from the incongruous image that immediately presented itself to my mind of so sedate a young man as yourself making a declaration; for I must own that to me a declaration always carries with it a spice of the ludicrous, and I have a considerable horror of making one myself, partly on that account.
LM.3 After my laughter had subsided, however, I began to feel rather envious, seeing that you who are three years my junior should have already found someone to love you, whilst poor I am for aught I can see far enough from such a desideratum. I often feel melancholy enough at not having yet found any one to serve for the type of my ideal, and were it not that I make up the deficiency as well as I can by anticipations of future happiness, I should scarcely think existence worth having.
LM.4 I do not think you can entertain much fear as to my criticism upon your choice. You know I have a very high opinion of Emily Roe, and I think you might have sought far before you found one so well suited to you. Now that I consider it there appears to be much harmony of feeling and sentiment between you, and this is perhaps one of the first essentials to permanent happiness. The difference of age is the only drawback that I see, and perhaps one’s notions on this point originate more in popular prejudice than in reason. You have had abundant opportunity of studying each other’s characters; and I should say that the knowledge thus obtained will be a guarantee for matrimonial felicity (how very odd that term seems by the way as applied to you).
LM.5 I little thought that the conversation we had upon the subject of marriage when you were here, was of such immediate interest to you. Now that I do know it, however, I almost think I must recapitulate for your especial benefit, the opinions I then expressed; so here goes.
LM.6 1. You agree I believe with Emerson that the true sentiment of love between man and woman arises from each serving as the representative of the other’s ideal. From this position I think we may deduce the corollary that the first condition to happiness in the married state is continuance of that representation of the ideal; and hence the conduct of each towards the other should always be so regulated as to give no offence to ideality. And on this ground I conceive that instead of there being, as is commonly the case, a greater familiarity and carelessness with regard to appearances between husband and wife, there ought to be a greater delicacy than between any other parties.
LM.7 2. There should be a thorough recognition on both sides of the equality of rights, and no amount of power should ever be claimed by the one party greater than that claimed by the other. The present relationship existing between husband and wife, where one claims a command over the actions of the other, is nothing more than a remnant of the old leaven of slavery. It is necessarily destructive of refined love; for how can a man continue to regard as his type of the ideal a being whom he has, by denying an equality of privilege with himself, degraded to something below himself? To me the exercise of command on the part of the husband seems utterly repugnant to genuine love, and I feel sure that a man of generous feeling has too much sympathy with the dignity of his wife to think of dictating to her, and that no woman of truly noble mind will submit to be dictated to.
LM.8 3. The last important condition I hold to be the forgetting, to as great an extent as possible, the existence of a legal bond, and the continual dependence upon the natural bond of affection. I do not conceive the most perfect happiness attainable while the legal bond continues; for as we can never rid ourselves of the consciousness of it, it must always influence our conduct. But the next best thing to destroying it is to banish it from our minds, and let husband and wife strive to act towards each other as they would were there no such tie.
LM.9 If men were wise they would see that the affection that God has implanted in us is amply sufficient, when not weakened by artificial aid, to ensure permanence of union; and if they would have more faith in this all would go well. To tie together by human law what God has tied together by passion, is about as wise as it would be to chain the moon to the earth lest the natural attraction existing between them should not be sufficient to prevent them flying asunder.
LM.10 There! I hope you will duly cogitate upon my lecture. Perhaps it may not be quite the thing to talk to a lover about the philosophy of love. I rather think, however, that it is well in all cases to let practice be guided by some theory rather than by nothing; and I think it is well for all incipient Benedicts to get definite opinions upon the matter.
LM.11 But whatever theory you may adopt I think you will believe me when I say that I hope the result may be abundant happiness; and if I should be so fortunate as to be able to accelerate that happiness, I assure you it will be a matter of great gratification to me.
LM.12 We are still here in a state of uncertainty, but I am in daily expectation of the matter being determined. If it is settled favourably we shall go up to London immediately. If otherwise you will in all probability soon see me at Derby.
LM.13 I lately bought Shelley’s poems in four volumes. It will be a great treat to you to read them, which you shall do the first time I come over. His “Prometheus Unbound” is the most beautiful thing I ever read by far.
LM.14 There is a book not long since published called “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” [Online editor’s note: a treatise in phrenological and evolutionary theory by Robert Chambers; published anonymously in 1844. – RTL] which I heard very highly spoken of by a gentleman at Liverpool, who was evidently a good judge. From what I hear I think you will like it. Would it not suit the Mechanics?
LM.15 I am sorry to hear that your sister is still so delicate. But we may hope that the return of warm weather will effect a restoration. Give my kind regards to her and your mother, and also to the ladies over the way; and receive yourself all appropriate congratulations and good wishes from
Your affectionate friend,     

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