The British Empire expected and relied upon men and women to marry and reproduce. The government analysis of the 1851 census concluded that the rate of reproduction was sufficient to populate families in the expanding colonies.
In theory, women received an income and protection in return for providing heirs. However, marriage was a permanent arrangement, regardless of what happened, so there were many unhappy marriages, including that of poor Mary Bowman. For the wealthy, marriage helped to declare status, business and political prospects, as women and their assets became their husband’s property. As a result, independently wealthy women, such as the Jarry sisters, might choose not to marry. One in five people remained single, and the average age for marriage was 25, just as now.
The average length of a marriage before one spouse died was just 14 years. It was acceptable for a man to marry again to produce more heirs, but not the other way round, so there were many more widows than widowers. Young women might be vulnerable to advances from much older men, as Betty Buck could tell you.
It was acceptable, after a suitable period of mourning, for a woman to continue her husband’s occupation. If they were lucky, widows were left an inheritance, like Alice Bowskill, who needed the money to bring up nine children. Sophia Wainwright was a well educated widow, who chose to run a school for young ladies.
Divorce was very uncommon in this period, and confined almost entirely to those who could afford it, as it was extremely expensive and required an private Act of Parliament. As it entailed loss of wealth and property, obtaining a divorce was not an acceptable norm in the Victorian era. Unsurprisingly, mistresses, desertion and bigamy were common, as Alfred Pierson unwittingly discovered.