III. What's Love Got To Do With It? 

“It is up to spouses to match themselves. Mutual inclination ought to be their first bond…. Their first duty once united is to love each other.”

—Rousseau, Émile, Book V (1762)

As rational as the Age of Reason may have been, it also put a premium on love, and on feeling (or sensibilité) in general—though because females were deemed the more emotionally sensitive sex, love was their special domain.

In adolescence, girls often developed close, enduring female friendships. Later, “romantic friendships” were not uncommon. These were passionate, typically non-sexual relationships between friends that involved various kinds of physical closeness. However, unless they were poor, infirm, or particularly unattractive, young women were expected to participate in the social rituals associated with courtship—such as attending balls, concerts, and dinners—as a prelude to marriage. An eligible young woman, if she was lucky, could hope to marry for love.  

Traditionally matrimony had nothing to do with love (and vice versa), but was an institution that served the mutual interests of the families involved. Marriages of children younger than 25 were arranged by parents, without reference to the feelings of the bride or groom. That began to change in the eighteenth century, as mutual inclination became the basis for a new ideal of the loving family and domestic felicity.

Women of the highest social classes, along with older widows and “gallant” women at the other end of social spectrum, such as courtesans and actresses, were freest to love as they chose—and outside of wedlock.


Image: Jean-Baptiste Mallet. French, 1759–1835. Family Scene, n.d.Watercolor and gouache on cream paper.